Remembering Frankie Lymon

Fifty-two years ago today, one of our youngest chart-topping artists passed away. Franklin Joseph ‘Frankie’ Lymon, the voice of The Teenagers.

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(The Teenagers, with Frankie Lymon in the centre.)

He barely was – a teenager that is – when their debut hit ‘Why Do Fools Fall in Love’ made #1. Lymon was thirteen when it was recorded, and he sounds his age as you listen to it now, sixty-four years later. His unbroken voice flits like a sparrow around a doo-wop song about heartache, like a choir boy gone rogue. Listen to it below, and read my original post on it here.

(Performing the song on national TV, and bantering with Frankie Laine – a man not short of #1 singles by 1956.)\

Note how early ‘Why Do Fools…’ hit #1. Mid-1956. Only the 2nd ever rock ‘n’ roll chart-topper, after ‘Rock Around the Clock’ (not counting Kay Starr’s in-name-only ‘Rock and Roll Waltz’.) The Teenagers were knocked from the top by Doris Day, after they themselves had deposed Pat Boone. That’s where we were, when five kids from Harlem shook things up. In nearly every one of their songs – which do all sound a bit similar – a saxophone solo comes charging along, sounding as if it is hell-bent on blowing codgers like Boone away for good.

Their only other UK chart hit was the brilliantly titled ‘I’m Not a Juvenile Delinquent’, which made #12 and sounds like the theme song to a misguided government campaign aimed at errant youths. The Teenagers still tour today, Herman Santiago being the only surviving member. But this is not their story. This is Frankie Lymon’s, and he had already left the band by 1957.

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(Lymon with Little Richard)

His first solo release, a cover of the thirties hit ‘Goody Goody’, was fine, but didn’t catch on. And by then, aged fifteen, Lymon was already addicted to heroin. He hadn’t had much of a childhood, he would relate in an ‘Ebony’ magazine interview in 1967, growing up in Harlem around prostitutes and pimps, smoking weed and ‘knowing’ women, all before he even joined The Teenagers. Watching him perform, you can definitely see the street-kid swagger behind the suits and the polished smiles.

(I think this is a genuinely live performance and, if so, then wow! I’m out of breath just from listening.)

The hits dried up as the fifties drew to a close, and the drugs started to take their toll. There was a steady stream of women – fake marriages, then scam marriages in Mexico, making the title of his biggest hit sound ever more prescient. His managers and label offered no help, and there clearly wasn’t much of a support network around him. Eventually he got caught up in drug charges and, rather than go to jail, he was drafted into the army.

In the forces he went clean, and sober, and every-so-often AWOL to perform tiny, low-key gigs, by this point near forgotten amongst the British Invasion acts that were dominating the Billboard Hot 100 at the time. He left the army, recorded a few demos, and by 1968 was preparing a comeback with Roulette Records.

Unfortunately, and in a tragic Hollywood ending, the day before his first recording session with his new label, Lymon was found dead on his grandmother’s bathroom floor, a needle in his arm. He was twenty-five.

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You could say this about any child star that goes off the rails, but there’s it’s almost painful to watch Frankie Lymon performing with The Teenagers, the proto-boyband that brought some New York swagger to the staid singles chart of the mid-fifties, and to think what was to come.

Frankie Lymon, September 30th 1942 – February 27th 1968

‘A Woman in Love’, by Frankie Laine – The UK Number 1s Blog Anniversary Special

This week marks the 1st anniversary of The UK Number 1s Blog (** Trumpet Fanfare**)! In the past year we’ve covered the period from Nov. ’52 to Nov’ 61, with 129 chart-topping songs featured. We’ve survived pre-rock, rode the rock ‘n’ roll revolution, and are now well on our way towards the swinging sixties… Thanks to everyone who has read, followed, commented and enjoyed.

To celebrate this milestone, I’m going to take a short break from the usual countdown to repost seven songs that I have really enjoyed discovering over the past year. These aren’t necessarily the best songs to have topped the charts – there’ll be no Buddy Holly, Johnnie Ray, Connie Francis, Elvis or The Everly Brothers (follow the links if you want to read about them) – as I’ve been listening to, and loving, those artists for years. This week will be all about the forgotten gems, the hits I’d never heard before, the songs that have slipped through the cracks…

Song number five: the King of Pre-Rock – Mr. Frankie Laine. Laine, along with Guy Mitchell, was the most consistent chart-topper before Elvis came along. His 1st #1 – ‘I Believe’ – still holds the record for most weeks at the top of the charts. ‘A Woman in Love’ was his swan song – one of his last big hits – and I remember thinking, when I wrote this post, that it felt as if it came out of nowhere. The swing and swagger of the big band on this record, and the glint in Laine’s eye as he sang it, were a world away from his earlier, painfully earnest ballads. I can’t say I’m a fan of all his work; but this is a great song…

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A Woman in Love, by Frankie Laine (his 4th and final #1)

4 weeks, from to 19th October to 16th November 1956

Look who’s back!

