Frankie Lymon & The Early Success of Rock-and-roll

One of the most famous and influential bands in doo-wop music history is The Teenagers, with Frankie Lymon as the lead singer. The five kids from Washington Heights are most celebrated for their contribution to the early success of rock-and-roll music. They introduced the world to a new brand of doo-wop music by speeding up the tempo.

The Teenagers got formed at a high school in Manhattan under the name The Coup De Villes. The group changed its name a couple of times (The Ermines and later The Premiers) before changing it to The Teenagers. In 1954 a 12-year-old boy, Frankie Lymon, joined the group. Together they wrote and composed the song “Why Do Fools Fall In Love“. The song became an instant success and turned singer Frankie Lymon into a pop star. 

Thanks to Frankie’s success, the group got renamed Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers in 1957. This name change was not well received by some band members what, amongst other reasons, caused Frankie to leave and start recording solo. The Teenagers continued under their original name but with new lead singers what was not an easy task. The band even hired female singers to replicate the unique high boy voice of Frankie Lymon. 

Frankie Lymon (left) – The Teenagers (right)

Frankie Lymon became the first black teenage pop star in America. But the truth about America’s music industry in the 1950s was well disguised. Editor-at-large Jeff MacGregor wrote in an article for the Smithsonian Magazine that “Frankie Lymon grew up too fast in every way imaginable.” Frankie Lymon himself told in an interview with Ebony magazine in 1967 that he had no time to be a child: “I never was a child, although I was billed in every theater and auditorium where I appeared as a child star.”

Frankie Lymon got hooked on heroin and, his relationship with the drug was recurring. He would go into rehab, partially recover, but because of events like the death of his mother, he would relapse. On February 27, 1968, the singer was found dead with a syringe by his side. He died from a heroin overdose on his grandmother’s bathroom floor. He was 25.

Frankie Lymon’s life was short but, his legacy still lives today. He shaped rock-and-roll music as a genre and influenced the many performers who made an appearance in the decades after his death. Frankie and The Teenagers introduced the audience to a new doo-wop sound. A sound that got picked up by the American teenagers and therefore became mainstream. By speeding up the tempo and singing with more intonation, Frankie Lymon became one of the founding fathers of rock-and-roll music.

Doo-wop music would eventually evolve into various genres, among them rhythm-and-blues and rock-an-roll. It peaked in the early 1960s before it became dominated by rock-and-roll music and a phenomenon known as “The British Invasion“. Bands as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and The Animals became very popular with the American youth but, there is no doubt that doo-wop music had a great deal of influence on their music style and way of performing.

Not only did Frankie Lymon signal the emergence of rock-and-roll music by introducing it to America’s mainstream culture. He also influenced various other genres such as pop and Motown soul. Michael Jackson mentioned he got inspiration by Frankie Lymon and that The Jackson 5 derived from The Teenagers. Motown founder Berry Gordy based much of The Jackson 5‘s sounds on recordings from Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers. The Teenagers stood as a model for many Motown groups like The Temptations and The Supremes.

References and recommended reads:

Teen Idol Frankie Lymon’s Tragic Rise and Fall Tells the Truth About 1950s America (Jeff MacGregor for the Smithsonian Magazine, 2018)

Duke Ellington & John Coltrane: A Collaboration Between the Generations

World-renowned jazz pianist and composer Duke Ellington regularly partnered with other acclaimed jazz musicians during the early sixties. John Coltrane was no exception. In 1962, the pianist and the tenor saxophonist recorded the self-titled album Duke Ellington & John Coltrane. The recording got released in 1963 and would become the most successful collaboration Duke Ellington undertook during the early sixties. It’s a display of two jazz musicians from a different generation who, despite having a divergent background and relationship with music, communicate politely.

The recording was an opportunity for Duke Ellington to play with a quartet rather than with his usual big band arrangement. Ellington invited drummer Sam Woodyard and double-bassist Aaron Bell, who were both members of his orchestra in 1962, to support this studio session. John Coltrane invited two members of his Classic Quartet, drummer Elvin Jones and bassist Jimmy Garrison.

The album features acclaimed Ellington standards such as In A Sentimental Mood and some of his new compositions like Take the Coltrane (plays with his track Take the A Train). John Coltrane also added a new composition to the album’s trackless. His work titled Big Nick is a tribute to saxophonist George Walker “Big Nick” Nicholas who influenced Coltrane during his time with Dizzy Gillespie. “In thinking back,” Coltrane said, “it seemed to have something that would suit the style he likes to play in. But maybe not?”

