Franklin Joseph “Frankie” Lymon (September 30, 1942 – February 27, 1968) was an American rock and roll/rhythm and blues singer and songwriter, best known as the boy soprano lead singer of the New York City-based early rock and roll group The Teenagers. The group was composed of five boys, all in their early to mid-teens. The original lineup of the Teenagers, an integrated group, included three African-American members, Frankie Lymon, Jimmy Merchant, and Sherman Garnes; and two Puerto Rican members, Joe Negroni and Herman Santiago.
The Teenagers’ first single, 1956’s “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” was also its biggest hit. After Lymon went solo in mid-1957, both his career and that of the Teenagers fell into decline. He was found dead at the age of 25 on the floor of his grandmother’s bathroom from a heroin overdose. His life was dramatized in the 1998 film Why Do Fools Fall In Love.
Frankie Lymon was born in Harlem, New York on September 30, 1942 to Howard and Jeanette Lymon. Howard worked as a truck driver and Jeanette worked as a maid. Howard and Jeanette Lymon also sang in a gospel group known as the Harlemaires; Frankie and his brothers, Lewis and Howie, sang with the Harlemaire Juniors (a fourth Lymon brother, Timmy, was a singer, though not with the Harlemaire Juniors). The Lymons struggled to make ends meet, so, at age 10, Lymon began working as a grocery boy.
At the age of 12 in 1954, Lymon heard a local doo-wop group known as the Coupe De Villes at a school talent show. He became friends with the lead singer, Herman Santiago, and he eventually became a member of the group, now calling itself both The Ermines and The Premiers. Dennis Jackson of Columbus, Georgia, was one of the main influences in Lymon’s life. His personal donation of $500 helped start Lymon’s career.
One day in 1955, a neighbor gave The Premiers several love letters that had been written to him by his girlfriend, with the hopes that he could give the boys inspiration to write their own songs. Merchant and Santiago adapted one of the letters into a song called “Why Do Fools Fall in Love”. The Premiers, now calling themselves The Teenagers, got their first shot at fame after impressing Richard Barrett, a singer with The Valentines. Barrett, in turn, got the group an audition with record producer George Goldner. On the day of the group’s audition, Santiago, the original lead singer, was late. Lymon stepped up and told Goldner that he knew the part because he helped write the song. The disc jockeys always called them “Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers”.
Goldner signed the group to Gee Records, and “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” became its first single in January 1956. The single peaked at No. 6 on the Billboard pop singles chart, and topped the Billboard R&B singles chart for five weeks.
Six other top blues 10 singles followed over the next year or so: “I Want You to Be My Girl”, “I Promise to Remember”, “Who Can Explain?”, “Out in the Cold Again”, “The ABC’s of Love”, “I’m Not a Juvenile Delinquent”, and “Baby Baby” were also popular Teenagers releases. “I Want You To Be My Girl” gave the band its second pop hit, reaching No. 13 on the national Billboard Hot 100 chart. “Goody Goody” (written by Matty Malneck and Johnny Mercer and originally performed by Benny Goodman) was a No. 20 pop hit but did not appear on the R&B chart. The Teenagers placed two other singles in the lower half of the pop chart.
With the release of “I Want You To Be My Girl”, the group’s second single, The Teenagers became Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers. An album, “The Teenagers Featuring Frankie Lymon”, was released in December 1956.
In early 1957, Lymon and the Teenagers broke up while on a tour in Europe. During an engagement at the London Palladium, Goldner began pushing Lymon as a solo act, giving him solo spots in the show. Lymon began performing with backing from pre-recorded tapes. The group’s last single, “Goody Goody” backed with “Creation of Love,” initially retained the “Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers” credit, but they were actually solo recordings (with backing by session singers). Lymon had officially departed from the group by September 1957; an in-progress studio album called Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers at the London Palladium was instead issued as a Lymon solo release.
