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)

Work with Me, Annie

Don’t be ‘shamed“, “Call my name“, “Oh, our hot lips kissing, Girl, I’ll beg mercy, Oh, hugging and more teasing, Don’t want no freezing” are fragments of the original song lyrics. Although the title ‘Work With Me, Annie’ is a double entendre, the lyrics don’t lie.

Work With Me, Annie‘ came from the creative hand of Hank Ballard, and together with The Midnighters, he recorded the song for Federal Records in 1954. The content of the song was considered too sexual in its time and as a result, there was a ban on playing it at the radio stations. Because of its great rhythm, influenced by the mid-era doo-wop sound, the song became an instant rhythm-and-blues hit. Although it was banned from broadcasting, it spread like wildfire.

In rhythm-and-blues, it was common for artists to record so-called ‘answer songs’. What it means is that another artist, and most commonly from the opposite gender, would record a response to the song. This response could be a sarcastic comment to acclaim the original. This is what Etta James did a year after the song ‘Work With Me, Annie‘ hit the charts. She recorded ‘The Wallflower‘ and replaced “Work With Me Annie” with “Roll With Me, Henry“. The song was written by Etta James with the help of her friend Johnny Otis, and Hank Ballard. To avoid censorship upon its release, they titled the song ‘The Wallflower‘ instead of ‘Roll with Me, Henry‘. Do me a favor and listen to both songs while comparing the lyrics.

In the 1950s, it was usual for big record labels, such as Mercury, to copy the original rhythm-and-blues songs from black artists, with white musicians. This was done because of commercial politics. Those records would sell often better with the white audience. They would keep the original rhythm and music but clean-up the lyrics. In 1955 Georgia Gibbs recorded a cleaned-up version of the song called ‘Dance With Me, Henry‘. Her version became the most played one in jukeboxes and radio stations. This is not to be considered a response song but, a commercial adaptation.

Shortly after the release of the original song by Hank Ballard & the Midnighters, an LA-based deejay joked about the aftermath of Annie’s unprotected adventures. Federal Records followed-up on this and a couple of months after the release of ‘Work With Me, Annie‘, Hank Ballard & the Midnighters recorded the sequel ‘Annie Had A Baby‘. The writing credits go to Henry Glover. The lyrics are short and simple but they contain a great amount of humor when placing them next to the lyrics of ‘Work With Me, Annie‘.

As in movies and a lot of other things, 3 is better. That same year, 1954, Hank Ballard & The Midnighters recorded ‘Annie’s Aunt Fannie‘. I didn’t come by upon much information regarding the history of the recording but, after analyzing the lyrics, I can conclude that also this song follows the same path. “I sent her to the store for candy. But she came right back so dandy. Before I could cuddle with my Annie.” are just a part of the full lyrics which are filled with humor and sexual content.

The ‘Annie’-recordings by Hank Ballard & The Midnighters (1954, Federal Records)

I’ve got all copies of the songs mentioned in my collection, with the exception of Georgia Gibbs, as I consider them masterpieces in its genre. Influenced by mid-era doo-wop and being rhythm-and-blues classics, they were a great deal of inspiration for the music that would erect in the following decades.

The Origin And Influence Of Doo-wop music

The sound of doo-wop music was born out of the creativity of the African American youth who dealt with the impact of segregation during its peak in the late 1940s and 1950s. The development of the music had a great deal of influence on other music genres such as soul, rhythm-and-blues, rock-and-roll, pop, and surf-rock.

Doo-wop music originated in America in the late 1940s. It was in the bigger cities, such as Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, and New York, where young African American teenagers would gather to sing in public places.

In the late 1940s and 1950s, American segregation was at its highest point. Young African American musicians were often too poor and could not afford musical instruments. Because of that, they had to be creative. They would meet together, mostly as a group of 4, and start producing sounds by only using a wide range of vocal parts. They would sing a capella and simultaneously generate meaningless onomatopoeiae to imitate musical instruments (e.g. “doo doo-wop” or “do wop de wadda”).

Jazz dominated in America and, most radio stations would broadcast popular swing music. This music was an inspiration for the early form of doo-wop music. In the early stages of doo-wop, no instruments got used. It was in its purest form and, the only sounds were produced by the voice, usually from bass to falsetto.

The Mills Brothers was a band who brought the genre to life. They had a major influence, especially when it came to the use of onomatopoeia, rhythmic punctuation, and multi-layered harmonies. The songs were slow and jazzy, and they had a spiritual influence. The lyrics were quite ordinary, usually about love and addressed to a beloved.

