African American Studies


Jimmy Merchant (b. 1940) is an original and founding member of Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, and he also has a career as a visual artist. Merchant grew up in Harlem and the Bronx, the son of a shoe-shiner and “street man” from the Bahamas by way of South Carolina and a mother from Philadelphia. His father was frequently absent, since he made a meager living as a shoe-shiner and a numbers man. He also had problems with gambling and alcohol, and Merchant recalls that he and his mother would see his father about once a week. His mother worked odd jobs (e.g. factory worker, cleaner, presser) to support the family. Because of the poor renting options in Harlem, Merchant’s family moved to the Bronx around 1941, and Jimmy attended PS 23, north of Morrisania. He remembers the neighborhood as being almost universally black, with a few Puerto Ricans and other Latinos mixed in. Although his neighborhood was relatively safe, Merchant recalls that there were occasionally gang killings in the area, as early as the late 40’s. Merchant was raised in a music-appreciating household: his father was a jazz fan and collector, and Jimmy was exposed to bebop and smooth jazz. Although he never played an instrument, he was an avid dancer, and he learned many of his mambo, jitterbug, and grind moves from his older sister. With an ear for harmony and a repertoire of dance moves, Merchant began forging connections with other singers in the neighborhood.

Merchant was a bright child, but he was never encouraged to do very well in school. He received mediocre grades and did just enough to get by. Unfortunately, he did not receive the encouragement to capitalize on many of his interests. However, his involvement with singing grew deeper as he encountered more fellow enthusiasts throughout his elementary and middle school years. Inspired by many of the doo-wop groups that were gaining popularity during those days (especially The Hilos), Merchant decided that he wanted to pursue music. In the interview, Merchant does not discuss how he got involved with each member of Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, but the group started at Stitt Junior High School. Merchant was one of two original founding members of the group, and he co-wrote their first and biggest hit, “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” along with fellow founding member Herman Santiago. Frankie Lymon was recruited to join the group as the lead tenor after members of the Teenagers heard him perform. Eventually, the group was signed by Gee Records as “Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers.” After recording a few hits and doing some touring, the group disbanded after 18 months. Frankie Lymon was pulled out of the group to embark on a solo career, and he died at the age of 25 of a heroin overdose. While the Teenagers went through various permutations, the group is still around today. George Goldner, the head of Gee records, copyrighted their hits, but soon after was forced to transfer the copyrights to a record head named Morris Levy. Both men took all the royalties from the Teenager’s songs, and none of the original writers saw any of the proceeds from their work. In 1993, Merchant and Santiago successfully took Levy’s son to court over the rights to “Why Do Fools Fall in Love.” The copyright was transferred, and both of the original Teenagers have begun to earn royalties.

After Frankie Lymon was taken out of the group, Merchant moved to Queens, where he lapsed into heroin addiction for about 20 years. He had first tried the drug during his performing days, when it was ubiquitous in the music world. However, he kicked the habit that had killed Lymon and today enjoys a modest singing career, as well as a career as a visual artist.

Merchant, Jimmy.mp3 (161510 kB)

Click below to download supplemental content.

Merchant, Jimmy.mp3 (161510 kB)