Almost three years since we last saw him, Frankie Laine is back at the top of the charts for one final hurrah. And it’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that this is something of a re-invention.

I think this is the very first ‘big band’ #1 we’ve seen. It’s from the film version of ‘Guys and Dolls’, and I think it might be a tango, or a foxtrot (I ain’t no dancer). Either way, it begins with a bang, and then it starts swinging. Frankie Laine is a-swingin’.

Your eyes are the eyes of a woman in love, And oh how they give you away… Why try to deny, You’re a woman in love, When I know very well, When I say…

Who is this woman head over heels with? Well, Frankie of course. At least that’s what he thinks: Those eyes are the eyes of a woman in love, And may they gaze ever more into mine…

Contrast these lyrics with Laine’s last chart-topping single from December ’53. ‘Answer Me’ was all about him pleading for a sign that his lover was still, well, in love with him. In ‘A Woman in Love’ he doesn’t need any reassurance, any prayers answered. He knows she’s hot for him. The times they are a-changing.

And then we have one of the best musical interludes that we’ve heard so far in this countdown. The previous chart-toppers haven’t really gone in for solos, but this one does. The whole band gets stuck into a swinging little thirty seconds. There is a lot of swagger in this record. I’m quite enjoying sticking one-word labels on these recent #1s: Pat BooneCrooner, Anne SheltonTwee, Frankie Laine – Swagger! We’ve had an eclectic run of songs hitting the top spot recently, perhaps the most varied run of this countdown so far, but in a way they’ve all been very of their time. Popular music right on the cusp of the rock ‘n’ roll invasion.

The only thing that spoils this record is the finale. Frankie may have re-invented himself, but he still loves a big ending: Crazily, ga-aze, e-ever mo-ore into MIIIIIIINNNNEEE! Every time I hear an ending like that it sounds more and more old-fashioned. I can’t imagine there’ll be many more, though. Surely. But, overall, this is a small complaint. It’s a great song. Laine’s voice is as warm and as listenable as ever. He and Doris Day should have recorded a duet (*edit* they did – ‘Sugarbush’ back in 1952).

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And so we bid farewell to perhaps the biggest of all the pre-rock stars. Four number one singles adding up to 32 (thirty-two!) weeks at the top. That’s pretty darn impressive, and leaves him at 5th place in the all-time list behind only…. I’ll give you a few seconds to guess… Elvis, The Beatles, Cliff and The Shadows. And, actually, I’m harping on about this being a ‘re-invention’ and a ‘comeback’ for Laine, but he hadn’t been anywhere. In the three years between his 3rd and 4th #1s he had still racked up a whole pile of top ten hits. He was huge. ‘A Woman in Love’ would, though, be his penultimate top ten single in the UK.

One final thought… This track made Frankie Laine the artist with the most UK #1s at this point. With four. It’s noticeable that we haven’t yet met an artist who has scored, or will even go on to score, more than four. These early charts were a very egalitarian place – songs only got to the top because they were… I don’t want to say ‘good’ because, well… let’s say: ‘universally popular’. The days of super-star idols, of huge fan-base acts whose every release races to the top of the charts – your Take Thats, Westlifes, Spice Girls – are still not upon us. But they will be sooner than you might think, and their arrival has a lot to do with this new-fangled thing called rock ‘n’ roll.

52. ‘Just Walkin’ in the Rain’, by Johnnie Ray

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Just Walkin’ in the Rain, by Johnnie Ray (his 2nd of three #1s)

7 weeks, from 16th November 1956 to 4th January 1957

And, just like that, we zoom to the end of 1956. And we are reacquainted with another artist whom we haven’t seen for a while…

The last time we met Johnnie Ray, he was snatching a week at number one with the superb ‘Such a Night’. I voted it as ‘Best Record So Far’ in an earlier recap, it was that good. But that was almost three years ago, in the spring of ’54. Ray stood out like a sore thumb – a groaning, pleading, cavorting thumb – amongst the frightfully proper records that were topping the charts back then. Now we’re in somewhat more relaxed, ever-so-slightly more liberal times, it’s no surprise that Johnnie’s back.