Another doo-wop group with an important influence on the genre was Sonny Til And The Orioles. They were the first to gain nationwide fame. Bandleader, Sonny Til, was even considered a rock star and, he was loved and adored by the audience. The group named themselves after the Baltimore Oriole, the official state bird of Maryland. Using a bird in the naming became a trend among doo-wop groups. Examples of this are The Ravens, The Penguins, The Flamingos, The Crows, and The O’Jays.

Sonny Til And The Orioles

The term “doo-wop” was not used until the early 1960s. In 1961, an article appeared in The Chicago Defender calling the music style doo-wop. The author may have gotten his inspiration from previous hits in the genre. “Doo-wop” itself is a meaningless expression that was initially recorded in 1945 by The Delta Rhythm Boys. In their song ‘Just A-Sittin’ And A-Rockin’, you can hear it in the backing vocals. Almost a decade later, in 1954, it was recorded again by The Rainbows. They used the phrase “do wop de wadda” in their successful hit ‘Mary Lee‘.

Although, many music experts agree that the first group to intentionally use the wording “doo-wop” were The Turbans. In their recording of ‘When You Dance‘ (1955) the wording “doo-wop” is more clearly present as it was used in the refrain. I do, however, also need to mention that there are indications that “doo-wop” was already used to archive music in the late 1950s but, there is no information available to support this.

In the mid-1950s, early doo-wop music would evolve in the so-called “mid-era doo-wop”. In early doo-wop, the vocals would sometimes get support from a guitar or a single drum. In mid-era doo-wop, instruments start playing a bigger role. We’re starting to hear the double bass, saxophone, piano, and even the electric guitar. In some cases, a full orchestra would be present. Many bands recorded songs before and after 1955. If you compare both recordings, you can hear the difference in the number of musical instruments used.

The doo-wop sound spread nationwide and soon it would also reach white American teenagers. Because the sound of doo-wop music became popular with the white audience in America, mixed-race groups were formed and black and white vocalists would sing harmonically together as equals. The most famous example is The Dell-Vikings. Soon even all-white doo-wop bands, such as The Crew Cuts or Danny & the Juniors, were formed.

It was not only the male vocal groups that came into existence. Starting in 1952, groups as The Platters became widely known. They consist of both male and female singers and so, they brought another vocal dimension to the sound of early-doo-wop music. Strictly female doo-wop groups were unusual in the early 1950s but, halfway through the decade, they started to gain popularity and got recorded. Famous examples are The Hearts, Pattie Labelle & The BluebellsThe Bobbettes, and The Chantels.

A big name that needs mentioning when talking about the history of doo-wop music is Bill Kenny, often referred to as “the Godfather of doo-wop and rhythm-and-blues“. What made him so unique was his high-tenor singing capabilities that had a range spanning over four octaves. He was the lead tenor of The Ink Spots and had a very successful full solo career after leaving the band in 1954. During the late 1950s and 1960s, Kenny would record and perform worldwide. In 1966, he hosted his TV show on CBC called ‘The Bill Kenny Show’. 

The Ink Spots with Bill Kenny on the left

Maybe the most famous and influential band in doo-wop music history is The Teenagers, led by singer Frankie Lymon. The band is most celebrated for its 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.

Frankie Lymon (left) – The Teenagers (right)

The Teenagers got formed at a high school in Manhattan under the name The Coup De Villes. The group changed their name a couple of times (The Ermines and later The Premiers) before they officially changed 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.

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 caused Frankie to leave and start recording solo. The Teenagers continued under their original name but with a new lead singer what they came to regret. The band had to hire female singers to replicate the unique high “boy” voice of Frankie Lymon.

Frankie Lymon’s life was short. He passed away when he was 25 from an overdose of heroin.

‘Why Do Fools Fall In Love’ live on The Frankie Laine Show in 1956

Doo-wop music evolved into various genres, among them rhythm-and-blues and rock-an-roll. Although, doo-wop music is better categorized as a less instrumental and more vocal version of the genres. It has its unique history and origin. One main difference is the band formation. In doo-wop music, this is most often a quartet, like in a barbershop quartet. And like in gospel music, doo-wop music would use harmonies in a slow and medium tempo. The lead voice would sing higher than the other band members and interacts with them by leveling out the vocals.

Doo-wop music peaked in 1962 and became dominated by rock-and-roll music and a phenomenon that is known in music history 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.