If she'd followed her heart instead of her mother's orders, Antonia Figueroa del Sol could have been famous. As it happened, though, she married Ernie from the old neighborhood, moved to Denver and wound up packaging chicken thighs, T-bones and hamburger meat at King Soopers.
Now and then, whenever a certain song plays on the radio, she thinks about her brush with rock-and-roll history and what might have been. She's found herself thinking about it a lot more lately, now that Why Do Fools Fall in Love, the movie about Frankie Lymon and his three wives, is showing all over town.
Believe it or not, she says--and few people know this--she was Frankie Lymon's "best-kept secret, his inspiration. His first inspiration. Then came the wives."
Antonia--"Call me Toni"--is a bubbly 56-year-old with dark twinkling eyes, pencil-thin eyebrows, the remnants of a bouffant hairdo and gold fingernail polish. She's from Brooklyn--"a real New Yorker"; has a twin sister named Dolores--"I'm afraid I have another one like me"; and speaks with an accent as thick as a slice of Sicilian-style pizza with everything on it. "I see it this way," she says. "If the Texans and the Southerners don't lose their accent, why should I?"
On a hazy September morning, we sit at a small, round table in the center of Toni's spare apartment on South Federal Boulevard as if preparing for a seance. Oldies float in from the bedroom radio like incense, and memorabilia including The Teenagers Go Romantic album is spread out before her like tarot cards. "This haunts me," she says. "It really does. Frankie and I could have had more time with each other. Maybe it could have turned out different. Maybe I could have made him happy. I was his first love. The woman he could never have."
Her story begins like this: It's New York City in 1955, the dawn of rock and roll. Toni's uncle, George Goldner, co-owns a number of record labels such as Rama, Chico, Roulette and Gee. Although Goldner is known for pushing Latin acts like Tito Puente, he's also among the first to sign early black doo-wop singers.
One afternoon, one such singer, Richard Barrett of the Valentines, brings Goldner a quintet of school friends from Harlem. The kids had gathered under Barrett's window and performed; they call themselves the Premiers. But Goldner is less than impressed. "They're just children," he says. "I can't deal with schooling and everything like that."
Barrett is persistent, though, and Goldner eventually gives them a chance. On the day the Premiers are set to audition, Herman Santiago, the lead singer, develops laryngitis. "So," Toni recalls, "George says to Little Frankie, 'Little Frankie, can you sing the song?' And Little Frankie says, 'Yeah, I can sing the song.' 'Okay. Sing the song.' So Little Frankie sings, 'Oooo wah. Oooo wah.' And George and Richard say, 'He's the new lead singer.'"
That night, Goldner returns home to his wife, Gracie, and skims the lyrics to "Why Do Fools Fall in Love." He reads them a few times and says, "Forget about it," then tosses the paper in the trash.
But Gracie, who has her own nose for talent, fishes the paper from the wastebasket. "Now, wait a minute, wait a minute. Let me see here. Hey. This is a hit. Get these boys into the studio and record them."
"You think so?"
"Yeah. Go for it."
So Goldner gets the boys in the studio and records them. The Premiers had become Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, and "Why Do Fools Fall in Love" hits number one on the R&B charts, number six on the pop charts and number one in England. The Teenagers, dressed in letter sweaters, creased pants and loafers, score four Top 20 R&B songs with their debut album.
"Then," Toni says, "I get a call from my uncle and he says, 'Come on down here. I got a group I'd like you to meet. They're called Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, and they need a fan club. I want you to be the president.'"
"You want me to be the president?"
"Yeah. Come on down here."
So Toni goes on down to Goldner's fancy apartment, where her uncle introduces her to the guys. "Guys. I'd like you to meet my niece. She's going to be the president of your fan club."
"Hi. How are you?"
"I'm fine, thanks."
Toni sits with the guys over Coke and ice cream and gets to know Frankie. "He's fourteen and I'm thirteen, and from the first time we see each other, we just get this feeling," she says. "You know, this wonderful feeling. What do you call it? Vibes?"
Frankie is friendly and polite, always joking and kind of cocky, with a button nose, million-dollar smile and choirboy soprano. "I mean, anyone could fall in love with him," Toni recalls. "He just had this...this thing. It sent girls ga-ga."
Toni and Frankie begin to date. Toni's twin sister, Dolores, the fan-club vice president, dates Teenager Joe Negroni. And Toni's best friend, Lorraine, dates Teenager second tenor Jimmy Merchant. "We never double-dated or anything, but it was all right," Toni says.
Toni and Frankie sit in her living room autographing publicity photos. She stands backstage "like a little princess" during his appearance at the Paramount. She combs his hair with white pomade to keep it wavy. She sits in the studio while he sings "I Promise to Remember" to her. One night, during a show at the Apollo, Frankie asks Toni and Aunt Gracie where they're sitting. "In the balcony," Toni replies. "Why?"
"Then he comes on stage and begins to sing 'Please Be Mine,'" Toni recalls. "I'll never forget that. He turns to me, practically on his knees, and starts singing. My aunt pokes me. 'He's singing to you, he's singing to you.' And all of a sudden, people downstairs in the audience, the entire audience, turns around and looks at me. Who's he singing to? The whole audience just gives their attention to me."
Frankie asks Toni to accompany him on a London tour, but her mother says no. "You're too young. There are too many men. You have to go to school." So instead, Frankie sends her love letters and even an insurance policy with her name on it. At the end of each correspondence, Frankie writes, "You're not just a girl. You're my girl."
Then he proposes marriage.
"My mother read the letter," Toni remembers, "and said...I'm not sure I should say this...she said, 'No. I forbid it. We're Puerto Rican. We're dark enough in this family already. Nope. That's enough of this. You're going to your aunt's house in New Jersey.' Oh, I cried my heart out, because Frankie lost contact with me."