The first thing that hits you, as the needle drops, is the whistling. It’s a whistly record. The first record featuring whistling to top the UK Singles Chart. And it’s another simple record – just Ray’s voice, his backing singers, and a guitar. It crossed my mind that it might be a pastiche of ‘Singin’ in the Rain’, as the two songs do bear some similarities. ‘Singin’ in the Rain’s depressed, heartbroken brother perhaps?

Just walkin’ in the rain, Gettin’ soakin’ wet, Torturin’ my heart, By trying to forget…

The way Ray delivers that little ‘by’ is a thing of beauty. He barks it out, angry, heartbroken. You really believe him. As before, his voice makes the whole record. It’s not a regular voice, nor a technically perfect voice, but it is unmistakeable: raspy and croaky – he really does sound like man who’s been up all night, walking in the rain.

Anyway, his walk is a form of water-based therapy, perhaps, as he tries to get over his departed lover. Or maybe it’s water-torture, as there’s a masochistic edge to proceedings: People come to windows, They always stare at me, Shake their heads in sorrow, Sayin’ who can that fool be? He knows they’re watching, but he continues anyway. Lyrically, we are at a crossroads, in terms of male-recorded #1s. These the are self-flagellating lyrics that we have heard many, many times before, about how much pain he is in (see also ‘Here in My Heart’, ‘Outside of Heaven’, ‘Answer Me’, ‘Give Me Your Word’, I could go on…) BUT, unlike in those songs, there is no chance of a positive outcome here. Ray never mentions any hope that his love will return. He’s simply trying to forget. This, then, is more of the sugar-coated cynicism that started creeping into our chart topping records with ‘Why Do Fools Fall in Love’ back in the summer.

By the end of the song, Johnnie is weepin’ and a-wailin’ in superbly melodramatic fashion. I said it before, and I’ll say it again: it’s a crime that he gets looked over in the pantheon of rock ‘n’ roll pioneers/superstars. I can’t sing his praises highly enough. This is a great record (not as great as ‘Such a Night’, but still great). Of course, as I also mentioned in his earlier post, his being erased from the History of Pop Music had a lot to do with his homosexuality. And I did notice, the eagle-eared guy that I am, how there are no pronouns in this song. No hint as to the gender of his lost love….

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Johnnie Ray will appear one more time in this countdown – fairly soon, in fact – and so I will stop myself from going on too much about how amazing he was. (Though he was) And to finish I’ll address something that’s been bugging me for a while. At the top of each post I always include a picture of the record I’m going to be writing about. And they all look the bloody same. Black vinyl with a little disc circle of colour in the middle (and even that dash of colour is predictable: Phillips records are always blue, Capitol are black, Decca are navy…) I can never seem to find a picture of the record sleeve and, when I do (the jpg that headers Johnnie Ray’s earlier entry, ‘Such a Night’, for example) they are just as bland as the disc. You may have noticed that I sometimes include a picture that looks like it could be the record sleeve -I’ve included the one for ‘Just Walkin’ in the Rain’ above. That’s actually the sheet-music cover, a relic from the days before everyone had gramophones – they would buy the score and learn to play it themselves at home. There were even sheet-music charts before the NME started the record chart upon which this countdown is based. Even more frustratingly, it seems that LPs and EPs did get colourful covers in the 50s; it was only singles that were left to languish in boring, beige paper slips.

Anyway, the point of mentioning this is… I know it looks dull and I wish I could do something about it. I can’t wait for the days when artists and labels actually care about standing out on the shelves, and start including pictures of the band or, shock horror, an artistically though-out design on the cover. Though I fear that may be several years off…

51. ‘A Woman in Love’, by Frankie Laine

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A Woman in Love, by Frankie Laine (his 4th and final #1)

4 weeks, from to 19th October to 16th November 1956

Look who’s back!

Almost three years since we last saw him, Frankie Laine is back at the top of the charts for one final hurrah. And it’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that this is something of a re-invention.

I think this is the very first ‘big band’ #1 we’ve seen. It’s from the film version of ‘Guys and Dolls’, and I think it might be a tango, or a foxtrot (I ain’t no dancer). Either way, it begins with a bang, and then it starts swinging. Frankie Laine is a-swingin’.

