The year was 1956. The place was Washington Heights, a couple of miles north of Harlem. The hottest R&B group in the country was Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. They'd first hit big with "Why Do Fools Fall In Love" and then again with "I Want You To Be My Girl." The success of the Teenagers led to the era of the "kid sound" groups (most of which were, let's be honest here, abysmal). But if the Teenagers could influence so many others to sing, then why couldn't one of those be Frankie's own brother, Lewis?
Lewis was the third of the Lymon brothers (Howie and Frankie were older; Timmy was the youngest); he was all of 12 years old in 1956.
The group that coalesced around Lewis' lead tenor consisted of Rossilio Rocca (second tenor), Lyndon Harold (baritone), and David Little (bass). When it came time for a name, it wasn't a big leap from "Teenagers" to "Teenchords." Rossilio was the oldest (at 19), David was 17, and Lyndon was 15. They were an integrated group: Lewis and David were black, Lyndon was white, and Rossilio was Hispanic.
But there was something missing from their sound: a first tenor. Lyndon had a friend named Ralph Vaughn, whom he thought would be a good candidate. He arranged for 13-year-old Ralph to audition one evening in early June, 1956.
The day of the audition, however, the Teenchords, with Ralph in tow, went to the Apollo Theater to see the Teenagers perform (this would have been sometime during the week of June 8). After having walked the two miles from 165th Street to 125th Street, they were hanging out behind the theater, when all of a sudden, Charles Sampson (lead of the Red Robin Velvets and a friend of Ralph's) wandered by. Sampson mentioned that Bobby Robinson (who owned Red Robin) was looking for acts to record and manage. Were these guys Ralph's group? Well, you don't let a chance like that go by, and suddenly Ralph, without having sung a note for his audition, was touted by Lyndon as their new first tenor.
Bobby Robinson's store ("Bobby's Record Shop") was located on 125th Street and 8th Avenue, just a half-block from the Apollo. It didn't take the augmented Teenchords long to make the trip that day.
Not only did the Teenchords impress Robinson (by singing the Teenagers' "Who Can Explain"), but the fact that Lewis sounded much like brother Frankie didn't hurt at all. Even though Lyndon had vouched for Ralph being able to sing, it was fortunate that he knew the arrangement to "Who Can Explain," since, amazingly, the guys didn't practice it at all before going to see Robinson.
The Teenagers were due to go off on a tour, but Frankie had told the Teenchords that when he returned, he'd see about getting them a contract with George Goldner at Gee Records. However, Bobby Robinson offered to record and manage the group here and now; this was enough to sway them.
Later that month, the Teenchords held their first session. They recorded "I'm So Happy" (a tune written by Robinson) and "Lydia" (written by Lewis for a girl named Lydia Perez, who lived in his building). However, they wouldn't appear on Red Robin; that label had ceased to exist. In its place was Robinson's bright, shiny, new Whirlin Disc Records, a label that he was in the process of forming in partnership with Jubilee's Jerry Blaine. The first release on Whirlin Disc, in August 1956, was the Channels' "The Closer You Are," which had been recorded on June 29. This leads to an interesting question: since the recording sessions for the Teenchords and the Channels were so close together, why weren't "I'm So Happy" and "Lydia" issued on Whirlin Disc? The short, simple answer is: "I have no idea." (The long, convoluted answer looks suspiciously the same.)
In fact, it took six months for Robinson to release anything by the Teenchords, and then, in December 1956, "I'm So Happy" and "Lydia" became the first record on his brand-new Fury label. (Although the Robinson-Blaine partnership wasn't going well, Whirlin Disc records would be released for several months after this, so I'm still confused by the whole thing.) What were the Teenchords doing for the six months? "We were rehearsing," said Lewis. "We only had the two songs." Rehearsals included dance steps, so, when they were ready to go out and conquer the world, they were really ready.
Thanks to something written by Billy Vera, I've re-thought the reason for the delay in releasing the first Teenchords record. Bobby Robinson had every reason to believe that the Teenchords would be as big as the Teenagers, so he probably was anxious to get their records out there. I assume that he decided to test the Jubilee partnership waters with the Channels (their record was released in August; the second Whirlin Disc record, by the Continentals [recorded the same day as the Channels], wasn't released until November). Robinson was very unhappy with the sales figures that Jubilee sent him for "The Closer You Are" (do you think that the artists were the only ones getting ripped off?). Thus, he held off, wanting to keep his new "supergroup" for himself. In fact, he became so angry with the whole Jubilee venture that he named his new label "Fury."
