Why Do Fools Fall in Love, by The Teenagers ft. Frankie Lymon (their 1st and only #1)
3 weeks, from 20th July to 10th August 1956
The perfect antidote to our recent, saccharine-heavy chart toppers.
This is one of the very few songs we’ve covered so far that I don’t think I need to really describe. Surely everyone knows this?
Why do birds si-ing, so gay? And lovers await the break of day? Why do they fall in love?
It’s a breathless, relentless song: two minutes twenty seconds packed with vocal harmonies, scattish drums and a brilliantly aggressive saxophone solo. There are certain records that simply had to have topped the charts, so seismic are they in shaping the history of pop music. This is one of them. It’s a great record. A classic. I love it.
But… That’s not good enough. I can’t leave it there – the shortest post yet. Let’s do this track justice. Why is it such a classic?
Firstly, Frankie Lymon’s voice. One of the things I know about this track, without doing any research, is that Lymon was just thirteen when he recorded this song. His voice is perfect. Not technically perfect, mind: it cracks and breaks a couple of times. But perfect for a song about first love, about being in love and getting rejected and, rather than wallowing in self-pity and whining about how you’ll wait for ever and a day for your loved one (c.f pretty much every male-led #1 thus far), it’s about shrugging your shoulders and realising what a fool you’ve been. It’s a wonderfully cynical record. Lymon sounds just like a heart-broken teenage boy, full of hurt and bravado. Because he was.
Which brings us onto the second reason. This is a song for teenagers, by teenagers. Literally: it’s by ‘The Teenagers’. Lymon was the youngest of the five, but none of the others were any older than sixteen when this song hit the top spot. Bill Haley, on the other hand, was thirty. This is the next big step in rock ‘n’ roll’s evolution. While this is strictly a doo-wop record, I make it the 4th rock ‘n’ roll record to top the charts. And I’m being pretty generous in making it four. But, interestingly, the four tracks have all been lyrically very distinct. Bear with me. ‘Such a Night’ was all about sex, ‘Rock Around the Clock’ about partying (and maybe a little bit of sex), ‘Rock And Roll Waltz’ about uncool parents and now ‘Why Do Fools…’ gives us hormonal heartbreak. We just need a song about vomiting all over a friend’s back garden at a house party to get the full set.
Reason number three? This is the first song I’ve covered on this blog, I believe – and bear in mind that we are forty-eight songs in now – in which you can’t make out all the words. The line I quoted back at the start? I had to check the lyrics online. I thought it went And lovers who wait to play all day… And the line: Why does my heart skip a crazy beat? Before I know it will reach defeat… I always thought it was… it will re-tweet tweet… Whatever that might have meant in 1956. A basic cornerstone of rock music is slurred lyrics that you can’t immediately understand and which, more importantly, annoy your parents because they’re not sung PROPERLY!
The fourth, and final, reason…? Well, it’s just a great song. A summer smash. It oozes New York city: steam, water spraying from a sidewalk valve, the sun blasting down, the Jets and the Sharks… I dunno. I grew up in small town Scotland. I first really got to know this song after buying an old second-hand CD compilation called ‘Don’t Stop, Doo-Wop’. It was brilliant; twenty-odd fifties and sixties doo-wop tracks, a few more of which will feature in this countdown. I wish I knew what I’d done with it.
Unfortunately, this will be The Teenagers one and only appearance here. Not that they were one-hit wonders, though, as they followed this classic up with the excellently titled ‘I’m Not a Juvenile Delinquent’.
Even more unfortunately – tragically, in fact – Frankie Lymon trod a very rock ‘n’ roll path following this early success. By 1957 he had struck out on his own, away from The Teenagers. Aged 15, however, he was also a heroin addict and a lover to women twice his age. His career was ended by this addiction, and by the simple fact of his voice breaking. He lost his only child when she was just two days old. He died of an overdose, in 1968, at the horribly young age of twenty-five, on his grandmother’s bathroom floor. I mean… That’s a grim tale. As trite as it sounds though, what better way to remember him than as a fresh-faced, fresh voiced kid singing about fools in love?
One more time then: Ooh-wa-ooh-wa-wa…