Awesome Men Throughout History: Frankie Lymon
Like most writers, I have a day job that has little to do with writing. Unfortunately, this means I have to listen to a lot of Christmas music, all of which is horrible and should be reserved as a punishment for shoplifting or child neglect.
However, sometimes there’s a programming error or someone in charge of the radio has a soul, because I heard three Smokey Robinson songs at work today and my heart grew three sizes.
But what about the kid who influenced Smokey? And not just him, but Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, the Temptations, and the Beach Boys, among others. That kid’s name was Frankie Lymon, and he’s this week’s Awesome Man Throughout History.
Born in Harlem to working-class parents, Frankie was one of those kids who grew up way too fast. He joined the workforce at ten, first as a grocery boy and then as a hustler for prostitutes. To paraphrase Ron Burgundy, his interests escalated quickly.
Frankie was also a talented singer, and he joined up with a doo-wop group when he was 12. That group would eventually call itself the Teenagers, and they scored a hit record with “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” an original song written after the group had read a neighbor’s love letters. Frankie quickly established himself as the lead singer, thanks to his youthful, clear singing voice and articulate, smart-ass confidence.
I mean, just listen to him in this clip. A more charming kid you’ll rarely find.
Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers released a few more hits, then broke up during a European tour when the group’s producer thought Frankie should fly solo.
He did, but he wasn’t nearly as successful, and by that point his rough lifestyle was catching up with him. Frankie was a womanizer and a heroin addict, and an alcoholic by many accounts, and his singing career was built on a prepubescent soprano voice that didn’t survive puberty. He accidentally danced with a white girl on Alan Freed’s Big Beat TV show and caused a scandal, then spent his remaining years performing sporadically—which led to a dishonorable discharge from the Army—and getting married/divorced at an alarming rate.
In the end, Frankie Lymon died of a heroin overdose when he was 25.
His was a pretty sad life, but you can hear the beginnings of the following 30 years of R&B and soul in his voice, delivered with all the powerful urgency of someone who may have known that he wasn’t going to live very long. I’ll leave you with this fun clip of Frankie Lymon singing “Little Bitty Pretty One” to an audience of bored, gum-chewing high school girls.
About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.