Your eyes are the eyes of a woman in love, And oh how they give you away… Why try to deny, You’re a woman in love, When I know very well, When I say…

Who is this woman head over heels with? Well, Frankie of course. At least that’s what he thinks: Those eyes are the eyes of a woman in love, And may they gaze ever more into mine…

Contrast these lyrics with Laine’s last chart-topping single from December ’53. ‘Answer Me’ was all about him pleading for a sign that his lover was still, well, in love with him. In ‘A Woman in Love’ he doesn’t need any reassurance, any prayers answered. He knows she’s hot for him. The times they are a-changing.

And then we have one of the best musical interludes that we’ve heard so far in this countdown. The previous chart-toppers haven’t really gone in for solos, but this one does. The whole band gets stuck into a swinging little thirty seconds. There is a lot of swagger in this record. I’m quite enjoying sticking one-word labels on these recent #1s: Pat BooneCrooner, Anne SheltonTwee, Frankie Laine – Swagger! We’ve had an eclectic run of songs hitting the top spot recently, perhaps the most varied run of this countdown so far, but in a way they’ve all been very of their time. Popular music right on the cusp of the rock ‘n’ roll invasion.

The only thing that spoils this record is the finale. Frankie may have re-invented himself, but he still loves a big ending: Crazily, ga-aze, e-ever mo-ore into MIIIIIIINNNNEEE! Every time I hear an ending like that it sounds more and more old-fashioned. I can’t imagine there’ll be many more, though. Surely. But, overall, this is a small complaint. It’s a great song. Laine’s voice is as warm and as listenable as ever. He and Doris Day should have recorded a duet (*edit* they did – ‘Sugarbush’ back in 1952).

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And so we bid farewell to perhaps the biggest of all the pre-rock stars. Four number one singles adding up to 32 (thirty-two!) weeks at the top. That’s pretty darn impressive, and leaves him at 5th place in the all-time list behind only…. I’ll give you a few seconds to guess… Elvis, The Beatles, Cliff and The Shadows. And, actually, I’m harping on about this being a ‘re-invention’ and a ‘comeback’ for Laine, but he hadn’t been anywhere. In the three years between his 3rd and 4th #1s he had still racked up a whole pile of top ten hits. He was huge. ‘A Woman in Love’ would, though, be his penultimate top ten single in the UK.

One final thought… This track made Frankie Laine the artist with the most UK #1s at this point. With four. It’s noticeable that we haven’t yet met an artist who has scored, or will even go on to score, more than four. These early charts were a very egalitarian place – songs only got to the top because they were… I don’t want to say ‘good’ because, well… let’s say: ‘universally popular’. The days of super-star idols, of huge fan-base acts whose every release races to the top of the charts – your Take Thats, Westlifes, Spice Girls – are still not upon us. But they will be sooner than you might think, and their arrival has a lot to do with this new-fangled thing called rock ‘n’ roll.

50. ‘Lay Down Your Arms’, by Anne Shelton

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Lay Down Your Arms, by Anne Shelton (her 1st and only #1)

4 weeks, from to 21st September to 19th October 1956

We hit the half-century and meet a genre we haven’t encountered yet… The military march!

A couple of times now I’ve mentioned records that, upon reaching the top of the chart, represent a ‘one step forward, two steps back’ moment. Most famously when David Whitfield took the frightfully stiff ‘Cara Mia’ to the top shortly after Johnnie Ray’s superbly raunchy ‘Such a Night’. But this… This takes it to another level.

*Ah 1, 2, ah 1, 2, 3* Come to the station, Jump from the train, March at the double, Down lover’s lane, Then in the glen, Where the roses entwine, Lay down your arms… And surrender to mine!

Anne Shelton loves a soldier, but he’s been called away on duty. Such is a soldier’s life. He gets some leave but now, after spending all week doing what the Seargent demands, he has to manfully obey his lover’s commands. I feel sorry for him. Anne Shelton sounds pretty high-maintenance.

There is one word for this record… One adjective to do it justice. It is twee. So very twee. I’d brand it as a novelty song, if it weren’t all so very earnest. Shelton sounds like a Girl Guide leader – albeit one on her third sherry of the evening – striding out betwixt the heather, bellowing out the chorus as if summoning her hounds. It’s like a P.G. Wodehouse character, one of Bertie Wooster’s aunts perhaps, has come to life and recorded a hit single.

For the most part Shelton’s pronunciation is immaculate, her ‘t’s clipped and her ‘r’s rolled. Yet at the end of every verse, she gets a little… um… playful. She admonishes her serviceman: You’ve got to do your duty, wherever you may be, And now you’re under orders, To hurry home to me… I can’t describe the way she delivers the last part of that line. It’s not with a giggle, but… It’s like a middle-aged biology teacher flirting with a 6th-form boy on the last day of term.

