Franklin Joseph "Frankie" Lymon (September 30, 1942 – February 27, 1968) was an African-American rock and roll/Rhythm and blues singer, best known as the boy soprano lead singer of a New York City-based early rock and roll group called The Teenagers. The group included five boys, all in their early to mid teens. The original lineup of the Teenagers, an integrated group, included three African-American members, Frankie Lymon, Jimmy Merchant and Sherman Garnes, and two Puerto Rican members, Herman Santiago and Joe Negroni.
The Teenagers' first single, 1956's "Why Do Fools Fall in Love", was also their biggest hit. After Lymon went solo in mid-1957, both his career and those of the Teenagers fell into decline. Lymon eventually fell into heroin addiction, and died in 1968 at the age of 25.
At the age of twelve, Lymon heard a local doo-wop group known as the Coupe De Villes at a school talent show. He befriended their lead singer, Herman Santiago, and eventually became a member of the group, now calling itself both The Ermines and The Premiers.
One day in 1955, a neighbor gave The Premiers several love letters that had been written to him by his girlfriend, with the hopes that he could give the boys inspiration to write their own songs. Merchant and Santiago adapted one of the letters into a song called "Why Do Birds Sing So Gay?" With Lymon's input, the song became "Why Do Fools Fall in Love". The Premiers, now calling themselves The Teenagers, got their first shot at fame after impressing Richard Barrett, a singer with The Valentines. Barrett in turn got the group an audition with record producer George Goldner. On the day of the group's audition, Santiago was the original lead singer but, Goldner noticed Frankie's voice in the background and asked him to have a try at singing lead. Lymon led the Teenagers through "Why Do Fools Fall in Love".
Five other R&B top ten singles followed over the next year-plus: "I Want You To Be My Girl", "I Promise To Remember", "Who Can Explain?", "Out in the Cold Again", and "The ABC's of Love." "I'm Not A Juvenile Delinquent" and "Baby Baby" were also popular Teenagers releases. "I Want You To Be My Girl" gave the band its second pop hit, reaching #13 on the national Billboard Hot 100 chart. "Goody Goody" was a #20 pop hit, but did not appear on the R&B chart. The Teenagers placed two other singles in the lower half of the pop chart.
With the release of "I Want You to Be My Girl", the group's second single, The Teenagers became Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers. A long-playing album, The Teenagers Featuring Frankie Lymon, was issued in December 1956.
The group's success made Frankie Lymon the first African-American teen idol. In March 1956, the Teenagers began appearing with pioneering rock and roll DJ Alan Freed's rock-and-roll revues, performing alongside acts such as Little Richard, Bo Diddley, The Platters, and Bill Haley and His Comets. The group also appeared in two of Freed's early rock and roll films, Rock, Rock, Rock (1956) and Mister Rock and Roll (1957), and performed on Freed's radio and television programs. While touring with the Platters, Lymon befriended that group's sole female singer, Zola Taylor, with whom he later began a romantic relationship.
As a solo artist, Lymon was not nearly as successful as he was with the Teenagers. Beginning with his second solo release, "My Girl", Lymon was moved to Roulette Records. On a July 19, 1957 episode of Freed's live ABC TV show The Big Beat, Lymon began dancing with a white teenage girl while performing. His actions caused a scandal, particularly among Southern TV station owners, and The Big Beat was subsequently canceled.
Lymon's slowly tapering sales fell sharply after his voice changed and he lost his signature soprano voice. Adopting a falsetto, many people didn't give him a chance, but Lymon carried on. His highest charting solo hit was a cover of Thurston Harris' "Little Bitty Pretty One", which peaked at number 58 on the Hot 100 pop chart in 1960, and which had actually been recorded in 1957. Addicted to heroin since age 15, Lymon fell further into his habit, and his performing career went into decline. According to Lymon in an interview with Ebony in 1967, he said that he was first introduced to heroin by a woman twice his age, when he was 15. In 1961, Roulette, now run by Morris Levy, ended their contract with Lymon and the singer entered a drug rehabilitation program.