“I was really honored to have the opportunity of working with Duke. It was a wonderful experience. He has set standards I haven’t caught up with yet.”

John Coltrane

In the early sixties, John Coltrane’s career and technical abilities peaked. For several years, he would release various historical jazz albums including Giant Steps (Atlantic, 1960) and My Favorite Things (Atlantic 1961). Coltrane was a perfectionist, carefully exploring harmonic progressions and multiple rhythms. He was confident in both playing and arranging. Still, while playing with Duke Ellington, he felt honored, imperfect, and challenged. Duke Ellington is a legend from an older generation, and his contributions to jazz were paramount. Benny Green once said that “Duke was put into the jazz world to separate the men from the boys.”

John Coltrane (left) & Duke Ellington (right)

John Coltrane’s Soultrane

The second half of the nineteen-fifties defined John Coltrane’s career and helped him come into prominence as a musician and arranger. Underlined is the time as a member in Miles Davis’ First Great Quintet and later sextet, and the period working aside Thelonious Monk. Many recordings featuring Trane‘s support on the tenor saxophone got listed as the most acclaimed and influential jazz albums in history.

Coltrane’s legacy before moving to Atlantic Records in 1959 got well documented by Prestige. The record company released a couple of acclaimed studio albums, including Coltrane’s first album as a leader titled Coltrane (Prestige, 1957), and his recording with pianist Red Garland named Soultrane (Prestige, 1958). In 1957, Coltrane also recorded the album Blue Train with the record label Blue Note while he was still under contract with Prestige.

The album Soultrane got described as a demonstration of Coltrane’s late nineteen-fifties “sheet of sound” (Ira Gitler, DownBeat Magazine). The term is dedicated to John Coltrane and represents the unique improvisational style he developed while working with Thelonious Monk. He loosened up the demanding chords and harmonies of hard bop while maintaining loyalty to its traditional values. Coltrane was given the freedom to improvise when playing along with Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis.

Thelonious Monk, Nellie Monk, and John Coltrane (image courtesy of T.S. Monk)

Soultrane” originally refers to a ballad written by pianist Tadd Dameron. The song appears on the studio recording Mating Call (Prestige, 1957), an album featuring Dameron on the piano and Coltrane on the tenor saxophone. However, the song was not added to the trackless of Soultrane. Prestige Records titled the album merely because it plays with the name and could represent a collective work.

The album got recorded together with Red Garland (piano), Paul Chambers (bass), and Art Taylor (drums). The songs featuring on the album are Good Bait (Tadd Dameron, Count Basie), I Want to Talk About You (Billy Eckstine), You Say You Care (Leo Robin, Jule Styne), Theme for Ernie (Fred Lacey), and Russian Lullaby (Irving Berlin).

Previous articles about John Coltrane’s albums:

Buddy Bolden, The First Jazz Musician

Who played a key role in the birth of New Orleans jazz, and is considered the first jazz musician, is Buddy Bolden (born Charles Joseph Bolden). Buddy Bolden was an American cornetist who learned to play music at school and in church. Unique is that, unlike many other musicians, Bolden didn’t start his career by joining a brass band what was usual for musicians in New Orleans. Instead, he joined a string ensemble and earned money by playing at dancehalls.

Buddy Bolden (second row, third from the left)

Buddy Bolden

At the turn of the twentieth century, his band got noticed thanks to Bolden’s use of syncopation, his ability to improvise, and his use of blues structures. I like to think that Bolden’s focus on blues was the biggest contribution to jazz until Louis Armstrong changed the course of the genre. Bolden was an example for many other musicians and one by one all of them start experimenting with syncopation and improvisation. The growing pool of musicians doing this is described as the birth of jazz in New Orleans. Using syncopation in melodies from different music genres caused styles to blur and blend. The music would get more similarities in rhythm and structure what was another important milestone in the creation of jazz.

Buddy Bolden was known for playing loud. He played so loud that he was not allowed to practice inside the house so instead, he practiced on his porch. Neighborhood children would gather around them to listen and start calling him “The King“. Hence the nickname Buddy ‘King’ Bolden. He would often play at a concert hall in New Orleans called Odd Fellows and Masonic Dance Hall (or Eagle Saloon). Before the concert, Bolden would stick out his cornet and do what he called “calling his children home”. He played so loud and, his reach was so far that people from the surrounding streets gather at the building to listen. This became his trademark and, the habit got also described in the lyrics of Buddy Bolden’s Blues (also called Funky Butt):

“Thought I heard, buddy bolden shout, Open up that window, and let that bad air out, Open up that window, and let that stinky air out. Thought I heard buddy bolden say”

Lyrics to Buddy Bolden’s Blues

Buddy Bolden’s career was short. He had a drinking problem and struggled with his mental health. He was arrested multiple times and was placed in an asylum after he was declared mentally insane. Unfortunately, there are no recordings in existence. There are some rumors that Bolden made some phonograph cylinder recordings. So far, none surfaced. Thirty years after his death, his music appeared in print and, musicians started to record his work. However, the sound of jazz evolved and, the question is if these later recordings correctly represent how Buddy Bolden’s music originally sounded.

