Near the beginning of “Harlem Roulette,” on the Mountain Goats’ excellent new album Transcendental Youth, John Darnielle sings a few lines that establish the song’s particular place and time: “Frankie Lymon’s tracking ’Sea Breeze’ in a studio in Harlem/ It’s 1968/ Just a pair of tunes to hammer out/ Everybody’s off the clock by ten.”
Born in 1942, Lymon was a star at the age of 13. “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” the first single by his group the Teenagers — who became Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers as soon as it appeared — was a #1 R&B hit, and also went Top Ten on the pop charts. Lymon and the group first showed up on national TV in early 1956, with this extraordinary appearance on the The Frankie Laine Show; the song doesn’t start until about halfway through, but you definitely want to watch the lead-in, especially when one member of the group jokes about being worried that his voice was going to change.
What could this happy kid from Harlem know of the torment he was singing about? Well, maybe a lot. In a 1967 interview with Ebony magazine, Lymon noted that “When I was 10 … I knew every prostitute in our neighborhood and I’d get a commission for every customer I brought them. I was a fresh young kid and some of them thought I was cute. Sometimes, they’d pay me off with something extra. I learned everything there was to know about women before I was 12 years old.”
America was obsessed with youth in the ’50s — teenagers were what it desired and feared, and the big scare about the kids who were dancing to rock and roll was that they’d turn bad. So Lymon and the Teenagers cleverly capitalized on that with “I’m Not a Juvenile Delinquent,” which appeared a year after “Why Do Fools Fall in Love.”
It was pretty clear that Lymon, with his magnificent high voice, was the group’s star, and before long producer George Goldner started nudging him to go solo. “Goody Goody,” a Benny Goodman hit from 1936, was a single in 1957; Lymon sang it by himself.
By late summer of 1957, Lymon had left the Teenagers. At around the same time as he went solo, the group’s label Gee Records was effectively folded into Morris Levy’s new label Roulette — one way to interpret the “Roulette” of the Mountain Goats’ song title. “The Only Way to Love” was one of Lymon’s first singles without the group.
Lymon’s most successful solo single was “Little Bitty Pretty One,” released in 1960 (and recorded a few years earlier), but it only crawled up to #58 on the pop chart.
And why would Lymon’s label have been releasing an outtake from a few years earlier? For one thing, he’d developed a serious heroin habit. The other reason was the inevitability that the group had made a joke of on The Frankie Laine Show: Lymon’s voice was changing, and the days when he could hit those glorious soprano notes were gone, as you can hear on his 1961 recording “Change Partners.”
Lymon first went into drug rehab in 1961, but it didn’t help his career. In the mid-’60s, as pop music had moved on, he was still trying to capitalize on his early childhood success: this 1965 clip shows 22-year-old Lymon lip-synching the 1956 recording of “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” in a register he could no longer reach.
In 1966, Lymon was arrested for stealing a drum kit from a recording studio for drug money. His new manager Sam Bray convinced him to go into rehab again, and tried to rebuild his career. His grandmother, according to that Ebony article, “keeps close tabs on him to keep him from skipping meals in the rush of his comeback.” In January, 1968, Lymon made his final single, for Bray’s label Big Apple. “Seabreeze,” the song mentioned in “Harlem Roulette,” was the B-side.
Roulette Records was once again interested in recording him, and booked a recording session in New York for the end of February. The night before the session, Lymon went out and scored some heroin; he ended up dying of an overdose on his grandmother’s floor. He was 25. Last weekend, he would have turned 70.