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Kris Needs On His New New York Series & Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers
Luke Turner , June 1st, 2011 06:42

Legendary music scribe Kris Needs is curating a series of compilations of the music of New York. Here, he tells Luke Turner about the project, and gives us an extract about the very New York history of Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers, the doowop group who inspired Suicide

Anyone who has visited New York City over a period of years will know that, like any major metropolis, it's in a state of constant flux. You can see the positives and negatives around you every time you go. New York when I was last there seemed to be gradually succumbing to the disease that has already crippled London, with independent spirit ground out between indifferent chains on one hand and unaffordable snooty, self-confident and chi-chi 'independent' culture on the other. Yes, they sell a brand of coffee (artisan roasted, one presumes) called Intelligentsia in New York. Whether that's preferable to the Bad Old Days of the City, when it was dirty (actually, it's still pretty dirty), crimed-riddled and broke is another argument. But what is certain is that this strange, long piece of land running along the Hudson River has produced some of the finest music the world has ever known. The writer Kris Needs has compiled a fantastic series of compilations that cover the history of this incredible music, choosing to go chronologically rather than by movement. Needs has the classic outsider perspective on New York, that fascination with the architecture, and the unusual things you can get up to in the streets and alleys that run between them.

So Kris, how did the project first come about?

Kris Needs: Since the mid-1960s, I've had an unshakeable fascination for New York City which has taken on different aspects over the years. At first, it was through hearing the Velvet Underground at the age of 13 and, not being at all familiar with who they were and what they were singing about, itching to find out more. Place names like Lexington and 125 and Union Square sounded exotic and dangerous. Next it was the Fugs painting their ribald picture of Lower East Side hippie-activist life, which led to the ESP label and Sun Ra then free jazz, tempered by Greenwich Village folk singers. The New York Dolls and all who sailed with them in the 70s put the lid on it, along with Kojak. By the time the CBGBs movement invaded the UK, I was bursting to go there, further stoked by disco, hip hop, electro and tapes of New York's pioneering radio stations circulating around London in the early 80s, treated like gold dust by me and fellow conspirators Alex Paterson and Youth. It was unbearable!

When I finally got there in 1983, working on promoting the Bat Cave in the US, the city was everything I'd hoped for, but a hell of a lot more. I immersed myself in every aspect, from clubs to the most dangerous spots in Alphabet City, soundtracked by the mastermixes on the radio by Chuck Chillout and Red Alert. To cut a long story short, I ended up living there until 1990, experiencing the highest highs and unbelievable lows. Since I returned, I've gradually let the desire to experience New York be replaced by a more scholarship self-education which could only reach fulfilment by doing a project like this. After talking to New York figures such as Suicide, David Johansen, Chris Stein and August Darnell, I first thought about doing the ultimate history of the city and all its sounds in book form but, after my Dirty Water birth of punk series seemed to work, Future Noise kindly let me attempt the same mission on CD. Now it's turned into this massive document of vanishing New York as it evolved through the second half of the last century.

Did it snowball into something bigger from small beginnings?

KN: You could say that! Originally I thought of doing just one CD of my favourite New York tracks with a couple of thousand words of liner notes, but the Dirty Water sets ended up being accompanied by 76 page booklets, which people seemed to like, so it became two CDs - per decade, starting in the 1940s and working up to the present day, each one accompanied by a little book! There were times when I was trying to finish the first volume that I thought I must be insane to have taken on a project of such vast proportions and indeterminable depth. No compilation before had tried to straddle all the different musical styles, hence the musical melting pot in the title. Such compilations usually focus on just jazz or folk or disco, but never throw different styles onto the same album. But that's how New York is, and I'm trying to mirror what it might have been like in the city itself at these times.

How did you sift through the music you wanted to include?

KN: It's a mixture of long-running favourites from the record collection, suggestions arising in conversations, names which just have to be included in the story and new discoveries, which got me excited all over again. I'm an unashamed latecomer to the internet and all its myriad possibilities so that's been a great help, with everything on YouTube. The final running orders are pure gut feeling then refinement, once the licensing bollocks has been overcome by the Future Noise detectives.

Why starting in 1945?

KN: The thing about the first volume - and I'm being honest here - is that I went into it kind of blind. I just plucked 1945 out of the air because I figured they didn't manufacture many records during the war and that was when music as we know it started germinating, starting with movements such as bebop. I also tacked on the 50s because I wasn't aware of quite how much amazing music was still being played early in the 1940s. I wrote the notes after the CDs were cleared and mastered, then further research revealed that, not only are a couple of tracks from earlier in the decade - such as Duke Ellington's 'Take The A Train' - but there was actually a whole load of stuff coming out. And I found a way to licence Charlie Parker, this set's glaring omission. If I was to do it again, I'd probably give the 40s and 50s their own sets!

