Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers were true trendsetters in the early days of rock and roll. TheThey were the yardstick by which hundreds of kiddie vocal groups gauged their capabilities in order to bring themselves to the public’s attention.
Groups like the Students (Checker), THE CHANTERS (Deluxe), RONNIE AND THE HI-LITES (Joy), Nicky and the Nobles (Gone), THE KODAKS (Fury), THE DESIRES (Hull), Tiny Tim and the Hits (Roulette), and even Frankie’s brother’s group LOUIS LYMON AND THE TEEN CHORDS, are just some of the many who tried for the bras ring in the footsteps of Frankie and company. Some of those fans that made it big include Diana Ross, Millie Jackson, Ronnie Spector, and Tim Hauser (THE MANHATTAN TRANSFER).
Their story began in the Washington Heights section of New York City in 1954 as Jimmy Merchant (second tenor) and Sherman Garnes (bass), both ninth graders at Edward W. Stitt Junior Hight School, formed a group called the Earth Angels (named after THE PENGUINS’ hit). That group was short-lived, but the two black teens were not discouraged and they were soon talking with two neighborhood Puerto Ricans, Herman Santiago (first tenor) and Joe Negroni (baritone), whom Sherman
A fateful meeting on 164th Street (where Sherman lived) led to the foursome calling themselves the Coupe De Villes. Across the street lived a family with four brothers, Howie, Timmy, Louis, and Frankie Lymon, all of whom would sing with groups in the future.
The four Coupe De Villes became the Premiers and alternated their practices led to performances at neighborhood talent shows, and one was scheduled for the school auditorium. The Premiers decided to get in some extra practice after a dress rehearsal and entered one of the classrooms. A young teen who was also scheduled to perform with his brother’s mambo band came in and asked to sing a few songs with the group. It was Herman’s neighbor from across 164th Street, 12-year-old Frankie Lymon. They sang “Why Don’t You Write Me” (THE JACKS), “Painted Pictures” (THE SPANIELS), and “Lily Maebelle” (THE VALENTINES), and had such a good time they agreed to do it again, but no one formally asked young Frankie to join.
After the talent show (where Frankie played bongos and his brother Howie played congas with their Latin group), Frankie just started hanging out with the older guys and became first tenor to Herman Santiago’s lead.
Frankie came from a gospel background. His father Howard sang with the Harlemaires and Frankie, Louie, and Howie sang with the Harlemaires Juniors. This seemed to have little impact on his early occupation as a 10-year-old hustler of prostitutes in Harlem. His father was a truck driver and mother a domestic, and it wasn’t easy to feed a family of seven. Frankie also worked in a grocery on his corner as a delivery boy, so pimping was not necessarily his preferred source of income.
By 1955 the quintet was calling themselves the Ermines when they weren’t lapsing back to the Premiers. ON one fateful evening the hallway kids (as they were designated by neighbors) were practicing in Sherman’s hall when they were confronted by a man named Robert, who often stopped and listened to them before entering his apartment.
According to author Phil Groia, he said, “My old lady [her name was Delores] sendsme letters in the form of poems. Being that you’re always singing the same old songs,why don’t you get some original material of your own? I’m giving you some of these poems; see what you can do with them.” The Premiers/Ermines sorted through them and started working on one in particular called “Why Do Birds Sing So Gay.” Frankie worked on a melody line and the others formulated a harmony while tenor Jimmy Merchant came up with a vocal bass intro. It started out as a ballad but soon evolved into an uptempo rocker.
Many evenings later they were rehearsing their repertoire at Stitt’s Night Community Center when in walked the revered Valentines, who also practiced there. Lead singer Richard Barrett had heard there was a hot neighborhood group sing his song and was very impressed by the Premiers’ interpretation.
Barrett’s version of hiss meeting with the group is slightly different: he claims they camped under his 161st Street window and sang until he came down and agreed to hear them audition at Stitt’s the following Monday.
There are also three versions of how they went from Barrett to George Goldner’s Gee Records. The Barrett version states that on the day of the audition for Goldner, Herman Santiago caught a cold and the only one who knew the words was Frankie. Barrett knew Goldner was preoccupied with recording a new group called the Millionaires, so he threatened that he would not rehearse the group if George didn’t sign his new ind, the Premiers. Supposedly, the Gee exec agreed and let the Premiers record two songs during the Millionaires’ dinner break. (The Millionaires were actually Ben E. King and several of THE FIVE CROWNS, who later went on to become THE DRIFTERS.)