After losing Lymon, the Teenagers went through a string of replacement singers, the first of whom was Lymon's immediate successor Billy Lobrano. In 1960, Howard Kenny Bobo sang lead on "Tonight's The Night" with the Teenagers; later that year, Johnny Houston sang lead on two songs. The Teenagers, who had been moved by Morris Levy onto End Records, were released from their contract in 1961. The Teenagers briefly reunited with Lymon in 1965, without success.
The same year, Lymon was drafted into the United States Army, and stationed at Fort Gordon, Georgia near Augusta, Georgia for training. While in the Augusta area, Lymon met and fell in love with Elmira Eagle, a schoolteacher at Hornsby Elementary in Augusta. The two were wed in June 1967, and Lymon repeatedly went AWOL to secure club dates at small Southern clubs. Dishonorably discharged from the Army, Lymon moved into his wife's home and continued to perform sporadically.
Traveling to New York in 1968, manager Sam Bray signed Lymon to his Big Apple label, and the singer returned to recording. Roulette Records expressed interest in releasing Lymon's records in conjunction with Big Apple and scheduled a recording session for February 28. Lymon, staying at his grandmother's house in Harlem where he had grown up, celebrated his good fortune by taking heroin -- he had remained clean ever since entering the Army three years prior. On February 27, 1968, Lymon was found dead from a heroin overdose. He was twenty-five years old. He was buried at Saint Raymond's Cemetery in the Throggs Neck section of The Bronx in New York. "I'm Sorry" and "Seabreeze", the two sides Lymon had recorded for Big Apple before his death, were released later in the year. "Seabreeze" showcased the beauty of his mature sound along with the vocal skills and techniques that made him famous.
Trying to determine who was indeed the lawful Mrs. Frankie Lymon was complicated by more issues. Waters was already married when she married Lymon; she had separated from her first husband, but their divorce was finalized in 1965, after she had married Lymon. Taylor claimed to have married Lymon in Mexico in 1965, but could produce no acceptable evidence of their union. Lymon's marriage to Eagle, on the other hand, was properly documented as having taken place at the Beulah Grove Baptist Church in Augusta, Georgia in 1967; however, the singer was still apparently twice-married and never divorced when he married Eagle. The first decision was made in Waters' favor; Eagle appealed, and in 1990, the New York State Supreme Court reversed the original decision and awarded Eagle Lymon's estate.
However, the details of the case brought about another issue: whether Morris Levy was deserving of the songwriting co-credit on "Why Do Fools Fall in Love". Although early vinyl single releases of "Why Do Fools Fall in Love" credit Frankie Lymon, Herman Santiago, and Jimmy Merchant as co-writers of the song, later releases and cover versions were attributed to Lymon and George Goldner. When Goldner sold his music companies to Morris Levy in 1959, Levy's name began appearing as co-writer of "Why Do Fools Fall in Love" in place of Goldner's. Lymon was never paid his songwriters' royalties during his lifetime; one result of Elmira Eagle's legal victory was that Lymon's estate would finally begin receiving monetary compensation from his hit song's success. In 1987, Herman Santiago and Jimmy Merchant, both then poor, sued Morris Levy for their songwriters' credits.
In December 1992, the United States federal courts ruled that Santiago and Merchant were co-authors of "Why Do Fools Fall in Love". However, in 1996 the ruling was reversed by the Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit on the basis of the statute of limitations: copyright cases must be brought before a court within three years of the alleged civil violation, and Merchant and Santiago's lawsuit was not filed until 30 years later. Authorship of "Why Do Fools Fall in Love" currently remains in the names of Frankie Lymon and Morris Levy.
Lymon's music and story were re-introduced to modern audiences with Why Do Fools Fall in Love, a 1998 biographical film directed by Gregory Nava, also the director of the Selena biopic. Why Do Fools Fall in Love tells a comedic, fictionalized version of Lymon's story from the points of view of his three wives as they battle in court for the rights to his estate. The film stars Larenz Tate as Frankie Lymon, Halle Berry as Zola Taylor, Vivica A. Fox as Elizabeth Waters, and Lela Rochon as Elmira Eagle. Why Do Fools Fall in Love was not a commercial success: it met with mixed reviews, the film grossed a total of $12,461,773 during its original theatrical run.