As a solo artist, Lymon was not nearly as successful as he had been with the Teenagers. Beginning with his second solo release, “My Girl”, Lymon had moved to Roulette Records. On a July 19, 1957 episode of Alan Freed’s live ABC TV show The Big Beat, Lymon began dancing with a white teenage girl while he was performing. His actions caused a scandal, particularly among Southern TV station owners, and The Big Beat was subsequently canceled. There is no surviving footage because the episode was taped over, according to Judith Fisher Freed.
Lymon’s slowly declining sales fell sharply in the early 1960s. Within the span of one year, as a result of heroin use, his voice changed from his signature tenor to a much deeper baritone. His highest-charting solo hit was a cover of Bobby Day’s “Little Bitty Pretty One”, which peaked at No. 58 on the Hot 100 pop chart in 1960 and which had been recorded in 1957. Addicted to heroin since the age of 15, Lymon fell further into his habit, and his performing career went into decline. According to Lymon in an interview with Ebony magazine in 1967, he was first introduced to heroin when he was 15 by a woman twice his age. In 1961, Roulette, now run by Morris Levy, ended their contract with Lymon and he entered a drug rehabilitation program.
After losing Lymon, the Teenagers went through a string of replacement singers, the first of whom was Billy Lobrano. In 1960, Howard Kenny Bobo sang lead on “Tonight’s the Night” with the Teenagers; later that year, Johnny Houston sang lead on two songs. The Teenagers, who had been moved by Morris Levy to End Records, were released from their contract in 1961. The Teenagers briefly reunited with Lymon in 1965, without success.
Over the next four years, Lymon struggled through short-lived deals with 20th Century Fox Records and Columbia Records. Lymon began a relationship with Elizabeth Mickey Waters, who became his first wife in January 1964 and the mother of his only child, a baby girl named Francine who died two days after birth at Lenox Hill Hospital. Lymon’s marriage to Waters was not legal because she was still married to her first husband. After the marriage failed, he moved to Los Angeles in the mid-1960s, where he began a romantic relationship with Zola Taylor, a member of the Platters. Taylor claimed to have married Lymon in Mexico in 1965 although their relationship ended several months later, purportedly because of Lymon’s drug habits. Lymon, however, had been known to say that their marriage was a publicity stunt, and Taylor could produce no legal documentation of their marriage. In Major Robinson’s gossip column of June 6, 1966, Zola said the whole thing was a joke that she went along with at the time (October 1965).
He appeared at the Apollo as part of a revue, adding an extended tap dance number. Lymon recorded several live performances (such as “Melinda” in 1959), but none rose on the charts. His final television performance was on Hollywood a Go-Go in 1965, where the then-22-year-old singer lip-synched to the recording of his 13-year-old self singing “Why Do Fools Fall in Love.”
The same year, Lymon was drafted into the United States Army and reported to Fort Gordon, Georgia, near Augusta, Georgia, for training. While in the Augusta area, Lymon met and fell in love with Emira Eagle, a schoolteacher at Hornsby Elementary in Augusta. The two were wed in June 1967, and Lymon repeatedly went AWOL to secure gigs at small Southern clubs. Dishonorably discharged from the Army, Lymon moved into his wife’s home and continued to perform sporadically.
Traveling to New York in 1968, Lymon was signed by manager Sam Bray to his Big Apple label, and the singer returned to recording. Roulette Records expressed interest in releasing Lymon’s records in conjunction with Big Apple and scheduled a recording session for February 28. A major promotion had been arranged with CHO Associates, owned by radio personalities Frankie Crocker, Herb Hamlett and Eddie O’Jay. Lymon, staying at his grandmother’s house in Harlem where he had grown up, celebrated his good fortune by taking heroin; he had remained clean ever since entering the Army three years earlier.
On February 27, 1968, Lymon was found dead of a heroin overdose at the age of 25 on the floor of his grandmother’s bathroom. Lymon, a Baptist, was buried at Catholic Saint Raymond’s Cemetery in the Throgs Neck section of The Bronx, New York City, New York.
“I’m Sorry” and “Seabreeze”, the two songs Lymon had recorded for Big Apple before his death, were released later in 1968.