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It’s a bizarre record. But the more I listen to ‘Lay Down Your Arms’, the more I like it. It’s kooky, in a way. I have no idea why it hit #1 in the autumn of 1956. It sounds as if it should have been a smash in 1941. Perhaps it was the revenge of the old-timers, who saw all these young stars with their shiny teeth and their guitars beginning to clog up the charts, and decided to restore order. But the fact that this was a chart-topper after ‘Why Do Fools Fall in Love’, and just a few months before the rock ‘n’ roll invasion really took hold, is an example of why the pop charts are such wonderful things. Anything can get to the top as long as enough people want it to.

I, of course, knew nothing about Anne Shelton before coming across this record. It seems she was a bit of a mini-Vera Lynn, in that she was another ‘Forces Sweetheart’ who recorded inspirational songs for troops, and also performed at military bases during the war. But this song was written and recorded for the first time in 1956 – eleven years after the war’s end. Somehow, there was still a demand for this kind of thing. Maybe it struck a chord with people in the days of National Service? I was joking a minute ago, when I suggested the old folks were somehow responding to rock ‘n’ roll by sending some ‘proper’ music up the charts, but maybe there’s some truth in that too.

Or, maybe it’s as simple as the fact that, throughout chart history, every so often an oldie gets through. Louis Armstrong did it. Cher did it. Cliff kept doing it. The grannies unite, everybody else sneaks out to buy it when their mates aren’t looking, and Anne Shelton gets a month on top of the UK singles charts.

49. ‘Whatever Will Be, Will Be (Que Sera Sera)’, by Doris Day

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Whatever Will Be Will Be (Que Sera Sera), by Doris Day (her 2nd of two #1s)

6 weeks, from 10th August to 21st September 1956

Following on from one super-famous song is… another super-famous song. An even more super-famous song. One of the most famous songs ever?

Que sera sera, Whatever will be will be, The future’s not ours to see, Que sera sera…

People know these lyrics. Even today, sixty-two years on, I’ll bet if you stopped someone on the streets, even a fairly young person, and started singing that line they would be able to finish it. Go on – try it today. (I won’t be held responsible for any subsequent strange looks or slaps in the face).

But, having actually listened to the song, I now wonder if the lyrics are more famous than the recording. It’s very Italiany, with a flourish of guitars (mandolins?) at the start. It’s short and very simple – just said guitar, Doris Day, some violins and the mandatory backing singers. The singer asks her mother if she’ll be pretty and rich, then asks her sweetheart what lies ahead, then fields the very same questions from her own children. It’s a mantra for life: Que sera sera.

As I noted in her previous entry, Day has an irresistible voice. A proper voice, with all the proper enunciation and pronunciation; but with enough of a giggle, and a little huskiness, to make it the sort of voice you want to listen to. She only had two chart-toppers, but ‘Secret Love’ clung to the top spot for nine weeks while this one took up residency for six. There are plenty of acts with more #1s but far less time spent at the top. And as this is the last we’ll hear from Miss Day, let me take the time to point you in the direction of her 1963 classic ‘Move Over Darling’, a song I first heard as a pup on a ‘Steve Wright’s Sunday Love Songs CD’ and which I love to this day. It’s far superior to either of her chart-toppers too, IMHO…

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I’ve done my obligatory Wikipedia-based research and have turfed up two little interesting facts. This song, like ‘Secret Love’, was from a movie in which Day starred: Hitchcock’s ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’ (it really doesn’t sound like a song from a Hitchcock film, but hey). And… the title is neither correct in French (which I – with a decent A-Level in said language – assumed it was), Spanish or Italian. It is, essentially, gibberish.

But, before we end, let’s step back and look at the bigger picture. I really feel that this, along with ‘Why Do Fools Fall in Love’ before it, is ushering in a new era at the top of the UK chart. Two huge, well-known songs. This song has become a football chant, still used to this day, for God’s sake! Plus, Doris Day is still going strong, aged ninety-six, as is Pat Boone from two chart-toppers ago. These songs covered in this countdown are slowly growing more and more tied to the modern world.

Perhaps this song’s influence is best summed up by this tale. Every year I go to a German beer festival in Hong Kong. And every year, without fail, before the overweight men in nipple tassels, before the ‘Big German Horn Blowing Contests’ and before we do the YMCA on the tables, the band plays ‘Whatever Will Be Will Be’. And everyone sings along.