Frankie Lymon's Tombstone Blues 4: The Reunions

The four surviving Teenagers, Jimmy Merchant, Herman Santiago, Joe Negroni, and Sherman Garnes, reunited in 1973. In an attempt to recapture the sound that had made them famous back in 1956, they recruited Pearl McKinnon to recreate the adolescent lead vocals of Frankie Lymon.


Pearl McKinnon grew up in the Central Ward of Newark, New Jersey. “The Teenagers used to perform at hops at the armory in my neighborhood,” Pearl McKinnon recalled in a recent interview “That was where I first saw them. Frankie and I were around the same age, and I was so inspired by them. They were the cutest guys I ever saw.”


In 1957, Pearl was invited to join a male quartet called the Kodaks. The fact that they were now a mixed male/female group, featuring Pearl’s powerful lead vocals, quickly set the Kodaks apart from the other aspiring Central Ward groups. The Kodaks: Pearl McKinnon (center)The Kodaks: Pearl McKinnon (center)


“After I joined the Kodaks, a friend of ours knew Bobby Robinson, and he introduced us and took us for an audition at Bobby’s record shop at 125th Street in Harlem,” Pearl said.


Robinson had started his own Fury record label in 1956, and his new enterprise made an auspicious debut in December with “I’m So Happy”, an infectious, uptempo record by Frankie’s younger brother, Lewis Lymon and the Teenchords. Although Lewis did not possess the vocal talents or charisma of his ill-fated brother, he and his group could belt out a song in the “kiddie” style made popular by Frankie and the Teenagers.


Pearl, who emulated Frankie Lymon with a distinctive sound all her own, sealed the deal for Robinson, and the Kodaks were signed to the Fury label. He changed the spelling of the group’s name on the record label to “Kodoks” to avoid a possible lawsuit from Eastman Kodak, and released their first single, “Teenager’s Dream” and “Little Boy and Girl” in 1957. Both sides of the record received heavy airplay in Newark, New York, and other nearby cities. 


The group’s biggest hit on the Fury label was their second single, “Oh Gee Oh Gosh”, released in June of 1958. It reached # 8 on the local Cashbox chart in Newark and sold well in other East Coast cities. Robinson did not have the national distribution to command wide airplay on his early Fury releases and, as a result, they were not heard on most radio stations across the country. Listen tp "Oh Gee Oh Gosh" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pPo5DeLAaOo

 

The success of their single lead to numerous gigs along the East Coast including appearances at the famed Apollo Theater. “The Kodaks appeared at the Apollo Theater at least a dozen times,” Pearl recalled. “When I was a very young kid my family used to take me to the amateur night shows at the Apollo. I saw a lot of artists there for the first time. I saw James Brown and the Flames there when I was a teenager. Many years later, I saw Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5 for the first time at an amateur show at the Apollo. I liked them a lot, and they definitely reminded me of the Teenagers," Pearl said.

 

She was not alone. Berry Gordy Jr. recognized the similarities with the Teenagers when he signed the Jackson 5 to Motown in 1969. This was especially true in the case of Michael Jackson, the group's precocious and charismatic 11-year-old lead singer. When Marvin Gaye saw his new Motown labelmates perform for the first time, he reportedly said, "It was Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers all over again."


The Kodaks underwent some personnel changes in 1958. The new lineup recorded two more singles, including the excellent “Runaround Baby”, but neither sold as well as their predecessors. Shortly thereafter, the group broke up and Pearl got married.


In 1961, she returned to the music business after the Deltars asked her for singing lessons and then invited her to join the group. Changing their name to Pearl and the Deltars, they recorded one single, “Teenage Dream”/ “Dance Dance Dance”, on Fury before the group disbanded and Pearl concentrated on raising a family.


“My first involvement in the Teenagers' reunion started when I was contacted by Herman Santiago in 1973. It lasted less than a year,” Pearl stated. “During that time, Sherman Garnes and I became kind of close because I used to love my bass singers. He was very nice to me, and I used to ask him to talk to me in his bass voice.”


“Later in the 1970’s, I recorded some music with Bobby Shad in a group called the Second Verse,” she said. With Pearl singing lead, the group released two singles, including a fine soul ballad titled “Da Da I Love You,” on the tiny IX Chains label in 1975 before she rejoined the Teenagers for their second reunion in 1981. Teenagers: (top) Sherman Garnes (bottom L to R) Herman Santiago, Jimmy Merchant, Joe NegroniTeenagers: (top) Sherman Garnes (bottom L to R) Herman Santiago, Jimmy Merchant, Joe Negroni


Tragedy prevented both Sherman Garnes and Joe Negroni from being part of that reunion, however. Garnes, who was 6 ft. 6 in. tall, shocked everyone when he died of a heart attack in 1977. The talented bass singer was only 36 at the time of his death.

 

JoeNegroni, who some have claimed to have been the organizer and leader of the group, also died unexpectedly in 1978 when he passed from a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 37.


Negroni had enjoyed a long-term relationship with singer/actress Darby Lloyd Rains prior to his death. When Rains’ singing career failed to take flight in the early 70s, she began appearing in X-rated film loops to earn money, and then went on to appear in over 50 full-length adult films. Chief among these was her starring role in Naked Came The Stranger, a critically acclaimed X-rated film that displayed her talents as both an actress and comedienne. Negroni, who served as her manager, appeared in a small speaking role in the movie.


Following the success of Naked Came The Stranger, Rains and Negroni collaborated to write a screenplay for a more artistic X-rated film in hopes that it could attract investors and even compete with mainstream Hollywood features. The proposed film, titled Desdemona, Cinzano, and Raw, called for a budget roughly five times that of a typical pornographic feature. As a result, it failed to find financial backing from investors who were much more interested in cheaply made, gratuitous productions that could turn a quick profit rather than more expensive, explicit films with pretenses of becoming art. Darby Lloyd Rains, Levi Richards and Joe Negroni in Naked Came The Stranger.Darby Lloyd Rains, Levi Richards and Joe Negroni in Naked Came The Stranger.


After becoming disillusioned by the roles she was being offered, Rains retired from performing. She and Negroni went on to co-author The Price Of Heaven, a book about the pornography industry that was published after his death. 


Of greater interest to music fans, however, was the screenplay the pair wrote called The Teensters (The Rage Of The Age). It was a fictionalized account of the Teenagers’ rise to stardom based, at least in part, on Negroni’s experiences within the group. According to Jimmy Merchant, Negroni used his connections with the producers of Naked Came The Stranger to make a deal for a film about the Teenagers. “Because he had been involved with Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, Joe was able to pull some strings,” Merchant said. “With his background, he was knowledgeable about the music business, but after Joe died the movie didn’t materialize.”


The second reunion of the Teenagers in 1981 marked the 25th anniversary of the group bursting onto the scene in 1956 with their debut recording of “Why Do Fools Fall In Love”. This second reunion was much more successful than the first, and the man largely responsible for helping it all happen was Joel Warshaw.


Born in in the Bronx in 1939, Warshaw attended quite a few of the Alan Freed shows in the 1950s where he saw many of the top vocal groups of the day including the Wrens, Harptones, Moonglows, Clovers, and Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. 1956 show1956 show


“My friends and I loved slow dancing with young ladies, and vocal group music was great for that,” Warshaw recalled. “Many of the other groups were a little older and more mature, while Frankie Lymon and the group were uptempo and were actually teenagers. Their onstage energy and the fact that they were singing to teenagers in the audience enabled then to make a big impact.”


“Going to an Alan Freed show was a big deal for my friends and I,” Warshaw recalled. “Most were held at the Brooklyn Paramount, and the shows were very exciting for those of us who listened to Jocko Henderson and Dr. Jive at the end of the radio dial. We traveled to the theater by subway. None of us had cars at that point. The shows always had long lines and always sold out. Ironically, the audiences for the Freed shows were primarily white. The black population in New York was probably only about 15% at that time.” Warshaw said.


“I attended Delaware Valley College in Pennsylvania, about two and a half hours from home. After graduating, I started working for General Mills and Modern Maid Food Products, and then I decided to start my own business as a food broker. Warshaw Associates was started in the early 70s and was based in Great Neck, Long Island.”


Warshaw started a second company called LifeStream Music out of his office in Great Neck and began working with a rock band called Cotton Shot and the Impalas vocal group. He also started his own LifeStream record label and released the "From Doo Wopp To Disco" album by the Salutations in 1980 before linking up with the Teenagers. Salutations LPSalutations LP


“I saw the reformed Teenagers in 1973,” Warshaw said. “I thought they were very good. They had Pearl McKinnon singing lead, but they didn’t have the management or the wherewithal to keep it together. As a result, they broke up after just a few shows.”


“The doo wop revival, as far as bookings for performances, wasn’t happening to a great degree in 1973; but interest had increased by 1980, and it became a great time for the groups because most of them still had quite a few original members."


"I reached out to Jimmy Merchant to reunite the Teenagers. We met, and I spoke to him about my love of both management and the group, and that I thought we could get something together. It was Jimmy alone that I met with. Herman was more of a laid-back sort of guy. I also called Pearl and talked her into it. She had aspirations to go into modern music, but she was a big fan of Frankie Lymon and was happy to fulfill that spot in the group.” Teenagers 1981 (L to R) Pearl McKinnon, Jimmy Merchant, Eric Ward, Herman SantiagoTeenagers 1981 (L to R) Pearl McKinnon, Jimmy Merchant, Eric Ward, Herman Santiago


“There was an underlying friction when Pearl and Eric Ward from the Second Verse joined,” Warshaw recalled. “Both Herman and Jimmy were somewhat bitter that the Teenagers had never attained the goals they hoped for after Frankie left. They felt they got screwed monetarily. Here were guys who were sitting on top of the world and then disappeared into the woodwork during their 20s, 30s, and 40s.”


“One of the places the reunited Teenagers rehearsed was Harlequin, located in New York City. Christophe Pierre worked with the Teenagers’ choreography there. He was a great help and was a great friend of mine. He played the Tin Man in The Wiz on Broadway and was a well-respected figure in Harlem. Christophe also helped with the first UGHA Hall of Fame.”


“I think it was a member of the Teenagers who told me that Frankie was buried in an unmarked grave,” Warshaw recalled. “After a discussion with Ronnie Italiano and the current Teenagers, I drove to St. Raymond’s Cemetery in the Bronx by myself."

