At age 13, singer Frankie Lymon and the doo-wopping Teenagers had the Number One R&B hit in the U.S. and the Number One pop hit in England with “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” The song has attained the status of a vocal-group classic, owing to Lymon’s agile, ingenuous and utterly charming performance. Recorded for Gee Records in November 1955, “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” ascended the charts early in 1956 and now stands as one of the key records by which the doo-wop style is defined and remembered. Moreover, its success in an era of slowly opening doors allowed Lymon to become the first black teenage pop star. His youthful rise to fame served as a prototype for such Sixties stars as Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder.
Frankie Lymon was born in New York City on December 30, 1942. When he was 12 years old, Lymon was working in a grocery store when he met the Premiers, a group of singers from the neighborhood. Having sung gospel music in his father’s group, Lymon made the youthful transition to secular music, joining the Premiers – Herman Santiago, Jimmy Merchant, Joe Negroni and Sherman Garnes – who renamed themselves the Teenagers.
In the spring of 1955, the group got together and rehearsed the song “Why Do Birds Sing So Gay?” Soon after, an audition was arranged, the song was transformed into “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” and by February 1956, the song had reached Number One. Lymon, who had just started junior high, suddenly became a star and an idol.
The group went on to star in Alan Freed’s package shows and movies and appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show and American Bandstand. The Teenagers toured America and went to London, where they appeared at the Palladium. By the end of 1956, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, with Lymon singing the high parts in his clear, pure boy soprano, were one of the most popular groups in the world.
In 1956 and 1957, five other singles by the group made the R&B Top 10 and three singles – "I Want You to Be My Girl," "Who Can Explain?" and "The ABC’s of Love" – reached the U.S. pop charts. Then, while the group was on its second tour of England, Lymon made a solo recording, backed by an orchestra. That song, “Goody, Goody,” was released by Roulette Records and made the Top 20. In 1960, Lymon reached the pop chart with a solo single, "Little Bitty Pretty One."
Lymon continued to make records, as did the group. But neither Lymon’s solo career nor the Teenagers’ career ever regained consciousness after the split. Then, on February 28, 1968, Frankie Lymon was found dead of a heroin overdose. He was only 25 years old.
Although Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers did not leave behind a huge body of work, their handful of hits represents the best of the golden era of rock and roll. And Lymon’s influence has been enormous. Ronnie Spector, in her autobiography, wrote: “A lot of entertainers can’t or won’t tell you where they got their style from. But I know exactly where I got my voice: Frankie Lymon . . . I was 12 when I first heard Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers sing ‘Why Do Fools Fall in Love?' Frankie had the greatest voice I’d ever heard."
Diana Ross has also said that she started out trying to emulate Lymon’s high-pitched, crystalline voice, his enunciation and his whip-crack timing. Upon first hearing his Motown labelmate Michael Jackson, Marvin Gaye said, “It was Frankie Lymon all over again.”
Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993. They were inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2000.