Another version is attributed to Hy Weiss, a legendary figure of the golden days of rock and owner of the Old Town label. He claimed that Barrett brought the Premiers to him, but Hy had too many acts so he recommended the group go see his friend George Goldner.
The final (and most probable) version was that Barrett took the group to Goldner, auditioned right after THE CLEFTONES had done so, and were told they had a deal. Herman sang lead on “Why Do Birds Sing So Gay,” “That’s What You’re Doin’ to Me” (THE DOMINOES), and one of his originals, “I Want You to Be My Girl.” He also sang a duet with Frankie. Then Lymon sang a song he’d done with brother Howie’s group. Goldner then suggested Frankie sing “Why Do Birds,” changed the title to “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” moved Herman to first tenor, and told the teens they had a deal.
In the spring of 1955 the Premiers began recording at Bell Sound Studios with Gee musical director and sax man Jimmy Wright. He decided they needed a more imaginative name, so he suggested they become the Teenagers.
By the fall of 1955 all but Frankie were attending George Washington High School and their record had still not come out. They went downtown to find Goldner busy with other projects. By Christmas their school friends doubted they had ever recorded at all.Then in January 1956 Jimmy Merchant strolled through the school corridor when he heard a girl singing a very familiar refrain. He asked where she heard that and she replied, “On the radio last night.”
The record had been released on January 10, 1956, and the floodgates had opened. “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” sold a hundred thousand copies in three weeks. Billboard wrote, “Here’s a hot new disc, which has already sparked a couple of covers in the pop market. The appealing ditty has a frantic arrangement, a solid beat and a sock lead vocal by 13-year-old Frankie Lymon. Jockeys and jukes should hand it plenty of spins and it could easily break Pop.”
The covers Billboard referred to were tough competition Gale Storm (#9), Gloria Mann (#59), and THE DIAMONDS (#12). But the Teenagers’ single was destined for greatness and beat out all comers; it rose to number six (#1 R&B).The original first pressing read “The Teenagers featuring Frankie Lymon,” with Frankie’s name printed at twice the size of his vocal mates. The song credit listed “Lymon-Goldner.”
In February 1956 the Teenagers played their first paying gig at the State Theatre in Hartford, Connecticut, alongside the Valentines, Bo Diddley, THE BONNIE SISTERS, THE HARPTONES, THE TURBANS, Fats Domino, and their idols, THE CADILLACS. In fact it was Earl Wade of that group who took them aside between shows to give them a few pointers on dance steps and instructed them to seek out Cholly Atkins, who had taught the Caddies their dance routines.
Within months the record and group were international hits: “Fools” reached number one in England, the first R&B/rock and roll record by an American vocal group to do so. Not bad for three 16-year-olds (Jimmy, Joe, and Sherman), one 15-year-old (Herman), and one 13-year-old (Frankie).
In April their second 45, “I Want You to Be My Girl,” hit the airwaves. Once again the first printing read “The Teenagers featuring Frankie Lymon,” but the second was changed to read “Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers.” Herman Santiago wrote “Girl”; given the typical practices of the day, it’s not surprising that the writer’s credit was given to Goldner-Barrett. “I Want You to Be My Girl” skyrocketed like its predecessor, reaching number 13 (#3 R&B).
Their first big tour started on a dubious note: the Teenagers and co-billed acts THE FLAMINGOS, THE PLATTERS, THE CLOVERS, THE FLAIRS, and Carl Perkins all stood around the Hotel Theresa in New York ready to hit the rod except for one small detail. Frankie Lymon was nowhere to be found. Sherman Garnes then marched the group up to the High School of Music and Art to recruit their friend Jimmy Castor (of the Junior, Wing), who had a style similar to Frankie’s. Jimmy left school that same day and the tour got underway. Frankie showed up later on with little in the way of explanation.
A similar incident happened on another tour when Richard Barrett stepped in as lead in Detroit.
On a Canadian tour the group was approached backstage by a youngster who had a song he wanted them to record. They weren’t interested since it appears they didn’t record songs Goldner couldn’t put his name on. The kid left a copy anyway and then went next door to see the Platters, and heard a similar response. Shortly after, the song and the kid became national hits. If the Teenagers had gone ahead and recorded “Diana,” Paul Anka might never have become a hit artist. (On March 25, 1958, Frankie and an unknown vocal group recorded “Diana,” but it was never issued on a single.)
In the summer of 1956 Gee cajoled the group into doing Jimmy Castor and the Juniors’ “I Promise to Remember.” It reached only number 56 (#10 R&B) and its solid rocker flip “Who Can Explain” made R&B number seven.