 

"When I went up to the small office at the cemetery, the woman was very nice, but the only name listed was Emira Lymon. Frankie’s name was nowhere to be found. She helped me find the grave. It had a tiny metal cross, but Frankie’s name was not on the plot. It was unmarked, but they at least had a record of it in the office.” St. Raymond's CemeterySt. Raymond's Cemetery


“I had first made contact with Ronnie by going to his store. We started talking and he was always willing to help. In a sense, Ronnie was a one man show, but he always had individuals who were willing to help. He dedicated his time to the UGHA (United in Group Harmony Association) and Clifton Music.The first show we did together was at the Beacon Theater. Ronnie got a woman named Robin Adams to finance the show. That was the reunited Teenagers’ first performance. They were a little rough around the edges, but they did a good job.”


“The idea for having a benefit show to buy a tombstone for Frankie’s grave came up as I was sitting around with Pearl and Ronnie,” Warshaw stated. “It was kind of a group decision, but Ronnie did most of the work.” Ronnie ItalianoRonnie Italiano


“I was gung-ho about doing the benefit for the tombstone,” Pearl McKinnon said. “I wasn’t going to rest until that happened because I thought it was appalling that he was in an unmarked grave. I was horrified.”


Ronnie contacted Frankie’s widow, Emira Lymon, and she was in favor of the benefit to place a tombstone on Frankie’s grave. It was all done over the phone, nothing was put in writing. Ronnie not only loved the vocal group harmony sound from the past, he also did business under the principle that a person's word is bond, that you will do what you say and keep your promise.


Ronnie and the UGHA ran the benefit fundraiser on August 15, 1981 at the Great Gildersleeves. The lineup included the Teenagers, the Impalas, Willie Winfield & the Harptones, Joe and the Platinums, Stardust, and the Encores. The groups did not get paid, and even though tickets were just $5.00 in advance and $7.00 at the door, the benefit made a lot of money. Several people sent in donations, and all proceeds were to be used to erect a monument at Frankie Lymon’s gravesite. “Emira was invited to go to the fundraiser, and Ronnie would have paid for her transportation," Bill Olb recalled, "but to my knowledge she didn’t attend.”

 
1981 Tombstone Benefit1981 Tombstone Benefit“Prior to doing the benefit, Ronnie and I had done a number of doo wop shows at the Great Gildersleeve’s, which was basically a rock club in the Bowery,” Warshaw said. “We had an agreement at those shows that stipulated that we would get the door and the owner got the bar. We didn’t make much money after paying the groups, but Ronnie and I did it out of love for the music.”


Just four weeks after the tombstone benefit, Diana Ross released “Why Do Fools Fall In Love”, her debut album on RCA Records. Eleven days later, on September 25, 1981, the album’s title song was released as a single. It soon became the superstar’s first hit on her new label, peaking at # 6 on Billboard’s R&B chart and reaching # 7 on the Hot 100.


It was a shock to many that Ross left Motown, her record label for the past 20 years. By 1981, she was the biggest female artist in popular music. Diana Ross had recorded twelve # 1 hit singles and eighteen Top 40 albums with the Supremes, and then six more # 1 singles and thirteen additional Top 40 albums as a solo artist on Motown. Why Do Fools Fall In Love LPWhy Do Fools Fall In Love LP


In November of 1980, her contract with Motown expired, and since she was at the peak of her career, Ross was in no hurry to renew it. She had been under contract with Motown for nearly twenty years and had been obligated to defer to someone else’s judgement during that time. With numerous record labels making offers, Ross wanted to renegotiate a new contract with Berry Gordy Jr., one in which she would have total control over her career. 


Gordy reportedly thought Ross was bluffing, and no one at Motown believed she would actually leave the label. Nevertheless, Ross began negotiations to leave Motown at the end of 1980. RCA Records offered her a $20 million, seven-year recording contract that gave her complete control of her albums. Allegedly, she offered Berry Gordy Jr. the chance to match the offer before signing. When he explained that he couldn’t afford it, she signed with RCA on May 20, 1981. At that time, it was the most expensive recording deal in music history.


“Why Do Fool’s Fall In Love” was the first studio album issued by Diana Ross that was produced by the singer herself. Ross embarked on a world tour and also did a number of magazine interviews to support the album, including one in Jet magazine in which she credited Frankie Lymon as an influence.


The article stated: “The unassuming element surrounding the glorious career of Diana Ross is that it all actually started for the superstar with Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers.” It went on to proclaim that, while it was the Supremes with whom she originally made her claim to fame, Frankie Lymon was definitely an influence. It also revealed that “Why Do Fools Fall In Love” was the song that started her singing career, and it was the reason Ross recorded it for her latest album.


“I had selected “Why Do Fools Fall In Love” because this was the song that started me singing,” Ross told Jet. “I used to sing it on the streets. I’d walk through the backyard where I lived and there was an echo there; and I’d sing 'ahhh, ahhh' like when Frankie Lymon used to do the high part. That was one of my favorite songs.”


The Jet article claimed that Ross hoped to get back to the basics of music with her first self-produced album. “I wanted to go back to that simple late-50's, early-60's sound,” Ross explained. The article also included a 1956 photo of the Teenagers in their letterman sweaters and bowties with the caption: “Little did Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers know when they made their hit ‘Why Do Fools Fall In Love’ that it would inspire Diana Ross.” 

Why Do Fools Fall In Love 45Why Do Fools Fall In Love 45

By the same token, Diana Ross couldn't have known, when she covered “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” twenty-five years later, that her hit version of the song would inadvertently lead to a series of events that would ultimately prevent Ronnie Italiano and the UGHA from placing a tombstone on Frankie Lymon’s grave.


The “Why Do Fools Fall In Love” album sold over a million copies and that, along with Diana's hit single, pushed the value of the songwriting royalties and publishing rights of “Why Do Fools Fall In Love” to somewhere between $750,000 and $1,000,000. The scent of big money was now in the air, but the songwriters were listed as Frankie Lymon and Morris Levy.


It was at this point that Emira Lymon contacted Ronnie and the UGHA and asked them to hold off on placing a tombstone on Frankie’s grave on the advice of both her attorney and the representative of the Artists Rights Enforcement Corporation, who were in the process of preparing a lawsuit on her behalf. Emira informed Ronnie that she didn’t want the headstone placed on the grave while the court case was unsettled.

 

With lawyers involved and court proceedings on the horizon, the failure to have a written agreement between Emira Lymon and Ronnie and the UGHA involving the benefit, the construction of Frankie Lymon’s tombstone, and the placing of it on his grave would loom large in the future.

 

In the meantime, the reunited Teenagers had begun playing regularly. Now a quartet with Jimmy Merchant singing the bass parts, the group had name value because of their hits. "With Pearl McKinnon singing lead, if you closed your eyes, you would swear that Frankie Lymon himself was fronting the group," Joel Warshaw said. Watch the reunited Teenagers with Pearl McKinnon perform "Why Do Fools Fall In Love" in Atlantic City in1981.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZuX0ESY2K7M


“When I started with the Teenagers, I booked things mostly in the New York area,” Warshaw recalled. “They did some smaller shows at little clubs like City Limits, Blossoms, and Plaza Suite in Brooklyn that were controlled by the Mob. They loved to book the oldies acts so it provided a lot of work for the groups, including the Teenagers. At one of the gigs, a wise guy wanted to hear them perform “Why Do Fools Fall In Love” again, and he walked up to Jimmy and gave him $200 to sing the two-minute song one more time.”


“As time went on, the tours expanded to the Midwest and the South. The big doo wop booking agencies were Ernie Martinelli at Martinelli Attractions and Arnie Kay at Mars Talent, and I booked the Teenagers mostly through them. I would often drive them around and they would somehow get into fights, but I had patience and I understood that managing a group is difficult for anyone,” Warshaw said. (Top): Eric Ward (Bottom) L to R: Herman Santiago, Pearl McKinnon, Jimmy Merchant(Top): Eric Ward (Bottom) L to R: Herman Santiago, Pearl McKinnon, Jimmy Merchant


“I didn’t really have a problem when it was a one-to-one situation, but they had a tough time as a group," Warshaw recalled. "The first guy we got to be the fourth member was Eric Ward, and then we got Derek Ventura. I can’t remember why we replaced Eric. He had been in Second Verse with Pearl.”


“We were getting a lot of work through Joel Warshaw as he put us with a booking agency who had us doing a lot of outdoor shows, gigs in Atlantic City, and a lot of clubs,” Pearl McKinnon said. “It didn’t last very long. I left because I thought the group was getting a little negative, and they weren’t getting along with my friend from the Second Verse. I then joined a reformed version of the Kodaks. I was the only original member. It didn’t last that long either, maybe a year and a half.”


“When Pearl left, we decided to have auditions," Warshaw recalled. "We had Christophe Pierre set them up at Small’s Paradise, a legendary venue in New York, and that’s where we found Rozz Morehead. We couldn’t get another Pearl, but Rozz was an incredible singer. She went on to make a career for herself after the Teenagers. She came in second on Star Search, did some Broadway work, recorded with Moby, and sang in churches.” Joel WarshawJoel Warshaw


Joel Warshaw left as the Teenagers’ manager in 1985. “Rozz was still with the Teenagers when I left,” Warshaw said. “I was also working with the Impalas and the Exciters when I decided to step away from the music business because my food company was struggling. I recommended that the Teenagers go with Mars Talent and Arnie Kay. Sadly, Arnie passed away while he was handling the Teenagers.”


“The 1980s was a very vibrant decade in that you could recapture some of the authenticity of the original doo wop era. Everybody was in their 40s, both the performers and the audience. When we did a show with the Teenagers and the Impalas and others in Atlantic City, it was very successful and kind of opened the doors for doo wop at the casinos,” Warshaw recalled.

 

During those years, however, Jimmy Merchant, Herman Santiago, Morris Levy, and the three women who claimed to be Frankie Lymon's legal spouse and rightful heir would all become involved in a number of court cases that revolved around the songwriting credits and royalties to "Why Do Fools Fall In Love". Those hearings would also profoundly affect Ronnie Italiano and the UGHA.

 End of Part 4

 



 

 

 

 

 

Frankie Lymon's Tombstone Blues 3: The Revival

At the time of Frankie Lymon’s death, classic doo wop music had been replaced on the charts for over four years. The arrival of the Beatles and the other British Invasion artists had shifted the music dynamic not only on radio stations and in record stores, but also in the performance arena. It was now much more fashionable and lucrative for young people to buy instruments and form bands to play the hits of the day rather than joining vocal harmony groups and sing songs that appeared to be part of the past.