What did the trade papers think of the tunes? We'll never know, since Robinson neglected to send out review copies (although he did take out ads).
Within days of the record's release, Robinson had gotten the Teenchords booked into the Apollo Theater. They started their week's run on January 4, 1957. Others on this show, MC'd by WOV's Jocko Henderson, were Clyde McPhatter, Mickey & Sylvia, the Channels, the Heartbeats, Clarence "Frogman" Henry, Jesse Belvin, and Sil Austin.
Sometime in February 1957, the Teenchords had their second session, waxing "Honey, Honey" and "Please Tell The Angels." On February 8, they were part of a week-long revue at the Empire Theater in Brooklyn, along with the Heartbeats, the Channels, the Valentines, and Bull Moose Jackson. They returned to the Apollo the week of February 22, as part of a Dr. Jive show. This time, they shared the stage with the Drifters, Mickey & Sylvia, the Flamingos, Chuck Willis, Big Maybelle, Little Joe Cook, and Solomon Burke.
Fury released "Honey, Honey" and "Please Tell The Angels" in March, and "Honey, Honey" received an "excellent" rating the week of April 6. Other reviews that week went to Clyde McPhatter's "Just To Hold My Hand," Bo Diddley's "Hey, Bo Diddley," the 5 Royales' "Tears Of Joy," Don & Dewey's "Jungle Hop," and the Matadors' "Vengeance."
On April 19, 1957, the Teenchords were part of the "Jocko and his Rocket Ship Rock 'N' Roll Revue," an Easter holiday show, at the Loew's State Theater in Manhattan. Others on the bill were the Jive Bombers, the Clovers, the Diamonds, the Heartbeats, Mickey & Sylvia, Jo Ann Campbell, the Paragons, Googie René, and the Buddy Johnson Orchestra, featuring Ella Johnson.
They were back at the Apollo the week of May 10, 1957, along with Clarence "Frogman" Henry, the Cleftones, the Love Notes, Jimmie Scott, the Pearls, the Cellos, and Chubby Newsome. This time, Hal Jackson was the MC.
Starting on July 3, they were part of Alan Freed's "Summer Festival," at the New York Paramount, along with Chuck Berry, Clyde McPhatter, Lavern Baker, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, the Moonglows, Joe Turner, Jodie Sands, the Everly Brothers, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Teddy Randazzo, the Dubs, Johnnie & Joe, and Paul Anka. This would be the only time that the Teenagers and Teenchords appeared together.
The Teenchords' final session for Bobby Robinson was held on July 22, 1957. They recorded at least six songs that day: "I'm Not Too Young To Fall In Love," "Falling In Love," "Too Young" (which always seemed to come out "They tried to sell us egg foo young" when my friends and I sang it), "Your Last Chance," "Dance Girl," and "Them There Eyes." Note that the Teenchords' version of "Dance Girl" was recorded before the Charts got to it, but the Charts' version would be released first.
July 22 was the same day that filming began on "The Hit Record" (subsequently re-titled "Jamboree"). The film featured Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, the 4 Coins, Buddy Knox, Jimmy Bowen, Charlie Gracie, Carl Perkins, Frankie Avalon, Count Basie, and Joe Williams (as well as a host of DJs, like Zenas Sears, Dick Clark, and Jocko, in his "Ace From Outer Space" costume). For some reason, the Teenchords were tapped to sing "Your Last Chance." (Since, unlike all the other acts, the Teenchords had never had a national hit record, I can only imagine the behind-the-scenes "magic" that went on to get them into the film. Sure, they were dynamic and represented the Rock 'n Roll segment, which most of the other acts didn't, but in the real world that counts for nothing. It's all economics and power plays.) We have no idea exactly when the Teenchords filmed their segment (which used very strange lighting), but it was possibly done in the same New York warehouse where brother Frankie had filmed his two numbers for "Rock, Rock, Rock" the prior year. Strangely, it was the only time, other than the day they'd recorded it, that they ever sang "Your Last Chance."
On July 26, it was back to the Apollo. This time, they shared the stage with Lloyd Price, the Moonglows, Lee Andrews and the Hearts, George Kirby, Otis Rush, and Pigmeat Markham.