The “ABCs of Love” was another strong jump tune that Frankie and the group put over solidly, and it reached number eight R&B but only number 77 Pop. The flip side “Share” showcased the Teenagers’ polished harmonies and Sherman’s bass. (Almost 30 years later the U.G.H.A. organization did a massive East Coast vote-in for the 500 most popular oldies among devotees of group harmony, and “Share” was voted number one.)
The group appeared in Alan Freed’s classic teen film Rock, Rock, Rock, which was filmed in the Bronx at the Bedford Park Studios and the nearby botanical gardens. They sang “I’m Not a Juvenile Delinquent” (written by Bobby Spencer of the Cadillacs and the Valentines, though the label credit read “Goldner”) and “Baby Baby,” which became their next single.
The British loved “Delinquent.” It reached number 12 in Britain in early 1957 (and the flip “Baby Baby” reached number four), but U.S. kids nixed the cutesy rocker and it failed to chart.
The group also did a British tour in 1956 that included a performance at the world-famous London Palladium and a command performance in the Queen’s chambers for Princess Margaret. The outstanding ballad “Out in the Cold Again” became their last R&B chart record, reaching number 10.
While still on the six-week European tour, Goldner started tampering with the chemistry that made the quintet so successful. Frankie began recording solo; the results were languid and desperately in need of the Teenagers’ enthusiastic backing. Though the label of the 1957 single “Goody Goody” read “Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers,” The Harlem teens were nowhere to be found on the released recording. It reportedly had the pasteurized harmony of the Ray Charles Singers accompanying Frankie. It reached number 20 Pop and number 24 in England but never made the R&B chart.
The quintet continued to tour through mid-1957 and Gee then moved Frankie to Roulette Records for a series of lackluster singles like “So Goes My Love.” “Little Girl,” “Footsteps,” and Elvis’s “Jailhouse Rock.” In 1960 Frankie charted for four weeks with a remake of Thurston Harris’s “Little Bitty Pretty One” (#58). Meanwhile, the Teenagers were mismatched with Bill Lobrano, a white-sounding cross between Frankie Avalon and an imitation Elvis, for two singles, “Flip Flop” (which it did) and “Mama Wanna Rock” (which it did) and “Mama Wanna Rock” (which didn’t wanna rock). In 1960 they recorded a credible cover of THE SHIRELLES’ “Tonight’s the Night” with Kenny Bobo, formerly of the Juniors, on lead and a second single (both for End), “A Little Wiser now” with Johnny Houston upfront sounding like Jackie Wilson leading the Flamingos. The Teenagers certainly had diversity, but it didn’t help them sell records.
The Teenagers and Frankie reunited in 1965 for a brief period but no recordings resulted. The four Teenagers performed but no recordings resulted. The four Teenagers performed one last time in 1973 with Pearl McKinnon of the Kodaks on lead (whose vocal likeness to Frankie was startling). Sherman Garnes passed on after a heart attack in 1977, and Joe Negroni died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1978.
In 1981, the 25th anniversary of their first hit, the Teenagers were re-formed at the suggestion of Herbie Cox and Charlie James (the Cleftones), Ronnie Italiano (U.G.H.A. founder), and Joel Warshaw. The members were Jimmy Merchant, Herman Santiago, Eric Ward (of the soul group Second Verse), and Pearl McKinnon. The group, managed by Warshaw and helped by Ronnie I., began performing to overwhelming adulation.
By 1983 Ward had been replaced by Derek Ventura, and in 1984 Phil Garrito took over for Derek. Roz Morehead replaced Pearl, and Marilyn Byers moved into Roz’s lead spot.
In the early ‘80s they opened for Manhattan Transfer, thanks to Tim Hauser, who tracked them down and arranged the gig.
The group did a PBS documentary as a tribute to their music and to Frankie, who died of a drug overdose in his grandmother’s apartment at the age of 26. The show was aired on August 14, 1983.
In 1983 Pearl McKinnon discovered that Frankie was buried in an unmarked grave at St. Raymond’s Cemetery in the Bronx.
In September 1985, thanks to Ronnie Italiano, a benefit was held to raise money and a headstone was bought. It now sits in the window of Ronnie’s Clifton Music at 1135 Main Avenue in Clifton, New Jersey, while three so-called widows of Lymon’s, Emira Eagle, Zola Taylor (formerly of the Platters), and Elizabeth Waters, fight over Frankie’s half a million dollars in royalties.
– Jay Warner