If Buddy Bolden was the inventor or creator of jazz music is up for discussion but, we can conclude that he was an important and decisive figure in the transformation.

Hugh Laurie – Buddy Bolden Blues

More on New Orleans jazz:

Little Mummy – A Rarity on Federal Records

Little Mummy, whose real identity is unknown, was a rhythm-an-blues singer who recorded only two songs with Federal Records in New Orleans. The songs were officially released decades after being recorded and, both tracks are true rhythm-and-blues dance floor fillers.

The titles “Where You At Jack” and “Oh Baby Please” were distributed by Federal Records as a 45rpm dee jay promo in 1960. Before recording a full album, record companies would first record a single. The single was sent to radio stations and, depending on the success, artists were offered a contract. For many of them, the success was too low to record and release a full album (songs may have been released on later compilation albums). This probably was the case for Little Mummy.

Federal Records has got a long list of artists and 45rpm recordings that never gained any success. What caused their vaults to be filled with various rhythm-and blues rarities from the fifties and sixties. Songs like “Where You At Jack” and “Oh Baby Please” never gained the attention of the wider public but are now a treasure for dee jays and music collectors.

The competition in 1960 was top-level. So was there James Brown and His Famous Flames who recorded and released several singles on Federal Records, including the hit “Think!” which turned into a full-length album that same year. Their popularity most likely outshined Little Mummy.

Here you can explore the vaults of Federal Records yourself:

Robert Glasper Shows Off His Jazz Chops With “Canvas”

Robert Glasper showed off his jazz chops long before he released the Grammy-winning album Black Radio in 2012. His Blue Note debut album titled Canvas was released in 2005 and features the pianist in a jazz scenery influenced by Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and Bill Evans.

It’s no surprise that Blue Note Records signed the young pianist. His earlier album Mood, released under the Robert Glasper Trio on the Spanish label Fresh Sound New Talent, was the studio debut that placed the young pianist on the radar of the major record labels.

Canvas is a convincing display of Glasper’s remarkable piano technique. The New York Times wrote that Glasper’s trio, with Vicente Archer on bass and Damion Reid on drums, is a “strong enough entity to make any performance seem ambitious and vital.”

Robert Glasper’s affinity with hip-hop called for a natural transition. The pianist bridged and influenced multiple music genres. In 2012, he released the album titled Black Radio. The album was a crossover and achieved success in different music genres. In 2013 it won a Grammy for best R&B album and, it got simultaneously listed in the top 10 charts for hip hop, R&B, and jazz.

Robert Glasper at Blue Note Jazz Club

Tony Allen’s The Source – Afrobeat or Jazz?

Tony Allen’s 2017 mini-album release A Tribute To Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers was a unique opportunity to marry his afrobeat rhythms with Art Blakey’s hard bop influences. It also served as a forerunner for his full-length Blue Note debut The Source in which he further explores the relationship between African music and western jazz.

The long-time Fela Kuti drummer found inspiration in Art Blakey’s work. Fusing his afrobeat past with jazz gave him a chance to document his interpretations as a self-thought drummer. In The Source, Tony Allen continues to return to his jazz roots. This time, he explores a wider web of jazz influences. The album includes eleven tracks composed and arranged by Tony Allen and saxophonist Yann Jankielewicz.

“Tony has never played drums as well as this. He’s never had as much freedom, never had as much power as he does today.”

Yann Jankielewicz

Can we consider The Source a jazz album? The record company Blue Note is a landmark for jazz music. But they did not exclusively focus on jazz. They have a rich catalog of African music, often involving afrobeat or percussion rhythms. The album by Solomon Ilori titled African High Life is one example (Blue Note, 1963). Another is Art Blakey’s collaboration with The Afro-Drum Ensemble called The African Beat (Blue Note, 1962).