After a year or two, Toni returns to Brooklyn. Frankie has left the group, and the Teenagers have hired a string of replacement singers, but neither act reclaims the spotlight. Frankie's voice changes with puberty, record deals are harder to come by, and the rumors begin.
"My aunt and uncle say to me, 'No more Frankie Lymon,'" Toni recalls. "'He's on drugs now. He's on heroin. You can't see him anymore.'"
Toni feels sorry for him. His dad is an alcoholic, his mother is dying from cancer, his career is plummeting. One night Toni's aunt and uncle ask her to babysit at the estate that the Teenagers' hit helped buy. Before they leave, they give strict instructions: "Don't call Frankie Lymon. You hear me? Stay away from him."
So what does Toni do?
"I call Frankie Lymon," she says. "He was so happy to hear from me. He says, 'Where are you? I wanna see you. I wanna see you.' Oh, he stole my heart."
Toni sends her uncle's chauffeur to Harlem and fetches seventeen-year-old Frankie. "He comes running to me, hugging me and kissing me. Ayyy. The whole nine yards." They walk around the estate. Frankie holds her hand, lifts her onto a swing and kisses her. "Oh, it was beautiful," Toni recalls. "The stars, the moon, the crickets, the whole romantic thing. He told me he loved me. 'Come with me. I wanna be with you. I need to be with you.'"
But Toni doesn't answer. She remembers what Aunt Gracie and Uncle George say about drugs. Frankie stays a few hours, plays with the kids upstairs, then leaves. "He was very quiet," Toni recalls. "He kissed me a very long time and said he loved me. And when he left, he had a very sad face."
The next morning, Toni's uncle showers, dresses for the day and discovers items are missing from the master bedroom.
"Honey, have you seen my ring?"
"It's in the dresser drawer."
"Are you sure? There's nothing up here. I can't find my jewelry anywhere."
"Toni!" Goldner bellows. "Did you have Frankie Lymon here?"
"Oh, I started crying," Toni recalls. "'Yes. I had him here last night.'"
"Didn't I tell you he's a drug addict? You know what he did? He stole our jewelry so he could hock it for drugs!"
Goldner calls Frankie and demands the jewelry back. "I'll blackball you from the record industry! You hear me?"
Toni calls Frankie and sobs into the phone. "How could you do this? What's the matter with you? You said you loved me. My uncle was right. You're just a drug addict. I hate you. I hate you."
"Don't say that," Frankie tells Toni. "We love each other. I want to be with you. I want to marry you. I didn't mean to hurt you. I'm sorry."
But it's too late. Toni hangs up on him, and her family makes sure she never sees him again. "I stay in the neighborhood for a few years and get married," she says. "I really didn't want to, but this fella from the neighborhood, Ernie, was really in love with me. I wanted to forget Frankie. What did I know? I was only eighteen. I thought marriage would solve everything."
Yet her heart still belongs to Frankie. And Ernie knows it. He takes her love letters, Frankie's marriage proposal and all their photos together, piles them in the bathtub and lights them on fire. "You're my wife now," Ernie says. "No more Frankie Lymon."
Toni follows Frankie's career anyway. He marries three women: Elizabeth Waters, Zola Taylor and Emira Eagle. (The women, who were unaware of Lymon's simultaneous marriages, later sue each other for his estate's back royalties.) Frankie joins the Army, battles addiction and tries to revive his career. At age 25, he returns to New York to launch a comeback. But after a few days in his old neighborhood, on February 28, 1968, Frankie Lymon dies from a heroin overdose.
"I was living in New Jersey," Toni says. "I was in the kitchen. It was morning. I picked up the paper and I see that Frankie Lymon was found dead in his grandmother's bathroom. I got very quiet. I held everything in. It hurt terrible, but I held it in. I cried for myself."
A few days later, Aunt Gracie asks if she's attending the funeral. "My husband had a fit," she recalls. "He says, 'Are you still in love with Frankie Lymon? Well, you're not going. I forbid it. You're not going.' I never forgave him for that."
At her apartment table in Denver, Toni shuffles her remaining memorabilia. She doesn't believe Frankie's death was accidental. Frankie owed money to drug dealers, who collected in blood. "He was starting a new life," she says. "He had everything to live for. Why would he get back on drugs? Why? Frankie was murdered. I know that with all of my heart."
Looking back on things, Toni believes it was probably best she never married Frankie. "I was innocent and I was young and I loved him," she says. "He was very persuasive. I could have got into drugs. I could have been devastated. With everything he put his wives through? Could you imagine? But who knows? He cared for me in the beginning. I was his first love. Maybe I could have helped him."
Toni and Ernie had a son and divorced after thirteen years. She married a singer with the Drifters and the Main Ingredient and divorced again. She's single now and spends time listening to oldies tunes and globe-trotting. "I travel to forget," she says.
Every so often, Toni sees Louie Lymon, Frankie's brother, and the surviving members of the Teenagers, Herman Santiago and Jimmy Merchant. They go out to dinner, have a few laughs and talk about the old days. She hands me some faded snapshots of them together as proof of her story.
Sometimes it bothers her that the name Antonia Figueroa del Sol never appears in Frankie Lymon biographies, rock-and-roll anthologies or movies. So she made her own video documentary, I Promise to Remember. She was there, Toni says, with Uncle George, Aunt Gracie and Little Frankie.
"Frankie broke my heart," she says. "But I forgive him. I was his first love and his first inspiration. It's in the past now, but it still sticks to me. It was a very happy time in my life, and I live with it today. I told Frankie I would never forget him. And I won't.
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