Although doo wop seemed to be increasingly relegated to a bygone era, its harmonic roots could be heard in the many hits of Motown groups, including the Miracles, Four Tops, Supremes, and Temptations, as well as many other successful soul music artists of the 1960s. The groups that had defined the era, however, had all but disappeared from the Billboard charts and radio station playlists as the decade drew to a close.

 

The fact that the classic doo wop sounds of the 1950s and early 1960s continued to be loved and appreciated despite its fading commercial appeal had a lot to do with the people who grew up with the music. All music has the power to bring back memories. A song heard at a specific moment in time and then not heard again until a later date can give a person a sense of nostalgia for the time remembered and the events associated with it.


Doo wop has an innocent sound. Think back to your very first love; that’s what a great doo wop ballad felt like. It was that all-encompassing feeling, one that will seemingly burn you up if goes any further. The greatest of those ballads sounded almost virginal and pure, like true love, with lyrics that conveyed what a young person was feeling but may have been too tongue-tied or shy to express. Romantic longing and emotions are universal, and it helps explain why classic doo wop remained in the hearts of many during the late 1960s and beyond. The Castiles: Springsteen front leftThe Castiles: Springsteen front left


This seemed to be particularly true on the East Coast. In his Born To Run memoir, Bruce Springsteen wrote about his high school band, the Castiles, playing teen dances in New Jersey. The band often played gigs at one of the teen nightclubs or dance halls along Route 9, south of Freehold, New Jersey.

 

Many of these venues were ruled by a largely Italian teen subset called “greasers” because of their extensive use of hair products. Doo wop was their music of choice, and Springsteen recalled that, even though the Castiles were formed in the wake of the British Invasion, they had to be able to sing a handful of doo wop standards like “What’s Your Name” and “In The Still Of The Nite” in order to survive those gigs.

 

Vocal group historian Donn Fileti points to the legendary Times Square Record Shop and its proprietor, Irving “Slim” Rose, as being a major force in the continuing popularity of the doo wop sound in the 1960s. Fileti credits Rose with coming up with the idea of buying the masters and reissuing older vocal group singles from the 1950s like “Baby Oh Baby” by the Shells, “Rama Lama Ding Dong” by the Edsels, and “There’s A Moon Out Tonight” by the Capris, all of which became national hits early in the new decade. Donn Fileti and Slim RoseDonn Fileti and Slim Rose


Fileti also attributed to Rose the clever idea of releasing vocal group rehearsal demos, recorded without the requisite musical accompaniment, as acapella 45s and thereby creating a new sub-genre for record collectors.


Sales dwindled with the onset of the British Invasion, and Rose sold the Times Square Record Shop and all its masters to Fileti and Eddie Gries, owners of the Relic Rack store in Hackensack, NJ. The pair formed the Relic label and, driven by their shared love of vocal group harmony, they started releasing albums of acapella anthologies featuring obscure performances by groups like the Zircons, Nutmegs, and Velvet Angels. Sales were very slow for the first few years because they were swimming against the tide of, what Gries described as, “the mass brainwashing of the public with imported English garbage.”


By 1968, there were probably very few people, even among enthusiasts, who believed that doo wop would, once again, become a force in the music business, but that’s exactly what happened. A combination of factors allowed this to happen, and some recordings by seemingly unlikely artists may have started the ball rolling.


The first came compliments of the Beatles. Although they were inadvertently responsible for doo wop's demise, the Beatles were big fans of 1950’s rock and roll and covered songs by girl groups like the Shirelles, Cookies, and Marvelettes on their early albums. In late November 1968, they released “The Beatles” (a.k.a. “The White Album") a fascinating double album containing 30 songs, all composed by members of the band. The songs displayed a wide variety of styles and influences and further solidified their status as the main arbiters of what was cool. LennonLennon


Two songs on the album included definite doo wop references. The first, John Lennon’s “Revolution 1”, included Paul McCartney and George Harrison singing the nonsense lyrics 'bom-shooby-doo-wop' in the background.

 

The more interesting of these, however, was Lennon’s “Happiness Is A Warm Gun”. It was composed into three distinct sections, the last, starting at the 1 min. 34 sec. mark, was done in classic doo wop style, including a recitation by Lennon. In addition, the 'bang-bang, shoot-shoot' backing vocals by McCartney and Harrison were another clever tip of the hat to the group harmony genre.


“The Beatles” album was an enormous success in the United States, spending nine weeks at # 1 on the Billboard Top 200 and selling over 12 million copies. Listen to "Happiness is A Warm Gun" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nIR6AAjEg5U


The second recording that planted the seeds of the doo wop revival was not nearly as successful commercially, but it managed to achieve the seemingly impossible task of appealing to both the audience for experimental rock as well as fans of classic doo wop. The Mothers Of Invention was a rock band from California, led by Frank Zappa, that gained popularity and critical acclaim for the sonic experimentation on their early albums and for their elaborate stage shows.


While recording their third album, “We’re Only In It For The Money”, the band members began discussing their affection for the vocal group songs that were popular during their high school days; and Zappa suggested recording a doo wop album as a fictitious Chicano band called Ruben & The Jets.


Back in 1963, Zappa and the band’s lead singer Ray Collins wrote “Memories Of El Monte”, featuring the lead vocals of Cleve Duncan of the Penguins. Done in classic doo wop style, the song reminisces about the dances held at the El Monte Legion Stadium and the artists that performed there. That songwriting experience, along with Collins’ high falsetto, enabled them to produce an album in 1968 that worked both as a satire and as a homage to the 1950s vocal group music that they loved. Ruben & The Jets LPRuben & The Jets LP


Released two weeks after “The Beatles” LP, “Cruising with Ruben & The Jets” makes no mention of the Mothers Of Invention on the cover except for a word bubble above the cartoon illustration of the band as anthropomorphic dogs.


The album works as a doo wop release because Zappa and the band played it straight, not letting the satire get in the way of the 13 songs, many of which sounded like they could have possibly charted back in 1958. Although it was not a big hit, it was popular with radio stations, and some even believed that they had discovered a lost doo wop album by an unknown band called Ruben & The Jets. Listen to "Anything" by Ruben & The Jets https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ttrXan2syvc

 

The hard rock scene in Detroit had blossomed out of the Grande Ballroom and produced a number of young bands. These included the MC5, the Amboy Dukes, the Frost, the Bob Seger System, SRC, and the Stooges, all of whom signed recording contracts with national labels in the late 60s.

 

The Amboy Dukes got their name from a 1948 novel by Irving Shulman about a teenage gang from a tough section of Brooklyn. The band was best known for the howling lead guitar of Ted Nugent, but they did a complete about-face on one song from their third album, “Migration”. Released in 1969, it included an excellent cover of Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers’ “I’m Not A Juvenile Delinquent," featuring a flawless lead vocal by keyboardist Andy Soloman. Migration LPMigration LP


Although the song was probably recorded because of its connection to the delinquent street gang that inspired the band’s name, it served to introduce doo wop to many young, long-haired music fans in the Motor City and beyond. It is also interesting that Morris Levy was listed on the album as one of the songwriters for “I’m Not A Juvenile Delinquent” in place of George Goldner. Listen to "I'm Not A Juvenile Delinquent" by the Amboy Dukes https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9UddWOQaeUU

 

The three-day Woodstock festival, held in Bethel, New York, on August 15-17, 1969, was a pivotal moment in popular music history and a defining event for the counterculture generation of the 1960s. Positioned as a rejection of the conformity and restrictive moral values that were popularly ascribed to the 1950s, it seemed an unusual event for an act that celebrated the styles, symbols, and sounds of the decade in which doo wop played such an important role.


Sha Na Na was a Columbia University acapella group turned 1950’s revival act. The group took its name from some of the nonsense lyrics of “Get A Job”, the 1958 # 1 doo wop hit by the Silhouettes. Appearing in greaser hairdos and cast-off costumes from a traveling production of Bye Bye Birdie, Sha Na Na played a set of 50’s covers at Woodstock including “Yakety Yak” by the Coasters, Elvis Presley’s “Jailhouse Rock”, and “At The Hop” by Danny and the Juniors.


The band had gained a reputation for their “greaser” revival shows in the New York area, and they were invited to be Jimi Hendrix’s opening act at Woodstock. Hendrix had seen one of their shows and described them to festival organizers as being “far out.” Judging by the reaction shots of the crowd in the Woodstock documentary, Sha Na Na’s performance was initially disorienting, but they were eventually received warmly by the festivalgoers. Sha Na Na at WoodstockSha Na Na at Woodstock


Their appearance became much more important when a 90-second segment was included in Woodstock, the Academy Award-winning documentary of the festival. In addition, their rendition of “At The Hop” was also one of the songs featured on the triple album, “Woodstock: Music from the Original Soundtrack and More." Released nine months after the festival, the album spent four weeks at # 1 and sold over 2 million copies.


More success was on the way. Two months after Woodstock, Sha Na Na released their first album, “Rock and Roll Is Here To Stay”, that featured covers of numerous doo wop classics including “Remember Then”, “Come Go With Me”, and “Book Of Love”. They were also one of the acts in Richard Nader’s first Rock and Roll Revival concert along with Chuck Berry, the Platters, Bill Haley and His Comets, the Shirelles, the Coasters, and Jimmy Clanton.


Nader was an entertainment promoter who initially came up with the idea of packaging concerts with the oldies acts he loved back when the British Invasion was in full swing. After failing to convince established promoters of the profitability of his concept, he borrowed $35,000 and, on his own, rented the Felt Forum at Madison Square Garden.


The early and late shows of his Rock and Roll Revival each attracted a sold-out crowd of 4,500, and Nader was off and running. Over the next decade, he would present 25 more oldies shows at the Garden, drawing a total audience of nearly half a million. Nader went on to present oldies concerts all over the United States and Britain; and he produced the 1973 documentary film, Let The Good Times Roll, that included performances from shows at the Nassau Coliseum on Long Island and Cobo Hall in Detroit.


As important as Richard Nader was in demonstrating the commercial value of 1950's nostalgia, it was a radio program that brought about a doo wop renaissance in New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey.