Either in late July or early August, Fury released "I'm Not Too Young To Fall In Love"/"Falling In Love." Like most of his Fury releases from this period, Robinson didn't send these out for review. I'm inclined to think that the platter was released in late July, while they were at the Apollo; it would have been a good opportunity for them to plug their new record (and then, all the audience had to do was walk the half block to Bobby's Record Shop to pick it up).
Sometime in August, David Little and Lyndon Harold got into trouble with the law when they were found sitting in a stolen car. Lyndon was underage, but very soon David was gone from the group.
Although the Teenchords had a two-year contract with Bobby Robinson, he turned them over to George Goldner in August 1957. My guess is that this was initiated by Goldner. The Teenagers had, until recently, recorded for Goldner's Gee Records. By this time, however, Frankie Lymon had left his group and Goldner had sold Gee to Morris Levy. I imagine that Goldner saw this as an opportunity to continue the Teenagers' sound on his new End label.
Because of all these machinations, two of their Fury masters ("Too Young" and "Your Last Chance") were released on End in August. Naturally, Goldner waited until the following month to announce their signing.
However, "signing" is a relative term. Lewis was underage, of course, which meant that his mother would have to sign. But she refused to sign as long as David Little remained in the group. Even after David had left, she never did sign the contract.
In September 1957, the guys went on a ten-day tour of the British West Indies with Clarence "Frogman" Henry and Bull Moose Jackson. Because David Little was no longer there, the Teenchords ended up "borrowing" Jimmy Merchant of the Teenagers. (Since Frankie Lymon had recently split with his group, the Teenagers had some time on their hands.) Although Jimmy was the Teenagers' first tenor, he could also sing bass, which was just what the Teenchords needed. (Possibly more to the point, he could fit into David Little's uniform, which is something the Teenagers' tall bass, Sherman Garnes, couldn't do.)
"Your Last Chance" and "Too Young" both received "excellent" reviews on October 7. Other reviews that week went to Larry Williams' "Bony Moronie," Chuck Berry's "Rock 'N Roll Music," Huey Smith's "Just A Lonely Clown," the Universals' "Again," the Flamingos' "My Faith In You," the Hearts' "You Say You Love Me," the Crests' "My Juanita," and the Glad Rags' "My China Doll."
When the Teenchords got back from the West Indies, Jimmy Merchant couldn't stay with them, since the Teenagers had a recording session coming up (at which they waxed "Flip Flop"). The bass spot was handed over to another Washington Heights friend, Owen Hightower. However, Lyndon Harold soon called it quits, probably leaving within a week or two. His replacement was baritone Eddie Pellegrino.
This group (Lewis Lymon, Rossilio Rocca, Ralph Vaughn, Eddie Pellegrino, and Owen Hightower) had a single session for George Goldner in October 1957. It produced three songs: "I Found Out Why" (their answer to "Why Do Fools Fall In Love"), "Tell Me Love," and "Never Let You Go." The first two were released, on End, in November. Also in November, Warner Brothers released "Jamboree."
Both tunes received a "good" rating on December 9, along with Thurston Harris' "Do What You Did," the Marquees' "Hey, Little School Girl," the 5 Stars' "Dead Wrong," the Casuals' "So Tough," and the Vanguards' "Moonlight."
After this, Ralph Vaughn and Rossilio Rocca slowly drifted away from the Teenchords, and second tenor Jimmy Castor (former lead of the Juniors) started singing with them. When Owen Hightower wandered away too, Jimmy brought in his friend, bass Johnny Pruitt. Throughout 1958, the lineup was somewhat fluid.
On January 17, 1958, the Teenchords returned to the Apollo. This time they appeared with Lavern Baker, Doc Bagby, Little Joe, Donnie Elbert, the Silhouettes, and Al Jackson.
On April 25, 1958 the Teenchords appeared in Sunnyside Gardens, Queens, along with Lee Andrews and the Hearts, the Velvets, the Debutantes, the Loungers, and the Chalypso Rhythm Boys.
The Teenchords' last appearance at the Apollo was the week of October 31, 1958. By this time, Lewis was the only original member left. The rest of the roster consisted of Jimmy Castor (second tenor), Eddie Pellegrino (baritone), and Johnny Pruitt (bass). Other acts on the bill were Larry Williams, Ed Townsend, the Pastels, John Bubbles (of the dance team of "Buck and Bubbles"), and the Hines Kids. It's interesting that the Teenchords, who had no national hits, appeared six times at the Apollo. By contrast, the Teenagers, with six R&B charters, only made two appearances.
