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)