In the fall of 1969, it was announced that WCBS 101.1 FM would become New York’s sixth rock station. Program director Gus Gossert said that the sound of the station would now be half hit singles and half album cuts. Following a listener’s suggestion, however, Gossert began hosting an oldies’ show on Sunday nights, but he was only playing the hit songs of the 1950s like “Lipstick On Your Collar” by Connie Francis and “Rockin’ Robin” by Bobby Day. Wayne Stierle, Gus Gossert, Stan KrauseWayne Stierle, Gus Gossert, Stan Krause


Gossert’s oldies show didn’t take off until he was contacted by doo wop fans Wayne Stierle, Stan Krause, Chris Marko, and Bill Olb. They convinced him that New York oldies was centered on vocal harmony groups and that he should be featuring those records on his program. Several weeks later, Gossert invited the four of them to the WCBS studio.


Stierle, Krause, and Marko put together Gossert’s new playlist that now highlighted vocal harmony group records. Olb, who had an encyclopedic knowledge of the genre from his years of pouring through the microfiche files of Cash Box magazine at the New York City Library, provided the historical information about the groups and the recordings for the broadcast. This combination saw immediate results as the audience increased dramatically for Gossert’s Sunday night show, more than doubling the ratings for any of the station’s other programming.


Despite the popularity of Gossert’s show, all was not well at the station. Bill Olb recalled that WCBS executives couldn’t understand or appreciate doo wop. “Although the show was very popular, it also became political since Gossert’s show was more successful than the other rock programming, and it was making some people at the station look bad,” Olb said.


As a result of the infighting, Gossert was let go from WCBS. He immediately signed with WPIX-FM in New York, and his 7:00 to midnight shows on both Saturday and Sunday nights became immensely popular. During this time, Gossert had the highest-rated program in New York radio. Gossert's first doo wop albumGossert's first doo wop album


His newfound celebrity status enabled him to put out a number of vocal group albums including the very successful “Gus Gossert Presents, The New York Doo Wop Album Vol. 1” that featured selections from Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, the Five Satins, the Shells, the Quotations, and the Students. Bill Olb was listed as an inspiration on the back of the album cover.


Gossert also started presenting oldies shows at the Academy of Music, a 3,000-seat movie theater on 14th Street in Manhattan that was used for rock and roll concerts in the 1960s and 1970s. “There were two shows per night and they always sold out,” Olb recalled. “He presented some of the top vocal groups at the concerts including the Harptones, the Chantels, Johnny Maestro and the Crests, the Jesters, and the Five Satins.


Well-paid because of his radio success in the lucrative New York market, Gus Gossert lived in an impressive apartment near 60th Street and Columbus Circle, west of Central Park, and he loved to throw elaborate parties. He also had a dark side, however, which led to his eventual arrest for dealing cocaine and the end of his career in New York.


“Gossert was convicted in 1973, but because he was a first-time offender, he did not receive a long prison sentence,” Olb recalled. “He might have spent 90 days in prison and was then placed on probation.” Scene of Gossert's murderScene of Gossert's murder


By 1976, Gossert was looking for a new start. He moved to Tennessee where he found a radio job at station WOKI in Oak Ridge. In August, however, he was found dead his car in a deserted rural area. It looked as if someone had shot him from the passenger seat and then simply disappeared. The murder case was never solved, but it had all the earmarks of a drug deal gone bad.


While Gossert was becoming the “king of the oldies” at WPIX-FM, his former station WCBS-FM and its contemporary rock format continued to flounder in the ratings. In 1972, the station did a complete about-face by firing the executives who championed contemporary rock and switching to an all-oldies format.


The following year, with Gossert off the air, WCBS-FM attracted the audience for a weekend doo wop program with the Nite Train Show, featuring DJ Norm N. Nite. When Nite left to join WNBC in 1975, his Sunday night spot was taken over by Don K. Reed. The program’s name was changed to The Doo Wop Shop, and it stayed that way until the program was cancelled in 2002.


Although Gus Gossert is often credited with popularizing the term ‘doo wop’ to describe the vocal group harmony records that were featured on his broadcasts, the term first appeared in print in 1961 in a Chicago Defender article about “Blue Moon” by the Marcels. To his credit, Gossert declined to take unwarranted credit for the term, and his first album of vocal harmony group recordings contained this quote: “The word ‘Doo Wop’, like the word ‘Oldie’, is only a term,” Gossert wrote. ‘The ‘Sound’, whatever you prefer to call it, means memories and love, and in the long run, that’s what it’s all about.”


Gus Gossert’s show helped revitalize doo wop music in the New York area in the early 1970s, and it provided a vital listening experience for its many fans, especially one named Ronnie Italiano. The Relic RackThe Relic Rack


Bill Olb recalled that he first met Ronnie in 1970 at the Relic Rack record store in Hackensack, New Jersey, where Olb worked part-time. “The store was famous for its oldies and had a ‘money record wall’ that displayed records that were worth $10 and up,” Olb said. “Ronnie purchased a couple of rare vocal harmony group records, “You’re Mine” by the Crickets and one by the Royals on the Federal label.”


“We talked because not a lot of people would come in and spend $100 on old records, and I told Ronnie about my involvement with Gus Gossert’s Sunday night show on WCBS-FM,” Olb said.
After listening to Gossert’s program, Ronnie starting going to the Relic Rack each week looking for hard-to-find harmony group records, and he and Olb started meeting at Ronnie’s home to talk music and share their passion for vocal groups.


“He had a history of being a DJ at East Rutherford High School dances where he lived in New Jersey," Olb said. “It was very Italian and doo wop was the big music.” Ronnie, who was six years older than Olb, was active in the music until 1964. “He had between 900 and 1,000 records in his collection, but he stopped buying music after the British Invasion which he didn’t like,” Olb said.


“Ronnie got married in 1963 and started a family. He was driving truck at this time, delivering soda to stores,” Olb recalled. “Seven years later, he heard Gus Gossert’s show on WCBS-FM in New York and he got back into the music in a big way.” Gossert - Academy of MusicGossert - Academy of Music


Besides sharing a love of vocal group records, Ronnie and Olb also attended several of Gossert’s oldies shows at the Academy of Music Theater. Olb kept the programs from the concerts that featured a who’s who of great vocal groups including the Nutmegs, Ben E. King and the Drifters, the Dell Vikings, and the Cleftones.


“On January 22, 1972, Ronnie Italiano bought Clifton Music,” Olb remembered. “The store had opened in 1950, but the couple that owned it wanted to retire. It was not an oldies’ shop at that time. It was a music lesson store that sold current music along with a few oldies, but not vocal group stuff. Ronnie turned it into one of the largest oldie vocal group stores in the country within ten years,” Olb said.


In 1973, Ronnie was invited to be a guest on a radio show in NYC. The following year, he took over the show, now called Ronnie I Just For You. “When he started broadcasting, Ronnie came to my house, where I had some equipment, and we would tape the shows on reel-to-reel,” Olb recalled. “At this time, I worked part-time in his music store because I was employed full-time as a financial officer in a bank.” Ronnie Italiano at Clifton MusicRonnie Italiano at Clifton Music


Ronnie started the United in Group Harmony Association (UGHA) in 1976, and the early meetings were held in his basement. The UGHA had its first meeting show on December 3, 1976, at the American Legion Hall in East Rutherford. “They moved around because people didn’t understand the kind of shows Ronnie was running. Some members came to the shows in motorcycle jackets with hair slicked back like it was the 1950s. Their appearance upset the older people in the neighborhood who didn’t want that element there,” Olb said with a laugh.


From those humble beginnings, Ronnie's UGHA would go on to become a major force in the preservation of vocal harmony group music with over 2,000 members worldwide. It was also important for its role in the revival of a number of storied vocal harmony groups, a list that included the Teenagers. 

 

Three weeks after Ronnie I purchased his record store in Clifton, the musical Grease began its Off-Broadway run. The popular show was set in 1959 and featured a host of original songs written in the styles that drew upon the sounds of early rock and roll and doo wop. The humorous plot subverted many of the tropes of 1950’s rock and roll movies, and the hit show was nominated for seven Tony Awards in 1972.

American Graffiti movieAmerican Graffiti movie


As important as Grease and the UGHA were to the rekindling of interest in doo wop music in the New York/New Jersey area, it took a hit motion picture to spread it all across the country. American Graffiti was the first film to effectively use rock and roll music, and especially doo wop, to establish a particular time and place, in this case a single night in Modesto, California in 1962.


George Lucas’ film used a wall-to-wall soundtrack of early rock and roll songs to recapture the attitudes of the period, particularly the innocence that Vietnam, Lee Harvey Oswald, hard drugs, birth-control pills, the Manson Family, and Richard Nixon had altered, and perhaps destroyed, forever.


Even though the action took place in 1962, the film opened with 1955’s “Rock Around The Clock”; and the rest of the movie is dominated by songs that were released prior to 1959. Of the songs on the “41 Original Hits From The Soundtrack Of American Graffiti”, 21 were doo wop songs. The immensely popular 2 LP soundtrack was certified triple platinum in the United States, where it peaked at # 10 on the Billboard 200 album chart.


It’s also interesting to note that 10 of the 41 songs were controlled by Morris Levy and Roulette Records. Levy’s name was listed as a songwriter on two of the songs, Lee Dorsey’s “Ya Ya” and “Why Do Fools Fall In Love” by Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers.

The songs on American Graffiti's soundtrack didn’t merely provide setting and atmosphere by using pre-British Invasion doo wop, rock, and R&B, they also help set a mood for the film of carefree, innocent youth, a time that had no apparent connection to the war and protests that dominated the news media in the early 1970s. American Graffiti SoundtrackAmerican Graffiti Soundtrack


The doo wop songs were very effective in conveying that mood and keeping the viewer located in a time and place that was gone while also using them to recapture and celebrate an idealized era and, at the same time, lament the loss of American innocence. This was the point where the original groups and their music leapt back into the mainstream.


These extramusical associations, held in the memories of American Graffiti’s audiences, also opened up interpretive possibilities that the film’s visual elements did not provide. “Why Do Fools Fall In Love” was used in one of the film’s most memorable scenes when Curt (portrayed by Richard Dreyfuss) first spots his dream girl (Suzanne Somers) driving a white T-Bird. 


The selection of this particular doo wop song, rather than any of the innumerable songs from the era about falling in love, might suggest that Curt is the song’s titular “fool,” providing commentary on the scene’s action and Curt as a character. “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” relied heavily on Frankie Lymon’s soprano vocals, which communicated innocence, precociousness, and enthusiasm. These same qualities could be read onto Curt in this scene, and help to suggest that he was being foolish and that his dream girl was a figment of his romantic imagination.