The last record by the Teenchords was on George Goldner's Juanita label, in late 1958 (possibly timed to coincide with their appearance at the Apollo). "Dance Girl" and "Them There Eyes" were another pair of tunes that had been recorded in July 1957 for Fury. They were reviewed (both "good") on December 1, along with Chuck Berry's "Merry Christmas Baby," Bobby Day's "The Bluebird, The Buzzard, And The Oriole," Johnnie & Joe's "Warm, Soft, And Lovely," the Turks' "I'm A Fool," the Loungers' "Dizzy Spell," and Trudy Williams' "A Foolish Little Girl."
By the beginning of 1959, the Teenchords were history. While they managed to secure a lot of big-time appearances, the lack of a national chart hit would finally do them in.
In 1963, Lewis joined the Townsmen, replacing original lead singer Bobby Rivera (of Hemlocks fame). The others were Rafael Ramos (first tenor), Louis Vasquez (second tenor), and McDuffy "Mac" Swaggart (bass). They made a single record for the tiny PJ label, released in June of 1963: "I Can't Go" (led by Lewis)/"That's All I'll Ever Need" (fronted by Louis Vasquez). Note that the Townsmen on Joey (1962) were a different group, and the Townsmen on Herald and Columbia were also a separate group.
Discouraged, Lewis spent part of the 60s in the Navy. Then, in 1971, Lewis (by now a baritone, as well as a tenor) reunited with Louis Vasquez and Rafael Ramos to form a new Teenchords for an oldies show. The others in the group were Velmont Miller (baritone) and Frank San Pietro (lead).
Lewis got a new group of Teenchords to record a couple of records for Starlight in the mid-80s. The songs included an a cappella reprise of three of their former tunes: "Please Tell The Angels," "Dance Girl," and "Honey, Honey." The fourth, "I Want You To Be My Girl," was a homage to brother Frankie and the Teenagers. The group at this time was: Lewis Lymon (lead), John O'Keefe (first tenor), Mike Nicoletti (second tenor), Thomas Camuti (baritone), and Andre Garnes (bass; the brother of Sherman Garnes, bass of the Teenagers).
In the 90s, Lewis appeared as part of the Teenagers, along with Jimmy Castor (lead), Herman Santiago (first tenor), Jimmy Merchant (baritone), and Bobby Jay (bass).
In 1992, "Never Let You Go," the unreleased master from the October 1957 Goldner session surfaced on the Park Avenue label. It was backed with an alternate take of "I Found Out Why."
Formerly part of a Drifters group in Las Vegas, 2008 finds Lewis appearing with Cornell Gunter's Coasters at the Sahara Hotel.
As far as the rest of the original Teenchords, in 2008, Rossilio Rocca and Ralph Vaughn are still alive. Lyndon Harold passed away about ten years ago. No one seems to know what happened to David Little. Lewis, last of the Lymon brothers, left us on July 9, 2013.
The Teenchords made good music. They could give the Teenagers a run for the money. But there were no Teenagers any more. While the "kid sound" would haunt the recording industry for a while yet, its popularity had faded; times had changed. Also, with the Chantels and the Dubs doing well, George Goldner didn't have the time to devote to the Teenchords. Another great group lost by the wayside.
Special thanks to Lewis Lymon, Charlie Horner, and Neil Pellegrin. The ads appeared in the 1957 volume of First Pressings, and are used by permission of Galen Gart. Discography courtesy of Ferdie Gonzalez.
1000 Lydia/I'm So Happy (Tra-La-La-La-La-La) - 12/56
1003 Honey, Honey (You Don't Know)/Please Tell The Angels - 3/57
1006 I'm Not Too Young To Fall In Love/Falling In Love - ca. 7/57
END (the songs on 1003 are Fury masters)
1003 Too Young/Your Last Chance - 8/57
1007 I Found Out Why/Tell Me Love - 11/57
JUANITA (a Goldner label; Fury masters)
101 Dance Girl/Them There Eyes - late 58
STARLIGHT (a cappella tracks)
21 I Want You To Be My Girl/Please Tell The Angels - 11/84
25 Dance Girl/Honey, Honey - 1/85
PARK AVENUE (End masters)
9 Never Let You Go/I Found Out Why (alternate take) - 92