15 March 1957
"THE TEENAGERS WITH WONDER BOY FRANKIE LYMON,” screamed the posters to announce The Teenagers’ arrival in Britain that March day in 1957.
An official press release provided details of his itinerary: “The 14-year-old Lymon is accompanied by a female tutor, road manager Jack Lewis and road manager Roger Traylor. While in London the four will cut 12 sides for
a new Gee LP tagged Frankie Lymon And The Teenagers At The London Palladium. The date utilising EMI studio facilities will be supervised by Lewis and Traylor. The Alan Freed movie Rock, Rock, Rock! featuring Lymon and the group is scheduled to open in London during Lymon’s Palladium appearance.”
It really was a major event: The Teenagers were headline news on both sides of the Atlantic having captured the ears, minds and hearts of America’s burgeoning rock’n’roll youth fraternity in January 1956. Back then, a song, originally written as Why Do Birds Sing So Gay? but re-titled Why Do Fools Fall In Love, clambered into the US Top 5, taking up residence in the Billboard singles chart for the next six months.
"I'd been smoking marijuana when I was in grade school."
By the time they crossed the pond, Britain was in a furore over rock, still reeling in the aftermath of the September 1956 screenings of Rock Around The Clock, starring Bill Haley, and reports of teen rockers slashing cinema seats and dancing in the aisles. Haley and his Comets had arrived in London during February 1957 and were still engaged on a sellout tour of Britain when The Teenagers arrived to demonstrate that rock was not all about amiable middle-aged men in check jackets, but really black R&B in a new guise – streetwise, sharp and straight outta school. A five-piece vocal group, none of them older than 16, they were headed by Frankie Lymon, two years shy of his 16th birthday and already smoking cigars and bedding women three times his age. The papers still tried to argue that Lymon was just a loveable, clean-living kid, one reporting, “Frankie prefers basketball to all else though he’s only a diminutive four feet 10 inches tall. He sits in his own office, complete with a piano, where he sits and picks out tunes to his poems after school hours.”
The truth was something else: “When I was 10 years old I made a good living hustling prostitutes for white men who would come up to Harlem looking for black girls,” he later admitted. “I was a man when I was 11 years old… I had been smoking marijuana when I was in grade school.”
Lymon also complained about how lawyers controlled his income. “I could never ball chicks the way I wanted to because I didn’t have any money. I went for women of 25 or over. They were less trouble and more rewarding.” Lymon usually passed such companions off as his mother or older sister in order to avoid scandal.
But such knowledge stayed under wraps as, during the week starting March 18, The Teenagers played the first of their dates at the Liverpool Empire. Lymon bounced on-stage joyously that night, bringing a screaming crowd to its feet with I’m Not A Juvenile Delinquent, a falsetto-delivered declaration that would be the group’s second British hit after the chart-topping Why Do Fools Fall In Love.
After Liverpool, the group moved on to Birmingham, then settled down for a two-week stay at the London Palladium, sharing a family audience-aimed bill with such as the Hassani Troupe (listed as Europe’s fastest tumblers), ventriloquist Canfield Smith and his dummy Snodgrass plus various dancers, plus acrobat Eleanor Gunter, who was described as an “equilibrist”.
By Royal Appointment
Off-stage, Frankie’s penchant for super-long cigars displeased the keepers of the theatre’s good name, one dropping his guard enough to described the quintet’s behaviour as “messy”. And though The Teenagers gained kudos by performing before Princess Margaret in the Queen’s Chambers, their boisterous activities at London’s Park West Hotel dropped them in the mire once more.
The variety theatre dates continued throughout the month, with stays at the Manchester Palace and Glasgow Empire before The Teenagers headed out on a lengthy tour of one-nighter stands. But cracks were appearing: record label boss George Goldner may have seen the lead singer as a solo star, but by late 1957 British chart success was over for Frankie Lymon. He was left with short-lived deals in the US, a complicated marital life and the heroin addiction that would kill him, aged just 25, on February 27, 1968.