Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers: "Why Do Fools Fall in Love"

The legend of a group of kids singing on a street corner in the 1950s becoming stars became true for Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers.

In 1955 the Ermines, like many groups of school friends, harmonized on the streets of Harlem. Group member Jimmy Merchant told the “New Yorker” (cited here) "It was a fad at the time to be a vocal group. It wasn't just like roller skating. It was a higher-class fad—a quality fad. It tied in to being known, and getting girls."

As the story goes, the Ermines – Herman Santiago (first tenor), Joe Negroni (baritone), Sherman Games (bass) and Merchant (second tenor) –were harmonizing on 165th Street when young Frankie Lymon overheard Santiago struggling to hit the high notes. Lymon, who sang soprano in his family’s gospel group, jumped in uninvited and sang. Lymon became a member of the group.

In “American Singing Groups: A History from 1940 to Today,” Jay Warner describes the evolution of the group’s breakout hit.
On one fateful evening the hallway kids (as they were designated by neighbors) were practicing in Sherman’s hall when they were confronted by a man named Robert, who often stopped and listened to them before entering his apartment. According to author Phil Groia (“They All Sang On The Corner”), he said, “My old lady [her name was Delores] sends me letters in the form of poems.  Being that you’re always singing the same old songs, why don’t you get some original material of your own? I’m giving you some of these poems; see what you can do with them.”
One poem caught the attention of the group: “Why Do Birds Sing So Gay.” The group went to work on the song.
Frankie worked on a melody line and the others formulated a harmony while tenor Jimmy Merchant came up with a vocal bass intro.  It started out as a ballad but soon evolved into an uptempo rocker.
The group was discovered by Richard Barrett, lead singer of the Valentines, who lived on 161st Street. According to Barrett, the group would sing the Valentines’ “Lily Maebelle” under his window at night. Barrett promised to have the teens audition for Gee Records owner George Goldner in order to get some sleep.

Goldner signed the group, now called the Premiers, on the strength of “Why Do Birds Sing So Gay,” which he retitled, “Why Do Fools Fall in Love.” The “Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock, and Soul” relates that Goldner asked Lymon, “You got any sheet music for it?” Lymon replied, “Nope, we don’t know anything about written-down music.”

In 1955, the group recorded the song at Bell Sound Studios with Gee musical director Jimmy Wright, who suggested the group change its name to the Teenagers. The song became a huge hit the next year, but the lack of “written-down music” would create legal headaches for the members for many years to come.

In the 1950s, producers would often tack their names onto the writing credits as a condition to signing groups. Thus, the 1956 copyright for “Why Do Fools” listed Lymon and producer George Goldner as the tune’s writers. Goldner later passed his rights on to his partner Morris Levy, the infamous mob-connected owner of Roulette Records. Levy later reportedly acquired Lymon’s rights to the song for $1,500.

In 1992, Teenagers Jimmy Merchant and Herman Santiago sued to be recognized as writers of “Why Do Fools Fall in Love.” Santiago explained why he took so long to contest the writing credits.
Santiago told jurors he was threatened in 1969 by a music company executive who told him, "Don't come down here anymore or I'll have to kill you or hurt you."

"I felt in my heart that I wrote this song and I wanted to get paid for it," he said. "After being threatened to be killed or hurt, I never went back there."
Four years later, the decision was overturned beause the case was not brought soon enough, giving the songwriting credits back to Lymon and Levy.

 

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