Artistic interpretations aside, the use of “Why Do Fools Fall In Love” in the hit film put Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers back on the charts 17 years after their song had helped change the music business. Tommy James & Morris LevyTommy James & Morris Levy


One thing that had not changed over those years was the reluctance of Morris Levy to pay out royalty statements, unless, of course, that royalty went to a song that Levy’s writing credit appeared on. “Why Do Fools Fall In Love” was credited to Frankie Lymon and Morris Levy, but apparently no money had been paid to Lymon’s estate despite the song appearing on several oldies collections issued by Roulette, the cover versions recorded by other artists, or the hit American Graffiti soundtrack. 


Tommy James, who charted 31 songs on the Roulette label from 1966 to 1973, wrote extensively about his relationship with Levy and the difficulty of getting paid in his entertaining memoir, Me, The Mob, And The Music. “The big joke at Roulette,” James wrote, “was that scientists were trying to find the quietest place on earth. Their answer: The Royalty Department at Roulette.”


The songwriting and publishing royalties for “Why Do Fools Fall In Love” would eventually be addressed in the 1980s through a series of trials. The results of those court cases would affect not only Morris Levy and the three women claiming to be Frankie Lymon’s rightful heir, but also Ronnie Italiano, the UGHA, and the surviving members of the Teenagers.

End of Part 3

 

 

Frankie Lymon's Tombstone Blues 2: The Downslide

 

When Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers returned to the United States from their overseas tour, they were together in name only. Frankie would begin his solo career in earnest with high hopes while the Teenagers were faced with the prospect of trying to carry on without the lead singer who had become the face of the group.

 

As far as the public knew, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers were still together. In June of 1957, the only single to emerge from Frankie’s recording sessions in London was released. “Goody Goody” was a popular standard that had been written in 1936 and recorded over the years by a host of artists including the orchestras of Benny Goodman, Freddy Martin, and Bob Crosby in the 30s, and singers Mel Torme and Peggy Lee in the early 50s. "Goody Goody""Goody Goody"

 

Although it was issued on the Gee label as the entire group, it was really a Frankie Lymon solo release with the backing vocals done by studio singers. The Teenagers had originally recorded the song with Frankie, but that version was never released. Instead, a version with the Ray Charles Singers backing Frankie was used for the single. It sounded like Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers to record buyers, however, and the single reached # 20 on the Billboard chart.

 

The original group would only appear together twice that summer. The first was a week-long spot on the Alan Freed Summer Festival show at the New York Paramount, beginning on July 3rd. The bill included Chuck Berry, the Everly Brothers, the Moonglows, LaVern Baker, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Paul Anka, Clyde McPhatter, and Lewis Lymon and the Teenchords.

 

Shortly after that appearance, they were rushed into the studio to film their performances in the new Alan Freed movie, Mr. Rock and Roll. Clad in sharp looking suits, Frankie and the Teenagers sang two songs, “Fortunate Fellow” and “Love Put Me Out Of My Head”.

 

Both songs had been recorded during Frankie’s solo sessions in London, and the other Teenagers were rushed into the studio after they returned to the United States to dub in the vocal backgrounds. The songs were not released as a single, however, and they were not heard by the public until the movie was released in October 1957. Watch the group’s performance of “Fortunate Fellow” from Mr. Rock and Rollhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7ceinXyVT8c

 

Alan Freed was also involved in a televised music and dance program called The Big Beat that was broadcast on ABC-TV. Freed’s show had debuted on May 4, 1957, four months before American Bandstand. Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers had originally been booked, but the group had already split up. As a result, Lymon made his first solo appearance on the program on July 19th. Everything had gone well, but at the end of the show Freed invited the audience to come down and dance as the credits were rolling. Frankie was seen dancing with a white girl during the sequence, and it caused a major controversy among the ABC affiliates in the South.Alan Freed' & The Big Beat TV showAlan Freed' & The Big Beat TV show

 

In 1957, the civil rights movement was in its early stages, and the Jim Crow laws that enforced racial segregation among the former Confederate states were still in effect. After stations throughout the South cancelled the show, the ABC executives buckled under the pressure and The Big Beat was dropped by the network.

 

By August, the break-up of Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers had been officially announced. Frankie would now be recording for the Roulette label and the Teenagers would stay on the Gee label. Later that month, Frankie completed his first session for his new label, backed by the Hugo Peretti Orchestra, and “My Girl” was the choice for the new single. Although it contained a strong vocal from Frankie, including some scatting, the record was bogged down by the big orchestra and the uninspired backing vocals.

 

September saw Frankie join the Biggest Show of Stars 1957 tour that covered 28 states and 5 Canadian provinces with a total of 80 shows. He headlined the bill along with Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, LaVern Baker, the Everly Brothers, and Buddy Holly with the Crickets. Despite promoting “My Girl” at every show, the new single did not chart. Racism was certainly not confined to the South, and it’s entirely possible that the failure of Frankie’s new single may have been part of the fallout from him being seen dancing with a white girl on national television. London Palladium LPLondon Palladium LP

 

Following the tour, his first solo album, “Frankie Lymon at the London Palladium,” was released. Another single, “Little Girl”, was issued as well, but it suffered the same fate as “My Girl”. Frankie finished the year on a high note, however, when he was booked to appear on the popular Ed Sullivan Show in December. Watch Frankie’s performance of “Goody Goody"  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ch-ubs_46c8&t=25s

 

In the meantime, the four remaining Teenagers faced an uncertain future without Frankie Lymon. The group was still reeling from the way the break-up had been handled. “It was awful,” Jimmy Merchant told interviewer Marv Goldberg. “The group was divided by management while we were in Europe. They had Frankie convinced that this was it,” Merchant said. “He didn’t seem to have any sorrow, and he never looked back.” Goldberg reported that Merchant only saw Frankie Lymon twice more after the break-up was officially announced and that Frankie seemed somewhat aloof.

 

The Teenagers didn’t return to the recording studio until November 1957. They had been looking for a new lead singer, and some girls they knew recommended Billy Lobrano, a young white singer who attended Forest Hills High School in Queens. When Lobrano joined the group, he made the Teenagers one of the most racially diverse groups in rock and roll. Teenagers 1958Teenagers 1958

 

The only problem was that Lobrano sounded nothing like Frankie Lymon and “Flip Flop”, the group’s first single with its new lead singer, didn’t sound even remotely like the Teenagers who had recorded “Why Do Fools Fall In Love”.

 

The single bombed as did the follow-up, a ballad called “My Broken Heart", released on Roulette Records in 1958. Although hindsight is always 20/20, it’s difficult to understand how the original four members and their management failed to see that Lobrano’s vocal style was not a good fit for the Teenagers.

 

Frankie Lymon’s first single of 1958, “Thumb Thumb”, represented a return to rock and roll. Nevertheless,it failed to chart, possibly because it was yet another departure from the doo wop sound that had been so successful with the Teenagers. Frankie continued in that vein in March when he recorded a batch of covers for the “Rock & Roll with Frankie Lymon” album that was released later in the year. Several of the songs, including “Little Bitty Pretty One”, “Jailhouse Rock”, “Waitin’ In School”, and “Silhouettes”, would be issued as singles two years later. Big Beat posterBig Beat poster

 

Even though his records were no longer charting, Frankie Lymon was still a big draw. He headlined the Alan Freed Presents The Big Beat show in April along with Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, the Crickets, and the Diamonds. It’s interesting to note that the tour's official souvenir booklet included a different story regarding the writing of Frankie’s biggest hit: “Calling themselves Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers, they cut their first record, 'Why Do Fools Fall In Love', which Frankie wrote himself.”

 

That same month Roulette issued his fourth solo single. “Portable On My Shoulder” was a good song idea that dealt with the rising popularity of portable transistor radios that were all the rage among teenage rock and roll fans; but the song itself and its unimaginative arrangement proved to be another dud. The flipside, “Mama Don’t Allow It”, was an upbeat cover of a traditional song first recorded in the 1920s. It also failed to chart despite Frankie performing the song in primetime on Dick Clark’s Saturday Night Beechnut Show. Watch his performance https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=076WrfWA77g

 

Although the introduction of drugs into rock and roll is commonly thought of as happening in the 1960s, that was not the case. “In the 50s drugs were everywhere…potent and cheap,” Jimmy Merchant revealed in a PBS interview in 1983. “Drugs were backstage and offstage, onstage – everywhere. It took a lot of people away from their normal course of life and Frankie was one of them.” Frankie LymonFrankie Lymon

 

According to Frankie's 1967 interview with Ebony magazine, he was first introduced to heroin at the age of 15 by a woman twice his age. He might have started using because his solo career hadn’t taken off like expected. “It hurts an artist who has been popular to have nothing going and you’re still in that world,” Jimmy Castor said in a PBS interview. “You begin to look for substitutes.”

 

Being with an older woman was not unusual for Frankie Lymon. Because of his early sexual encounters with the prostitutes in his neighborhood, Frankie preferred older, experienced women rather than the teenage girls who screamed his name at shows. In order to preserve his image as a clean-cut young entertainer, however, Frankie would pass off the women he dated in different cities as his mother. He often told the story that he once got caught by a reporter who went to shows in New York and Chicago and saw that his “mom” was two different women.

 

“The Only Way To Love” was Frankie’s final single of 1958. Once again, the record ignored the doo wop style that made him a success. It followed the same blueprint of his previous non-charting solo releases that featured backing by the Rudy Taylor Orchestra and a nondescript pop chorus. Watch Frankie perform “The Only Way To Love” in 1958. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M-P_FObKsF8

 

By 1959, Frankie Lymon was battling addiction, and he was also fighting for his professional life. He recorded 14 songs that year, but Roulette only released two singles, neither of which charted. By the time he had reached his 17th birthday, his signature voice had changed. Frankie no longer sounded like the young artist who had captivated the nation with “Why Do Fools Fall In Love”. His voice was still strong, but now he sounded more like a crooner than the Frankie Lymon the public wanted. Things were starting to go downhill fast."Little Bitty Pretty One""Little Bitty Pretty One"

 

Frankie only did one recording session for Roulette Records in 1960, but the two singles released that year were both recorded in 1958 for the “Rock & Roll with Frankie Lymon” album.  The first of these, a cover of Thurston Harrris’ “Little Bitty Pretty One”, became the first charting record by Frankie Lymon in three years to make the Billboard Hot 100 when it reached # 58. It would also prove to be the final charting hit of his career. Watch Frankie lip synch “Little Bitty Pretty One” on Dick Clark’s Saturday Night Beechnut Show https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E9PNVUpI19A

 

Roulette unleashed the new crooning vocal style of Frankie Lymon in 1961 with a cover of the 1938 Irving Berlin song, “Change Partners”. After that effort failed to chart, Frankie tried to take advantage of Barry Mann’s big summer hit, “Who Put Bomp (in the Bomp, Bomp, Bomp)”, a catchy song about the frequent use of nonsense lyrics in doo wop music."Who Put The Bomp""Who Put The Bomp"

 

Frankie’s answer record was titled “I Put The Bomp” (in the Bomp, Bomp, Bomp)”. It used the same melody as Mann’s hit, but with slightly different lyrics, as Frankie staked his claim as a doo wop pioneer. It failed to chart, but it was nice to hear him do something in the doo wop style, even if he no longer sounded like the 13-year-old who had all those hits in 1956.