Can you tell us about your advisers, such as Martin Rev on this one? How did you get them involved, and how are they contributing?

KN: It does seem to be turning into the proverbial snowball. Martin Rev was always an inspiration, after interviewing him a few times over the last few years. The one that stands out is a 2008 interview when Suicide were in town and I had to go through their history for a film being made about them by Start Productions, who did the recent Mott the Hoople one. Marty's descriptions of Albert Ayler clearing rooms like the Sex Pistols or hearing doowop on the street corners as a kid stuck with me, so I phoned him while I was writing the notes to see what he made of the track selection. He gave it the thumbs up, much to my relief, while also suggesting a few others and giving that beautiful description of Miles Davis' 'Summertime'. A lovely man and enormous talent who will figure strongly in the series later.

I'd already interviewed Chip Monck, back then working at the Village Gate, and Izzy Young of the Folklore Center, who mentioned other names. I even asked Bobby Gillespie which tracks recalled the city for him. He said Suicide sounded like a subway train. When it came to thinking about future volumes, it occurred to me that other New York friends and acquaintances might have insights so, when I get to the relevant periods, I hope to have some input from Jim Sclavunos, Gary Lucas and Chris Stein, who all seem pretty amenable.

And Chris Stein and his Warhols on the floor; can you tell us a little about that?

KN: That came from Craig Leon, who produced those landmark debut albums for Blondie, the Ramones and Suicide. I spoke to him and his wife Cassell when I was writing a recent tribute to Joey Ramone, and it turned out he lives in a village about 20 miles away from us in Aylesbury! He worked with Blondie again when they returned, and showed us their photos of the album's creation. He also recalled Chris' old place being a bit cluttered, with original Warhol sketches on the floor and everything. Chris knew Andy well. The mind boggles.

You lived in New York, what different perspective do you think you have as an outsider?

KN: It's an obvious question seeing's I live in the middle of Buckinghamshire, but I now firmly believe people when they say they see the skyline for the first time and are never the same again. When I lived there for five years, I immersed myself in every aspect of the place, from the obvious sights and great gigs to hospital wards and police cells. I've since returned many times and still get the same buzz. In a way, it helps having an outsiders' view as it provides greater focus on the culture rather than trying to stay alive. Now I've stopped experiencing the pivotal times from the inside, I can look at the broader picture in retrospect from the outside, like I only recently learned the history of the subway, and Harlem in the 40s was obviously a lot different from how it was by the time I was checking into the Metropolitan Hospital clinic every day. There was a spirit coursing through the place when I was there and I see it as a vital mission to try and preserve that for posterity the best I can.

What's your best New York memory?

KN: There are countless great ones but that first day takes some beating. I was staying with a friend called Marc Mikulich, who lived next door to the Ritz in the East Village. He took me on a tour of the East Village and I was running around the landmarks like a dog on heat. I bought the Velvet Underground's banana album in a record shop across the street from the old Dom where they used to play, saw St Mark's Bar where the Stones had recently shot a video and countless other landmarks. That first eye-blasting glimpse of the subway train screeching and sparking into Astor Place station, decorated top to bottom with graffiti, was enough to start me doing the graffiti, which I still practice in my own home and am using on the covers of the albums. For a while, I lived in an apartment on 12th Street, where my neighbours were Allen Ginsberg, Richard Hell and Arthur Russell. The best gig has to be Suicide at CBGBs in 1987. The noise, sweat and historic surroundings could have been ten years earlier, in the thick of the revolution.

How do you feel New York has changed in the past 20 years? Cleaned up, but is this a good thing?

KN: As I've said, the drastic change in the city is a major motivation for the series. I was mugged several times, some by my own reckless stupidity, one so violently I still bear the scars and came back to the UK, but I'm all for the place being safe. The downside is the place has lost its funk, edge and sense of community where you could walk down St Mark's Place and see many friends and the occasional legend who gave the city its reputation an allure. It's heartbreaking seeing so many great shops forced to close and old places you lived in spruced up with rents inflated more than ten-fold. Many of the original characters still living have moved to places like LA or Florida, while young newcomers seem to be gravitating to Williamsburg; New York's version of Shoreditch replacing Notting Hill. I just want to show how the place was once an untouchable creative epicentre with a unique character and most formidable musical legacy of all time, Sometimes I feel like Aylesbury's answer to Harry Smith!

An extract from Kris Needs' Watch The Closing Doors sleevenotes

When Martin Rev was growing up in New York, he particularly absorbed jazz and doowop, both major influences in Suicide's incandescent future-punk cacophony. He can tell me what it was like being a teenager in the city, encountering this new music then learning how it was made so he could do it himself. Doowop was a major but undersung influence on anyone from the Ramones to the Velvet Underground. Running parallel with jazz, it was a proper product of the streets, evolving on rooftops and in empty subway stations as disaffected teenagers escaped their overcrowded homes and tackled the stultifying boredom of relentless poverty by spending days indulging in petty crime, then singing in harmony at night about subjects close to their hearts, usually girls.

