Black History Month: Celebrating Frankie Lymon

by Scott Duncan

Black teen pop star, hit song about a woman named Diana and a song instructing you about the ABC’s! Sound familiar? It probably does but I wanted to take a moment and reflect not on the black teen sensation most people know but instead to America’s FIRST ever black teenage pop star – Frankie Lymon. 

Turning back the clocks before 1964, and you may stumble across the tragic tale of young Frankie with the apple cheeks and signature soprano voice. 

Back in 1950’s America, the post-war youth movement was beginning to boom and in amongst it all, a young 12-year-old Lymon was ready to leave a huge impact on music that would surpass his own life. 

It was in 1956 that a group of five Doo-Wop singers from Harlem known as The Teenagers launched themselves almost overnight from street corner performers to national chart toppers with their famous single ‘Why Do Fools Fall in Love’.

The Teenagers were once street performers and used to sing under the streetlight on the corner of 165th and Amsterdam, NY. This was before lead singer of the Valentines, Richie Barrett, discovered the group. This led to the recording of their first record, ‘Why Do Fools Fall in Love’, which would go on to be covered by artists such as the Diamonds, The Beach Boys and Diana Ross. The band were also America’s first all teenage band.

Coincidentally, merely days before the group recorded the track which made them famous, Rosa Parks was ordered off a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Frankie Lymon would have his own tussles with the racial tensions plaguing America. 

During a live performance on ABC’s The Big Beat, Lymon began to dance with a teenage white girl which subsequently caused backlash among a throng of Southern TV station owners. This even led to the cancellation of The Big Beat! At the time The Big Beat was ABC’s prime-time music show. Although there was strong backlash it did little to hamper Lymon’s music.  

Asides from that notoriety, Lymon’s name is synonymous with the greats of music. It is widely rumoured and believed that the Jackson 5 were modelled on the format of Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers. Listen to ‘the ABCs of Love’ and ‘ABC’ by the Jackson 5 and it may even give you a good indication as to why this is. The iconic voice and soulful feel of the music, juxtaposed against the bop of Doo-wop immediately hits the ear in the most fantastic way!  

Frankie himself would be an inspiration to even more artists generally. He is cited as an influence on major performers from Michael Jackson, Diana Ross and Smokey Robinson to The Temptations, The Beach Boys and even Billy Joel.

He had become a singer, songwriter and an icon with this success. At only the age of 13, Frankie Lymon had achieved more than I ever could in 28 years and from much more difficult circumstances. 

It feels as though in the present we should be talking about how long and an illustrious career in music he had. By The Teenager’s second single, ‘I Want You to Be My Girl’, the group had already been rebranded as Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers. This caused a bit of a rift in the group though and by their European tour in 1957, they had split.

Initially, this was due to Lymon leaving the band to pursue a solo career after being pushed by the band’s record producer George Goldner (Gee Records). However, his solo career was not nearly as successful as his time with The Teenagers.  

In 1968, he was offered the opportunity to record for Roulette Records and Big Apple. In February that year, Lymon was scheduled to record and even went back to his old Grandmother’s house in Harlem where he had grown up. Everything finally seemed to be looking up for him.

However, like many kids who find themselves in the spotlight from a young age, Frankie had his struggles, and one of those was addiction. On February 27 1968, at just 25 years old Frankie Lymon was found dead at his grandmother’s home. Drawing what should have been a long happy career to an abrupt close.

Though tragedy had dogged him and in the even taken his life, Lymon’s legacy lives on. It sounds cheesy but it really does. His legacy survives as a Rock ‘n’ Roll legend, a cautionary teen rock star tale, inspiration to black teenagers and communities and as an essential thread in the fabric of music. He may have unfortunately not been on the scene for long, but Frankie Lymon deserves to be remembered and appreciated. He may have succumbed to the heartbreak of addiction but without him the stage wouldn’t have been set for some of the biggest acts to come out of music. That iconic voice will always be alive in music to get us all bopping to the wonders of why us fools fall in love.