Frankie Lymon was America’s first black teenage pop star but by 1968, aged a mere 25 years, he was found dead from a heroin overdose in the same apartment building where he’d grown up. Lymon’s fate is tragic in that he was ill equipped to manage the fame that found him.
Lymon and the Teenagers, five kids from Washington Heights, just north of Harlem sang doo-wop under the streetlight on the corner of 165th and Amsterdam were discovered by the Valentines’ lead singer Richie Barrett. Months later in 1956, their first record, “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” made it to the top of the national charts.
The Teenagers comprised three African-American members, Frankie Lymon, Jimmy Merchant, and Sherman Garnes; and two Puerto Rican members, Joe Negroni and Herman Santiago.
At 13, Frankie Lymon became the hottest singer in America overnight with a world tour to boot. Lymon by that feat was a founding father of rock ’n’ roll. His voice and style influenced two generations of rock, soul and R&B giants.
There’s even talk Berry Gordy may have modeled the Jackson 5 on 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 told Art Peters, a reporter for Ebony magazine, 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.”
Interestingly just a few days before Frankie and his friends recorded the song that made them famous, Rosa Parks was pulled off a bus in Montgomery, Alabama.
The 1950s American postwar economy was booming and music was part of that. Lymon told Ebony “We harmonized every night on the street corner until the neighbors would call the cops to run us away.”
But that friendship will take a hit when Lymon and his record producers agreed he’d be a more profitable solo act, so the Teenagers were ditched. They landed another hit in “Goody Goody,” earlier done by Bob Crosby and Ella Fitzgerald. When Lymon went solo in mid-1957, both his career and that of the Teenagers fell into decline. Their union lasted for a brief 18-month period.
From here, the tide changed. Lymon was a heroin addict at 15 years old and despite his best efforts to straighten out, he relapsed. It didn’t help when his mother died.
“I looked twice my age,” Lymon told Ebony. “I was thin as a shadow and I didn’t give a damn. My only concern was in getting relief. You know, an addict is the most pathetic creature on earth. He knows that every time he sticks a needle in his arm, he’s gambling with death and, yet, he’s got to have it. It’s like playing Russian Roulette with a spike. There’s always the danger that some peddler will sell him a poisoned batch—some garbage.” Here young Frankie knocks on wood. “I was lucky. God must have been watching over me.”
In 1966, fresh out of rehab at Manhattan General Hospital, Lymon appeared at a block party organized by a group of nuns at a Catholic settlement house in the Bronx. He told an audience of 2,000 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.”
On February 27, 1968, he was booked for a recording session to mark the start of a comeback. Instead, he was found dead that morning on his grandmother’s bathroom floor. He was buried in the Bronx, at St. Raymond’s Cemetery but for years, Lymon’s grave was unmarked until Emira Eagle, his third wife had the current headstone installed sometime in the late 1990s.
Fame has its gifts and young as Lymon was, he had three wives. He married them in quick succession, and there was plenty of confusion about the paperwork about who was entitled to songwriting royalties from his best sellers. None got much, but the third wife, Emira Eagle, received an undisclosed settlement from record producers.
It was also said that to preserve his image as a clean-cut teenager, Frankie Lymon would pass off the women he dated in different cities as his mother except keen observers noted different women emerged as mothers in various cities. He sang for Queen Elizabeth II at the London Palladium and performed in nightclubs and theaters worldwide. Lymon also served as an Army private at Fort Gordon.