New York City, NY

The Rise & Tragic Fall of NYC's Frankie Lymon: Book Excerpt

Frank Mastropolo
Gee Records

African Americans like Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Fats Domino help create rock and roll. A new book, New York Groove: An Inside Look at the Stars, Shows and Songs That Make NYC Rock, profiles musicians who made their mark in Big Apple that include Jimi Hendrix, Curtis Mayfield, Ben E. King, Ronnie Spector and many more.

In this excerpt Frankie Lymon, lead vocalist of the Teenagers and template for stars like Michael Jackson, makes a meteoric rise to the top. His tragic fall happened almost as fast.

Frankie Lymon was born in Harlem in 1942. Lymon's greatest success came at age 13 as one of the Teenagers, a vocal group of five boys, all in their teens. Their debut single, "Why Do Fools Fall in Love," was a Top 10 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1956.

"Why Do Fools Fall in Love" by Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers

"I never was a child, although I was billed in every theater and auditorium where I appeared as a child star," Lymon recalled in Ebony 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. There were five children in my family and my folks had to scuffle to make ends meet. My father was a truck driver and my mother worked as a domestic in white folks' homes. While kids my age were playing stickball and marbles, I was working in the corner grocery store carrying orders to help pay the rent."

In 1954 Lymon joined a local group, the Premiers, who performed at a talent show at Edward W. Stitt Junior High School. The boys would practice on the sidewalks of Edgecombe and Amsterdam Avenues.

"There were five of us and we used to harmonize every night on the street corner until the neighbors would call the cops to run us away. One night, an older guy named Richard Barrett, who sang with an established group called the Valentines, heard us rehearsing in the hallway of an apartment house and asked us if we'd like to come downtown and audition for a small recording company which was just getting started."

When the group, renamed the Teenagers, arrived at Gee Records, they found that more than 60 groups had gotten the same invitation. "We waited from 6 p.m. until 2 in the morning before they finally got around to hearing us. When they told us we had won, we couldn't believe our ears."

The Teenagers recorded "Why Do Fools Fall in Love" in November 1955 at Bell Sound Studios. Within weeks the song became an international hit and the group began a whirlwind tour of the US and Europe.

The next year the Teenagers toured as part of the Biggest In-Person Show of 1956 sharing the bill with the Platters, the Clovers and the Flamingos. The Teenagers headlined shows at the Apollo Theater, a return for Lymon, who had appeared at one of the Apollo's Amateur Night. Gee released their debut album, The Teenagers Featuring Frankie Lymon, in December 1956.

"Our record was making bales of money and every major theater and auditorium in the US and Europe was bidding for us, but we were still considered children, incapable of handling our own earnings," said Lymon. "As a result, three lawyers were hired to handle our money for us and we were given about $40 apiece each week for spending change. The rest went into a trust fund which we were to receive when we reached manhood."

By the spring of 1957, the Teenagers, now managed by Morris Levy, began to complain that Lymon received top billing in theaters and advertising. Levy decided that Lymon would launch a solo career. "At first, it seemed that the idea would really work," said Lymon. "I cut Ella Fitzgerald's old song, 'Goody Goody,' on my own without the group and it sold a million copies. Money was rolling in for a while. But then things began to go wrong. We found that many club and theater owners weren't as willing to pay top dollar for only part of the original group."

Lymon abandoned rock to become a pop singer, recording old standards like "Over the Rainbow" and "As Time Goes By" backed by lush string arrangements. Fans did not buy the change and the Teenagers, with a revolving door of new lead singers, fared just as poorly.

Compounding the problem was Lymon's growing heroin addiction. Lymon told Ebony that he was introduced to heroin at age 15 by a woman more than twice his age. When the hits dried up, Lymon was released from his recording contract in 1961. Lymon had short-term deals with other labels but never had another hit record. On February 27, 1968, Lymon was found dead of a heroin overdose on the floor of his grandmother's Harlem apartment. He was 25 years old.

Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993.

Mastropolo is the author of New York Groove: An Inside Look at the Stars, Shows, and Songs That Make New York Rock.
Edgar Street Books

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Frank Mastropolo is the author of Fillmore East: The Venue That Changed Rock Music Forever, one of Best Classic Bands' Best Music Books of 2021; New York Groove: An Inside Look at the Stars, Shows, and Songs That Make NYC Rock; the What's Your Rock IQ? Trivia Quiz Book series; Ghost Signs: Clues to Downtown New York's Past, winner of the 2021 Independent Publishers Book Award; and Ghost Signs 2: Clues to Uptown New York's Past. Mastropolo is a journalist, photographer, and former ABC News 20/20 producer, winner of the Alfred I. DuPont–Columbia University silver baton. His photography is featured in the Bill Graham Rock & Roll Revolution exhibition.

New York, NY

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