 

Sadly, Frankie’s addiction to heroin had worsened, and it had turned him into a junkie pariah in the music business. Roulette Records, run by Morris Levy, ended its relationship with the singer in 1961. “The drug situation made him a no-no. I don’t care how good he was, it was a bad scene at the time,” Richard Barrett told a PBS interviewer.

 

Despite his drug issues, Frankie Lymon had not lost his ability to charm. It was during this time that Frankie met Elizabeth Waters backstage at a show and they began a relationship. In court testimony years later, Waters testified that she insisted that Frankie check in to a Manhattan hospital to cure his drug habit. She said that he seemed clean during her pregnancy in 1963, and he was genuinely shaken when their daughter Francine died shortly after her birth. "Crying""Crying"

 

The Teenagers were struggling as well. Billy Lobrano had left the group by early 1959, and the group failed to release a single that year. In 1960, Herman Santiago departed and Howard Kenny Bobo, a long-time friend who had been a member of Jimmy Castro and the Juniors, was brought in to replace him.

 

The group recorded two songs for a single on George Goldner’s End Records, “Crying” featuring Joe Negroni on lead vocal and “Tonight’s The Night” featuring Howard Kenny Bobo. The record failed to chart, however, and Bobo left the group when Herman Santiago returned. Listen to "Crying" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SZWr7YBDiho

 

The Teenagers hoped to turn it around when they added a tenor named Freddie Houston to sing lead, but he left after one non-charting single. It was the group’s final single on End Records, and it also marked the end of their musical relationship with George Goldner.

 

The group's last gasp as a recording unit was a single released on Columbia Records in 1961. “What’s On Your Mind" featured a lead vocal by Joe Negroni, and the group was listed on the label as Joey & The Teenagers. The flipside was interesting in that Sherman Garnes took over the lead vocal on the humorous story song written by the team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Listed on the label as Sherman & The Teenagers, “The Draw” was similar to some of the songs Leiber and Stoller had written and produced for the Coasters, but it lacked the magic of those hits and failed to bring the Teenagers back to the charts. "The Draw""The Draw"

 

Worse yet, was reaching the age of 21 and finding out that the trust fund that had been set up for them only contained $8,000. Jimmy Merchant revealed that, after deducting his lawyer's fee, he received only $1,100. With little knowledge of contracts and financial matters, the Teenagers and their families had put their trust in others to handle the money only to discover that they had been cheated by the very people who were supposed to be looking out for them.

 

It’s a sad tale that has been repeated many times over the years by musicians at every level. Like the Teenagers, many were young and naïve, and they had put themselves in a position to be exploited by narrowing the scope of their goals and knowledge to just the music. As a result, they had gotten ripped off over the years simply because they were ignorant of the financial side of their careers and trusted dishonest managers and label executives to take care of it for them.

 

Discouraged with their continued lack of success and the way they had been treated by the music business, the Teenagers were history by the end of 1961, at least until the next decade.Jimmy MerchantJimmy Merchant “After the break-up, everyone in the group moved into regular life and having families,” Jimmy Merchant recalled in a recent interview. “I got married in 1961. I met my first wife after the group broke up with Frankie in 1957 and my mother had relocated to Queens,” Merchant said. “Sherman got married to Lana and they had a baby. Joe got married and had two children, and Herman had a daughter from a woman he was living with, but he ended up marrying a different woman.”

 

Frankie Lymon married Elizabeth Waters in 1964 while he was trying to resuscitate his career. Although he had fallen off the wagon and was using heroin again, he had managed to get a one-shot recording deal with TCF Records, a subsidiary of 20th Century Fox. Alas, the big band arrangements on “Teacher Teacher” and “To Each His Own” failed to generate much interest when they were released on a single in early 1964. Listen to "Teacher Teacher" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7a6qBJCGEpo "Why Do Fools Fall In Love""Why Do Fools Fall In Love"

 

“Why Do Fools Fall In Love” returned to the Billboard charts in 1964 when it was covered by the Beach Boys for the B-side of their hit single “Fun, Fun, Fun”. Band leader Brian Wilson was a big fan of doo wop, and he provided the memorable falsetto lead on their version of the Teenagers’ signature song. Although the Beach Boys’ cover was only a minor hit, B-sides paid the same amount as A-sides in terms of royalties. By this time, however, Frankie had sold his songwriting credit on the song to Morris Levy to support his drug habit.

 

After signing another one-single deal with Columbia in 1964, Frankie recorded what sounded like his best shot at a comeback. “Sweet And Lovely” was a very soulful and contemporary sounding tune that could have fit comfortably on the Top 40 playlists of the day. Its flipside, an interesting arrangement of “Somewhere” from West Side Story, was also very good, but Frankie’s record got lost in the tsunami that was the British Invasion. Frankie 1964Frankie 1964

 

That same year, Frankie was arrested for drug possession. “Nobody wanted anything to do with him – he got blackballed by the nightclubs, record companies, and booking agents,” Sam Bray recalled in a PBS documentary. “Frankie would come in and beg the booking agents to try to get him a gig,” singer Bobby Jay revealed. “He would even get on the phone himself to beg. It was a sad thing to see, particularly if you knew him.”

 

In 1965, Frankie went to Los Angeles where he hoped his old friend Zola Taylor could help him land some gigs. Taylor would later claim that she and Frankie were married that year in Tijuana, Mexico. It was during this time that Frankie made his last television appearance on Hollywood A Go-Go, lip synching “Why Do Fools Fall In Love”. He didn’t look good on the broadcast, however, and he appeared to be missing some teeth. “It really hurt to see Frankie like that,” Jimmy Merchant said. “He was at this lowest point. He was no longer the Frankie Lymon I knew.” Watch Frankie’s appearance on Hollywood A Go-Go.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O3NpKQPSlGc

 

Frankie Lymon hit rock bottom in 1966 when he was arrested in New York for grand larceny or heroin possession. After completing another drug rehabilitation program at Manhattan General Hospital,Frankie in the BronxFrankie in the Bronx Frankie appeared at a block party organized by a group of nuns at a Catholic settlement house in the Bronx. He told an audience of teenagers, “I have been born again. I’m not ashamed to let the public know I took the cure. Maybe my story will keep some other kid from going wrong.”

 

With the Vietnam War escalating and the Selective Service looking for more recruits, the court allowed Frankie to join the Army in lieu of being sentenced for his drug offenses. He was inducted in December and sent to Ft. Gordon in Georgia. The Army provided him some much-needed discipline, and he was able to stay off drugs while stationed there.

 

Frankie was introduced to Emira Eagle at this time. She was a churchgoing elementary school teacher who lived with her family in nearby Augusta, and Emira knew nothing of Frankie’s drug or marriage history when, after a short courtship, they were wed in June of 1967. The couple lived with her parents, and Frankie traveled by bus to the base each day.

 

He also attempted to rekindle his career by playing gigs in the area while serving at Ft. Gordon. Unfortunately, this resulted in several AWOL offenses that could have led to some serious disciplinary measures. Instead, Frankie was allowed to request a discharge in lieu of court-martial. As a consequence, he agreed to accept an OTH (other-than-honorable conditions administrative discharge), in exchange for not being tried.The Happenings 1967The Happenings 1967 

 

Following his discharge, Frankie got a new manager in the person of Sam Bray, and he recorded two new songs, “I’m Sorry” and “Seabreeze,” for Bray’s Big Apple label. He also got some unexpected publicity in late 1967 when “Why Do Fools Fall In Love” was back on the radio in the form of a # 41 hit by the Happenings, a New Jersey pop music group that specialized in doing cover versions of classic songs in a unique style.

 

These developments, along with an interview in Ebony Magazine, helped Bray set up a recording session with Frankie's old label, Roulette Records. Frankie reportedly wanted Emira to accompany him in late February, but she could not leave her teaching job. As a result, he traveled to New York City on his own and stayed at his grandmother’s apartment on West 165th Street.

 

It was there that Frankie made the fatal decision to celebrate the night before the recording session by shooting up. He was found dead from a heroin overdose on the floor of his grandmother’s bathroom the following morning. It was the same apartment building where he was living in 1955 when he recorded “Why Do Fools Fall In Love” with the Teenagers.

 

In They All Sang On The Corner, Phillip Groia's definitive book on New York City's rhythm and blues vocal groups, the author describes Frankie Lymon as "a solid natural, a true born star at the age of thirteen with all the presence and poise of a stage veteran. He would come out on stage and set the whole world on fire." FrankieFrankie

 

Frankie Lymon’s stranger than fiction life was filled with an extraordinary array of twists and turns. He was a pimp a 12, and he became the star of the Teenagers at 13. Frankie left the group for a solo career at 14, and he became a heroin addict at 15. Then, at 17, his voice changed and his career began to go into free fall.

 

The arrests, the marriages, the rehab stints, the relapses, and a less than honorable discharge occupied most of the next eight years. All of this was followed by an unexpected comeback opportunity that ended with him dead on a bathroom floor with a needle in his arm. So much drama in such a short period of time.

 

In a way, Frankie Lymon was bigger than doo wop. With his looks, voice, and dance moves, he became a star performer in a genre that celebrated collaborative vocal group singing, and maybe that was part of the problem. Some called his death the official end of the era, but it turned out to be the beginning of something unexpected.

End of Pt. 2

 

Frankie Lymon's Tombstone Blues 1: The Teenagers

He was the first teenage rock and roll star, and many believe that 13 year-old Frankie Lymon, along with the Teenagers, helped to change the music business in the 1950s. The Teenagers featured a unique group harmony style that matched perfectly with their lead singer’s stellar voice and stage presence. Their youth and exuberance enabled them to headline shows across the country and help break the color barrier for minority rock and roll acts to appear on national television.