The Source can be seen as a crossover between Allen’s influential afrobeat past and his interpretation of jazz. Tony Allen recorded jazz-influenced albums on occasion. Apart from his tribute to Art Blakey and The Source, he also recorded the album Rejoice together with Hugh Masekela in 2010 (released in 2020). Blue Note Records also posthumous released the album There Is No End in April 2021. The album intends to be a platform for a new generation of rappers. Tony Allen passed away in 2020 and, although he proved his skills as a drummer, composer, and arranger, he didn’t have a chance to fully unfold his music repertoire with Blue Note Records.

Inner sleeve The Source on vinyl (Blue Note – 5768336)

John Coltrane’s Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album

Another lost John Coltrane recording which recently got discovered is the album titled Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album. The album got recorded on March 6, 1963, in the Rudy Van Gelder Studio. The recording got lost but surfaced in 2018. It was the family of his first wife, Juanita Naima Coltrane, who discovered the saxophonist’s personal copy.

The recording was made while under contract with Impulse Records and features Coltrane’s so-called Classic Quartet: McCoy Tyner on the piano, Jimmy Garrison on the bass, and Elvin Jones behind the drums. It was also with these musicians that he recorded the celebrated work A Love Supreme in 1964.

Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner, John Coltrane and Jimmy Garrison

Why did we never hear the recording of Both Directions at Once before? The recording was never edited, mixed, or mastered into an album. It never got cataloged and, there was no cover art created. The tape simply was archived and never looked at again. So what happened?

Coltrane already released a session with Duke Ellington the month before, and the next day they had a session scheduled with Johnny Hartman. It is possible that both John Coltrane and Bob Thiele, the Head of Impulse Records, thought his other released albums of that period would supersede this one. There were not only the albums he released with Impulse Records to compete with. As Coltrane’s popularity peaked, his previous labels, Prestige and Atlantic, would release his old recordings. The album Dakar, recorded in 1957 and released by Prestige in 1963, is a good example of this.

Another speculation is that the track Impressions was still a work in progress and that Coltrane was not satisfied with the studio recordings of the song. Coltrane was patient and worked in phases. He carefully explored harmonic progressions and multiple rhythms. The deluxe edition of Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album features four alternate takes on the tune Impressions and, each take is different from the other. Later that year, he released the album titled Impressions. For that album, he is not using one of the studio takes. Instead, he uses a fourteen-minute-long version recorded live at the Village Vanguard jazz club in November 1961 (2 years earlier). This could indicate Coltrane was displeased with his attempt to record the song in the studio.

Why Impulse Records only released the album now and not, for example, after Coltrane’s passing in 1967, could have something to do with them having lost the original master tapes (hence the subtitle: The Lost album). The word goes around that they lost the tapes after merging with ABC-Dunhill and relocating their headquarters from New York to Los Angeles in 1968.

Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album got released in 2018 and features seven tunes from which two previously unissued tracks: Untitled Original 11383 and Untitled Original 11386. The numbering refers to the identification system used in the studio by Bob Thiele.

Aside from the standard one-disc version (left), also a two-disc deluxe edition containing several alternate takes got released (right). Spotlighted are the alternate takes of Impressions.

In 1963, all these musicians are reaching some of the heights of their musical powers,” said the saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, John Coltrane’s son, who helped prepare Both Directions at Once for release. “On this record, you do get a sense of John with one foot in the past and one foot headed toward his future.” – The New York Times

Previous articles about John Coltrane’s albums:

Record companies often decided not to release studio recordings. In my article below, you can find other examples of old recordings that were released recently:

Dee Dee Bridgewater’s Debut Album: Afro Blue

Dee Dee Bridgewater, born Denise Garrett (1950), is an award-winning singer-songwriter with a career encompassing jazz, soul, and disco. Her debut studio album Afro Blue is a timeless soul-jazz masterpiece that highlights her exceptional vocal abilities. The album features a song collection compiled from various music genres. Most songs are arranged by jazz trumpeter and Dee Dee’s husband, Cecil Bridgewater.

The vocalist was only 23 years old when she recorded the album in Tokyo. The album got released in 1974 on the Japanese label Trio Records (PA-7095). It got reissued a couple of times on different labels and exclusively in Japan, which made it a long sought-after item for record collectors. In 2020, the record label Mr Bongo partnered with Trio Records and released the album on vinyl in the United Kingdom on June 19. 

The album features various acclaimed jazz songs such as Horace Silver’s Love Vibrations (1970), Little B’s Poem by vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson (1965), and of course, the title track Afro Blue, a jazz standard by Mongo Santamaria (1956).

