February 27, 2008

I Promise to Remember

I'm not usually much for musical anniversaries, but here's one that would probably otherwise go comparatively unnoticed: today marks the 40th anniversary of the death of Frankie Lymon, who overdosed on heroin at the age of 25. He was the lead singer of Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers, who debuted with a #1 Billboard R&B hit in 1956, the enduring classic "Why Do Fools Fall in Love?" Here's the group's first TV appearance; the polytonal divergence with the accompaniment notwithstanding, it's quite a first impression:

The group had a few more hits, including "I Want You to Be My Girl" and "I'm Not a Juvenile Delinquent," performing the latter in the Alan Freed-produced movie Rock, Rock, Rock. After a mere eighteen months, the group surprisingly split, with Lymon pursuing a solo career that never quite took off. (They would briefly and unsuccessfully reunite in 1965.)

Lymon's Roman candle of a career is fascinating on a number of levels. He was the first black pop star. Lymon's powerful soprano would echo as a touchstone of the Motown sound, in singers from Smokey Robinson to Michael Jackson. (Staging, too: the group's choreographer would subsequently work with The Temptations.) Lymon embodied the new, post-WWII fluidity of race relations: the Teenagers, were, unusually for the time, an integrated group—black and Puerto Rican. (The only other contemporary integrated group I can think of are The Del-Vikings.) He caused a minor scandal when, appearing on Freed's television show The Big Beat, he danced with a white girl.

And he was, in a way, the first casualty of the music industry's profound shift towards youth. Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers were teenagers: Lymon was 13 when the song came out. A novelty, though Lymon had company in that category (compare Ricky Nelson, Paul Anka, or a personal favorite, the "Female Elvis," Janis Martin). But Lymon was, I think, uniquely stuck between the adolescent and adult worlds. Here's Lymon in 1957 with a solo performance of "Goody, Goody":

Lymon's stage manner is astonishingly suave and polished for a 14-year-old. It puts him firmly in the category of old-time prodigies: young people doing what adults do as well or better than the adults themselves. Compared with somebody like Ricky Nelson, who, after all, was playing a teenager on his family's sitcom, Lymon's demeanor—closer to Louis Jordan than a high-school student—must have begun to erode his perceived "authenticity" as rock-and-roll gravitated towards the raw theatricality of Elvis or Chuck Berry. Trying to forge a solo career in the early 60s, Lymon was, perhaps, in the odd position of seeming old-fashioned to people his own age.

Lymon's air of uncanny maturity probably helped spark his fame, but even being an actual teenager would have been something of an act for Lymon, who, according to some stories, had been hustling prostitutes at age 10, and, by his own admission, first took heroin at age 15, given to him by a woman twice his age—Lymon was never interested in teenaged girls, regarding them as inexperienced. Lymon never managed to kick either habit. The drugs that killed him were apparently in celebration of a new record contract; his marrying three different women without bothering to divorce any of them left his estate embroiled in a legal maze.

While other rock-and-rollers died young—Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran—Lymon was the first to act out the traditional prodigy's cautionary tale in the rock arena. 40 years on, though, we're just left with the music, the performances of a terrific singer and a supreme showman. At a perspective rather longer than his eighteen months at the top, Frankie Lymon was significantly more than a flash in the pan. One only wishes he had hung on long enough to realize it.

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