Martin Rev: 'The great thing about doowop is that it was coming right out of the neighbourhoods and from the corners, out of the streets. The kids on the streets were making the music. Then the record companies, who were just starting to cut 45s, were going to the DJs and pressing to get on radio. The record industry was so new and radio play was at its birth really. It existed before, certainly, but in terms of this generation and this music it was just getting under way. There was always race radio up until the early 50s. Here in New York, it was more of a mix. It wasn't in any way corporately controlled or run or formatted. They tried to dismember or dislodge it for many reasons; just like punk.'

Asked to name a song which sums up this particular era, he immediately replies, "'Why Do Fools Fall In Love' by Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers. That song was very big. Frankie was the quintessence of New York at that time; from Spanish Harlem, just a kid, 14 years old."

Although now a well-known golden oldie, 'Why Do Fools Fall In Love' is still one of the most vibrant encapsulations of this time in New York City, not to mention the joys of young love. From the first bass-voiced 'Hey-doo wop' and choral 'Ooohs', through the spring-enforced rhythm joined by Lymon's soaring soprano, the song exudes an elevated innocence, beautifully sliced by a rasping saxophone solo.

If only the group's own story could have been so simple and untainted. Frankie Lymon was born in a Washington Heights tenement in September, 1942 to a truck driver father, who also sang in a gospel group called the Harlemaires, and mother who worked as a maid. The neighbourhood was a hotbed of prostitutes, junkies and dealers (One of his brothers died from drugs). Unsurprisingly, Frankie grew up fighting and getting into trouble. To help his family, Frankie started working as a grocery boy at the age of ten, smoking marijuana and supplementing his paltry wages by hustling prostitutes by the age of 13, enjoying relationships with women twice his age. He also sang on street corners and in stairwells with a group of kids from school; lead tenor Herman Santiago, second tenor Jimmy Merchant, baritone Joe Negron and bass-voice Sherman Garnes; all around 15-16 and soon calling themselves the Premiers.

Merchant was inspired to write a song based on a line from some love letters given to the group by a tenant in Garnes' building, entitled, 'Why Do Birds Sing So Gay?', before Santiago changed the lyrics (although it has also been said that Frankie wrote the words as a poem in the fifth grade). The Premiers changed their name to the Teenagers, managing to impress Richard Barren, singer with the Valentines, who sorted an audition with record producer George Goldner (a foremost NYC producer in various musical fields for several decades). On the big day, Santiago was late, so Frankie stepped up, declaring he co-wrote the song before unleashing his supernatural falsetto. Goldner signed them to his Gee Records, releasing 'Why Do Fools Fall In Love' in January, 1956. It stayed on top of the R&B chart for weeks, peaked at number six on the pop chart and went to number one in the UK. The group shot from poverty to thousands of dollars a week almost overnight.

Further singles followed fast over the next two years, most scaling the R&B charts, including 'I Promise To Remember', 'I Want you To Be My Girl' (reaching number 13 on the pop charts with the group now known as Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers), 'I Promise to Remember', 'The ABCs Of Love' and 'I'm not A Juvenile Delinquent'. The group broke up in mid 1957 after Goldner tried to push Frankie as a solo artist, but he failed to get off the ground, shunned after he appeared on Alan Freed's live TV show The Big Beat promoting his second single, 'My Girl' and dared to dance with a white girl, resulting in Southern uproar and the TV show cancelled. An even bigger problem loomed when Frankie's voice broke, although he tried using falsetto on singles which didn't set the charts alight. As his popularity fell, the addiction to heroin, which gestated after an older lady friend had introduced him to the drug, at 15 mushroomed.

The 60s saw him try drug cures, vain stabs at solo records and reforming the Teenagers, even jazz legend Dizzy Gillespie organising instruction in dancing, drumming and foreign language singing. He married an already-married woman, relocated to LA, married twice more without divorce and got drafted into the army. After getting a promising new record deal with the Big Apple label, he returned to New York on February 27, 1968 but was found dead from a heroin overdose in his grandmother's Harlem bathroom next morning. Frankie was buried at Saint Raymond's Cemetery, the Bronx, leaving a tangled gladiators' arena of lawsuit-toting would-be widows among those battling over his estate after Diana Ross scored a hit with 'Why Do Fools..' in 1981 (although Lymon never received a penny in his lifetime). The long-term aftershock of this doowop Johnny Thunders paved the way for early teen pop stars such as Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson, Berry Gordy using early Teenagers songs as an initial template for Motown while their effect on Brill Building girl group pop is obvious too.

The first instalment of Kris Needs' Watch The Closing Doors covers the years 1945 - 59, and is out now

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