 

Sadly, the Teenagers’ career, one that had started so brightly with “Why Do Fools Fall In Love” and four additional Top Ten R&B singles, only lasted eighteen months. A questionable management decision removed Lymon from the group to pursue a solo career in 1957. This, along with a change in his voice as he grew older and the acquisition of a drug habit, had left the singer broke and scrounging for jobs by 1968.

 

After traveling to New York in hopes of making a comeback, Lymon overdosed on heroin while staying at his grandmother’s house. He was just 25 years-old at the time of his death, but Frankie Lymon’s story didn’t end there.

 

Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers helped make the group harmony style, later called doo wop, popular all across the country. It is a genre of rhythm and blues music that first gained popularity among African-American youth in the 1940s, primarily in large cities including New York, Philadelphia, Newark, Chicago, Detroit, and Los Angeles.

 

With roots that dated back to the Ink Spots and the Mills Brothers in the 1930s, the style featured harmony singing with little or no instrumentation and lyrics that were typically about love. It was usually sung by a lead vocalist over backing vocals of repeated, varying nonsense syllables which led to the use of the term ‘doo wop’ to describe it. The Teenagers (L to R) Joe Negroni, Herman Santiago, Jimmy Merchant, Frankie Lymon, Sherman GarnesThe Teenagers (L to R) Joe Negroni, Herman Santiago, Jimmy Merchant, Frankie Lymon, Sherman Garnes

 

Doo wop started to cross over to a young white audience with four songs, all released on independent labels, that became hits on Billboard’s Pop Singles chart in 1954. These included two young New York City groups, the Crows with their recording of “Gee” on George Goldner’s Rama label and the Chords with “Sh-Boom” on Cat, a subsidiary of Atlantic Records. Detroit was represented by the Midnighters’ risqué “Work With Me Annie” on Federal Records, and the Dootone label in Los Angeles had a big hit with “Earth Angel” by the Penguins.

 

Because doo wop songs could be performed acapella with little or no instrumentation and featured a wide range of vocal parts, teenagers who couldn’t afford musical instruments formed singing groups. They rehearsed songs on street corners, apartment hallways, locker rooms, and other places that had an echo with hopes of performing at high school dances and other social occasions. If they were good enough, and maybe got a little lucky, they might even get discovered and make a record.

 

Although Frankie Lymon would become the focal point of the Teenagers, the young man most responsible for putting the group together was Jimmy Merchant. Raised in the Bronx, Merchant began appreciating music at a young age by listening to his parents’ records. He moved to Washington Heights in Upper Harlem to live with his mother after his folks separated in 1954. In the fall, he started his 9th grade year at Edward W. Stitt Junior High School, the same educational institution that was attended by all of the other young singers who would eventually join together and become the Teenagers.

 

Merchant’s first recruit was Sherman Garnes, a tall basketball player with a deep voice. They formed a group with some junior high friends and called themselves the Earth Angels, named after the song that everyone was singing around school that fall. By the spring of 1955, Merchant and Garnes joined forces with Joe Negroni and Herman Santiago, both of Puerto Rican descent. The quartet sang under several names, including the Coup De Villes and the Ermines, during the next few months.

 

The youngsters often sang the hits of the day in the hallway of Sherman Garnes’ apartment building, located across the street from their school. In an interview on the Island Hop television show many years later, Merchant recalled that it was a gentleman who lived on the first floor that encouraged them to write their own songs. To help them come up with lyrics, he gave them a batch of love letters from a former girlfriend that included some of her poetry.

 

Merchant said that he took them home, and he was struck by one of the poems that posed the questions “Why do birds sing so gay?” and “Why do fools fall in love?” Having a gift for arranging vocal parts, Merchant proceeded to start putting together a doo wop ballad called “Why Do Birds Sing So Gay.” The TeenagersThe TeenagersAfter adding some contributions from Santiago and perfecting their parts in rehearsal, the group began performing their new song at every opportunity.

 

In August of 1955, Merchant, Garnes, Negroni, and Santiago had changed the name of the group to the Premiers, and they performed "Why Do Birds Sing So Gay" in a talent show at Stitt Junior High. Frankie Lymon, who was a month away from his 13th birthday and two years younger than the others, had been following the group around during the spring and summer, begging them to let him sing. “Frankie was very mature for his age,” Merchant recalled. “He worked at the corner grocery store, handling the cash register and delivering packages to customers.”

 

They initially thought Frankie was too young, but they changed their minds after seeing him perform at the talent show with his brothers in a gospel ensemble called the Harlemaire Juniors. Impressed with his high tenor voice and stage presence, the Premiers brought Frankie Lymon into the group as a permanent member.

 

In the meantime, Richard Barrett, lead singer of the Valentines, moved into their neighborhood and began living in an apartment above the grocery store where Frankie worked. Besides being a member of one of New York’s finest vocal harmony groups, Barrett also worked for Gee Records, George Goldner’s second label. Barrett discovered the Premiers in early fall of 1955, and he brought them to Goldner’s office on W. 42nd Street in New York City for an audition.

 

Herman Santiago was the Premiers' lead singer at this point, but sometimes he and Frankie did a duet lead, and other times Joe Negroni would front the group. At the audition, however, Frankie's voice and confidence stood out. Impressed with what he heard, Goldner instructed the group to further develop their original songs for a recording session with Frankie as the lead singer. Richard BarrettRichard Barrett

 

The boys started working on material to record for their November session, but the song that was to be their biggest hit was still a ballad at this time. According to Merchant, Richard Barrett told them they needed a fast song for the session, and he added an introduction part that helped them turn “Why Do Birds Sing So Gay” into an upbeat number with a new title.

 

Although the writing credits would be a source of controversy in the future, it seems clear that Merchant and Santiago put the initial song together while Lymon changed the title to “Why Do Fools Fall In Love” and improvised some changes in the melody to better match his singing style.

 

Because they were all underage, their parents signed the contracts to Gee Records, designating George Goldner as the group's manager. They worked with saxophonist Jimmy Wright and his studio band at their first recording session, and Merchant told Island Hop that it took 26 takes of "Why Do Fool's Fall In Love" before Goldner was satisfied. He also stated that Goldner did not like the name 'Premiers', and that it was Wright who suggested 'Teenagers' for their new moniker.

 

After the newly-named Teenagers had recorded the master of “Why Do Fools Fall In Love”, they were asked who wrote the song? Merchant claimed that he replied, “We all did…there were actually several people involved.” He also revealed that Goldner told them that they could only put two names down as the songwriters, and that Herman blurted out “Santiago and Lymon.” Frankie Lymon and George GoldnerFrankie Lymon and George GoldnerWhen the single was released on January 10, 1956, however, Frankie Lymon, Herman Santiago, and George Goldner were listed as co-writers of the song. To add to the confusion, later releases and cover versions were credited to only Lymon and Goldner. In the future, Goldner’s name would be replaced by Morris Levy's after the mob-connected label boss purchased Goldner’s interest in Gee Records, the Teenagers’ record company.

 

“Why Do Fools Fall In Love” was released on January 10, 1956, while Merchant, Santiago, Garnes, and Negroni were in their sophomore years at George Washington High School and Lymon was in the eighth grade at Edward W. Stitt Junior High. It was an immediate hit, and Merchant remembered that kids were even singing it in the hallways of his high school while they were changing classes.Why Do Fools Fall In LoveWhy Do Fools Fall In Love

 

"Fools" spent five weeks at # 1 on Billboard’s R&B chart, and it crossed over to # 6 on the Pop Singles chart as well. The song also reached # 1 on the UK Singles chart in July of 1956, making the Teenagers the first American doo wop group to achieve that feat. Typical of the times, “Why Do Fools Fall In Love” spurred traditional sounding covers by white artists like the Diamonds and Gale Storm, both of whom had Top Ten hits on Billboard’s Pop Singles chart in 1956.

 

“Groups were expected to not only sing but also include choreography with their performances,” Jimmy Merchant recalled during his Island Hop interview. “The Cadillacs helped teach us some steps for our first show at the State Theater in Hartford, Connecticut, in February. They also advised us to work with Cholly Atkins, who choreographed the Cadillacs, and he sharpened our stage presentation.” Atkins, who had been very successful in the 30s and 40s as one-half of the Atkins & Cole dance act, would go on to gain fame in the 1960s as the house choreographer for the solo artists and groups on the Motown label.

 

Later in February, the Teenagers made their first appearance in Michigan at Detroit's Riviera Theater with local WKMH DJ, Robin Seymour. The show also featured the Jewels, the Teen Queens, the 5 Keys, Ivory Joe Hunter, and the Bonnie Sisters.

Letter sweaters and bow tiesLetter sweaters and bow ties

 

The Teenagers were very energetic on stage and, attired in their letter sweaters with bow ties, the group projected a wholesome, clean-cut image. This led to their being booked to make their prime time television debut on Shower Of Stars, the popular CBS variety show, in the spring of 1956.

 

Television executives did not want to upset middle-class parents who might be concerned that rock and roll music could turn their children into juvenile delinquents; and the innocence projected by the Teenagers fit the bill perfectly. Their non-threatening image enabled the five youngsters to become the first black and brown-skinned doo wop group to appear on a popular network program. The Teenagers participated in a short, light-hearted skit with guest host Frankie Laine and then performed an inspired version of “Why Do Fools Fall In Love”. Watch the 1956 performance of "Why Do Fools Fall In Love on Shower of Starshttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q96ylFiQK_I&t=24

 

The Teenagers' second single, “I Want You To Be My Girl”, was released in April. Once again featuring the backing of Jimmy Wright and his band, it would go on to become another big hit, reaching # 3 on Billboard’s R&B chart and crossing over to # 13 on the Pop Singles chart. The song, under the working title of "Come On Baby", had been one of the original songs the group had been working on, and they performed it at their audition with Gee Records. George Goldner and Richard Barrett went on to finish the song and change the title to "I Want You To Be My Girl", but they also took full songwriting credit on the hit single.

 

Riding their two hits, the Teenagers, along with the Platters, were the headline acts at Alan Freed’s Easter Jubilee at the Brooklyn Paramount in the spring. The bill also included other top vocal groups of the day including the Flamingos, the Willows, the Valentines, and the Cleftones. In the accompanying souvenir booklet, the group was billed as simply ‘The Teenagers’, but the short group bio contained several falsehoods e.g. "that Why Do Fools Fall In Love was taken from a poem that Frankie Lymon had written just after the turn of the New Year, and that the boys decided to set it to music and recorded it for Rama Records."
 Zola Taylor with The PlattersZola Taylor with The Platters

 

Their successful appearance led to the Teenagers joining Alan Freed’s Biggest Rock and Roll Show of 1956, a 45-day tour in which they headlined with Bill Haley and His Comets and the Platters. Also appearing on the bill at most of the shows were Chuck Berry, Clyde McPhatter, the Clovers, LaVern Baker, the Drifters, Bo Diddley, and the Teen Queens. 

 

Zola Taylor, the female member of the Platters, had just turned 18 at the start of the tour. According to court testimony many years later, she and Frankie, who was still just 13, became friends while riding the bus to the 81 dates on the tour. Zola testified that they became lovers one night in Bangor, Maine, after Frankie had won $1,700 gambling with Clyde McPhatter and she had “gotten a little loaded drinking scotch and water.” Their affair continued off and on for several years.

 

As shocking as that relationship might sound, Frankie Lymon had grown up fast before he met Zola Taylor. "I was never a child, although I was billed in every theater and auditorium where I appeared as a child star," Lymon told Ebony magazine during an interview in 1967. "I was a man when I was 11 years-old, doing everything that most men do. In the neighborhood where I lived, there was no time to be a child."

 

"I knew every prostitute in our neighborhood and I'd get a commission for every customer I brought them," Lymon told the interviewer. "I was a fresh young kid and some of them thought I was cute. Sometimes they'd pay me off with something extra. I learned everything there was to learn about women before I was 12-years-old."

I Promise To RememberI Promise To Remember

 

In June, Gee Records released the group’s third single, “I Promise To Remember”. The song was co-written by Jimmy Castor, a talented singer who grew up in the same Washington Heights neighborhood as Frankie Lymon. He also possessed a high, clear voice like Frankie, and filled in for the singer at some early Teenagers' gigs when Lymon couldn't make the performances.

 

Castor went on to form his own group, Jimmy Castor and the Juniors. They had already recorded Castor's "I Promise To Remember" in May on the tiny Wing label, one month before Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers covered it for a hit.

 

The billing on the record labels of the groups' first two singles was 'The Teenagers featuring Frankie Lymon’. It was changed to ‘Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers’, with Frankie’s name in larger print, on the "I Promise To Remember" single. This was a direct reflection of Lymon’s star power and the screaming girls at the shows. “Frankie Lymon just transcended all the other doo wop groups,” stated Bob Hill of Murray-Hill Records. “He had such presence; he’d just take over a stage and just wipe the audience out.”

 

While “I Promise To Remember” was reaching # 10 on the Billboard R&B chart in August, the group shot scenes for the Alan Freed movie, Rock, Rock, Rock!. Despite appearing with a number of rock and roll heavyweights including Chuck Berry, the Moonglows, LaVern Baker, the Flamingos, and the Johnny Burnette Trio, the Teenagers’ performances of “Baby, Baby” and “I’m Not A Juvenile Delinquent” were the undisputed highlights of the otherwise lackluster film when it was released to theaters in December, 1956. Watch their great performance of "Baby Baby" from the movie https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_QjO3fA4xpQ Rock, Rock, Rock!Rock, Rock, Rock!

 

In September, Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers headlined Alan Freed’s Story of Rock N Roll show at the Brooklyn Paramount with Fats Domino and Big Joe Turner. The show featured several other vocal harmony groups including the Penguins, the Harptones, and the Cleftones.

 

The Teenagers then embarked on a series of 40 one-nighters as part of the Biggest In-Person Show Of 1956. They were on the bill with the Platters, the Clovers, the Flamingos, and Carl Perkins. The tour played 36 cities in 17 states, plus 4 cities in Canada. 

 

The tours were grueling, but the exposure was needed and they made more money from shows than they did from record sales. The Teenagers only received small allowances, however, starting at $24 per week. The rest supposedly went into trust funds.

 

In a recent interview, Jimmy Merchant recalled an incident in Canada while they were on the tour. "A young boy came backstage and wanted to pitch us a song he wrote. We told him to talk to our manager and thought no more of him," Merchant said. "Some months later we were doing a show at the New York Paramount Theater and we saw him again. He turned out to be Paul Anka, and the song he wanted to sell us was “Diana”, which became Anka’s first big hit."

 

Frankie and the Teenagers were headlining shows at the Apollo Theater in Harlem later that month when Gee released the group's 4th single, “The ABC’s Of Love”. While the single was moving up to # 8 on the R&B chart, they began another tour with Bill Haley and His Comets that lasted through November.

 

The Teenagers could no longer attend traditional school because of their touring schedule. As a result, the boys were enrolled in the School for Professionals and took correspondence courses with tutors while on the road. Eventually, however, the seemingly endless string of one-nighters and long, lonely days away from home began to take its toll on the young group.

 

In December, their debut album, “The Teenagers Featuring Frankie Lymon”, was released. The LP contained all the group’s hit singles and their B-sides, but it would be the only album to be issued that featured the original group members. Gee also released a single of the two songs they performed in Rock, Rock, Rock!, but the pairing of “Baby, Baby" and "I’m Not A Juvenile Delinquent” was the first that failed to reach any of the Billboard charts. The Teenagers LPThe Teenagers LP

 

In what might be considered omens of what was to come, the group had fallen behind in their education and had to stay home during the first part of 1957. “Paper Castles" backed with "Teenage Love” was released as their next Gee single, but it also failed to chart.

 

Much worse was the fact that George Goldner, a habitual gambler, had been forced to sell off half of the shares of his Tico, Rama, and Gee record labels to Joe Kolsky and Morris Levy to pay off his gambling debts. In January, Goldner formed Roulette Records with Kolsky and Levy who were both connected to the Mafia. Needing additional money, Goldner soon sold his interest in Roulette as well as the remaining shares of his other three labels to Morris Levy. Goldner then started two new labels, End and Gone, both of which were distributed by Levy’s mob-backed Roulette organization. Morris LevyMorris Levy

 

With Levy now firmly in the picture, plans were made to start recording Frankie Lymon, now 14, as a solo artist. “They looked at Frankie as the star,” Jimmy Merchant said in his Island Hop interview. “They felt the other four of us were expendable. They talked to Frankie’s mother, who was seemingly ignorant of the fact that the group had already been formed when Frankie joined,” Merchant said. “She looked at her son as being the star, and it was easy to convince her to have Frankie pulled out of the group to become a solo artist.”

 

The Teenagers had been one of the top rock and roll singing groups in the country during 1956, but now they were being given pop standard material to record as Frankie Lymon was being pushed into a solo career. Gone was the rocking sound of Jimmy Wright's band, now replaced by the lush strings of the Rudy Traylor Orchestra.

 

In the meantime, Gee released what would turn out to be the final single by Frankie Lymon that would include the other Teenagers. “Out In The Cold Again” was a cover of a 1934 ballad first recorded by Glen Gray and the Casa Loma orchestra, and it would peak at # 10 on Billboard’s R&B chart in early 1957. The title of their latest hit turned out to be somewhat prophetic when the other Teenagers discovered that the record's flipside, "Miracle Of Love", featured Frankie without the group.

 

Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers were booked for a ten-day tour of Panama before embarking on an ambitious six-week tour of the United Kingdom in the spring. On the one hand, they had the distinction of performing at the prestigious London Palladium and the honor of a command performance for Princess Margaret in the Queen's Chambers. On the other hand, tension and strain began to set in as it became increasingly apparent that Frankie was being directed toward a solo career.

 

The Teenagers were told that they would be recording in England during the tour, but the other members were unaware that it would be Frankie Lymon recording without the group. The writing seemed to be on the wall, however, as management had already started giving Frankie solo spots in the show. In addition, Frankie did three sessions by himself in London, guided by Rudy Traylor who had been sent along as musical director. Merchant said that they were told that they would also record there as a group, but it never happened.

 

During their tour, “I’m Not A Juvenile Delinquent” was released as a single in England and it reached # 12 on the UK chart. Watch a performance of "I'm Not A Juvenile Delinquent" from the Rock, Rock, Rock! movie. If you watch closely near the end of the performance, you can spot 17 year-old Valerie Harper making her film debut as an extra in a white dress applauding the Teenagers. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PCj1zy-ehPsThe Teenagers in LondonThe Teenagers in London

 

Things came to a head at the end of the tour of Great Britain when Lymon and Herman Santiago almost came to blows over Frankie leaving the group. According to Jimmy Merchant, Frankie and the Teenagers only appeared together two more times after they returned to the States. Although their fans didn't know it yet, it was all over for the original group.

 

“George Goldner was very talented, but he was dishonest when it came to the proper care of Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers,” Merchant recalled in a recent phone interview. “But the move to make Frankie a solo artist had more to do with Morris Levy than Goldner. He would only have to pay one family rather than five,” Merchant said.

 

The Teenagers only lasted 18 months, but the group was very significant in several ways during the short time the five original members were together. One of their songs, the immortal “Why Do Fools Fall In Love”, would be revered, covered, and battled over for decades to come. They could also be considered the first successful boy band whose appearances were marked by shrieking girls who all but drowned them out with their screams. Frankie and The TeenagersFrankie and The Teenagers

 

In addition, the youthful lead vocals of Frankie Lymon inspired a whole genre of young vocal groups who emulated the adolescent sound of the Teenagers. Later called 'kiddie' doo wop groups, they included Frankie’s younger brother Lewis Lymon and the Teenchords, the Students, Little Anthony and the Imperials, the Kodaks, and Tiny Tim and the Hits to name just a few. More importantly, the Teenagers’ incredible success in 1956 made them rock and roll pioneers who helped change the music industry from one that concentrated on adult tastes to one that catered to the emerging youth market.

 

“It was all over so quickly,” Joel Warshaw of LifeStream Music stated. “The group didn’t get the exposure it could have had. If they would have had another 18 months, maybe they could have established something more lasting like the Platters, Drifters, or Coasters.”

 

Warshaw, who managed a reunited version of the Teenagers in the 1980s, went on to say, "When you think about it, the entertainment field is a tough life, regardless of what level you’re on,” Joel Warshaw recalled. “ A lot of the early artists were not educated enough to understand certain aspects of the business. You can’t blame the Teenagers, of all people, for not knowing that they were being screwed. Unfortunately, it was the nature of the business.”

End of Part 1

 

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