The Cuban percussionist Mongo Santamaria originally recorded Afro Blue in 1959 and, the song became the first jazz standard built upon the African 3:2 cross-rhythm called hemiola. The composition got released on Santamaria’s album Mongo (Fantasy, 1959). The recording, however, is instrumental and lyrics were added later that year.

Songwriter Oscar Brown Jr. is the creative hand behind the lyrics you hear in Dee Dee Bridgewater’s version. The lyrics were added to Mongo Santamaria’s original and got initially recorded by Abbey Lincoln, who released the song including lyrics, on her fourth studio album titled Abbey Is Blue.

Apart from Dee Dee Bridgewater and Abbey Lincoln, various other musicians recorded and released the song. Among them, Cal Tjader (who recorded with Mongo Santamaria), Robert Glasper and Erykah Badu (who bring a contemporary version with altered lyrics), and Roberta Flack (who using Coltrane’s arrangement of the songs).

John Coltrane performed his arrangement of Afro Blue in 1963 together with Elvin Jones (drums), Jimmy Garrison (bass), and McCoy Tyner (piano) at the Birdland jazz club in New York. This is the same quartet with whom he recorded the albums CrescentA Love Supreme, and Blue World the following year. The song recording got released on the album Live At Birdland (Impulse Records, 1964).

Here are videos of live recordings of Afro Blue by Mongo Santamaria and John Coltrane’s Classic Quartet. Dee Dee Bridgewater’s full album is available for stream via YouTube.

Mongo Santamaria – Afro Blue
John Contrane – Afro Blue
Dee Dee Bridgewater – Afro Blue – Full Album

The Rhythm of Shirley Ellis – The Name Game

Shirley Ellis, born Shirley Marie O’Garra in 1929, was an American soul singer and songwriter who gained international fame during the 1960s. Although her active recording span was short, Shirley Ellis left us with many great songs before she retired from the music business in 1968.

Songs such as ‘The Name Game’ and ‘The Nitty Gritty’ are an innovation for rhythm-and-blues and soul, while her hit ‘Soul Time’ became a true Northern Soul classic and filled the dance floor at many UK clubs during the late 1960s and 1970s.

Initially, Shirley Ellis aspired to become a songwriter. She started her career by writing several songs for the doo-wop group The Chords. A milestone in her singing career was her participation in The Amateur Night At The Harlem Apollo Theatre in 1954. She won first prize. In 1959, Shirley Ellis met Lincoln Chase. Lincoln Chase was a songwriter, producer, and manager who shared the same West Indian heritage as Shirley Ellis.

Aside from a handful of singles, Shirley Ellis recorded and released three studio albums: In Action (1964, Congress), The Name Game (1965, Congress), and Sugar, Let’s Shing-a-Ling (1967, Columbia).

Her studio debut, In Action, features most of her classic single releases such as ‘The Nitty Gritty,’ ‘Takin’ Care Of Business’, ‘Shy One’, and ‘(That’s) What The Nitty Gritty’. It’s a great collection of music created by Shirley Ellis and her songwriter Lincoln Chase.

What became a signature for Shirley Ellis was her ability to step outside the boundaries of standard pop music by provoking humor and commentary. Shirley Ellis often performed songs for the comic effect. Lyrics and rhythms could be compared with what children would rhyme and sing to each other while playing hand-clapping games on the playground. ‘The Clapping Song’ and ‘The Name Game’ are both great examples of this.

Performing songs in this “playground” rhythm allows a great emphasis on syncopation and Juba dance, an African-American style of dance that contains stomping your legs and clapping the hands, arms, chest, and cheeks.

In her second studio album titled The Name Game, the rhythm of most songs is defined by syncopated hand-clapping. She also adds clapping to her versions of Ma Rainey’s ‘C.C. Rider’ (a rendition of the blues song ‘See See Rider’) and Lloyd Price’s ‘Stagger Lee’ (song credits to Ray Lopez) what changes the original intent of the songs.

Most of her songs sound like a game. For the title track ‘The Name Game’ the record sleeve even features game rules so the listener can create lyrics using their own name.

The Name Game Rules as Printed on the Record Sleeve

In 1967, Shirley Ellis released her third and final studio album called Sugar, Let’s Shing-A-Ling (Soul Time with Shirley Ellis) featuring many great soul tracks including the hit ‘Soul Time’. The song selection is more focused on the progressive soul and funk music that was surfacing in Detroit, Chicago, and New York City.

Shirley Ellis & Lincoln Chase Performing ‘The Name Game’

The following article includes a complete biography of Shirley Ellis: