By Beth Karlin
September 14, 1998 12:00 PM

Before Michael Jackson could walk—much less moonwalk—there was Frankie Lymon, rock’s original pint-size sensation. Backed by his fellow doowoppers, the Teenagers, Lymon was barely a teen himself (14, to be exact) when his first record, 1956’s “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?,” catapulted him from Manhattan street corners to global fame. Like Jackson a generation later, Lymon combined a sweet soprano voice and ultraslick dance moves to project both innocence and sophistication. “He was the first black teenage star,” recalls his cousin Phil Harris, 39. “He made the way for other young people.”

Lymon’s own time at the top was fleeting. Robbed of his childhood even before fame (he told Ebony that he had been a pimp at age 10), Lymon got trapped in his childlike image. By 1958 (the year Michael Jackson was born) his voice had changed, and he was reduced to lipsynching his hits at sock hops. One of those, “I’m Not a Juvenile Delinquent,” was a long way from being autobiographical. “I had been smoking marijuana when I was in grade school,” Lymon told Ebony in 1967. “But I didn’t start using [heroin] until I got into show business.” A year after that interview, Lymon died at age 25 of a heroin overdose in the same apartment in which he’d grown up. He was broke and all but forgotten.

Thirty years after his death, Lymon stars again—this time in the just-released film Why Do Fools Fall in Love. The movie spotlights a 1980s court battle over Lymon’s $500,000-plus estate (his hits continue to generate royalties) waged by his three wives, all of whom claimed to be his widow, since Lymon apparently never got around to divorcing any of them. His blithe devotion to three women while battling addiction testifies to his life’s fateful acceleration as well as his own peculiar charm. “He was talented and had charisma,” says Halle Berry, who plays second wife Zola Taylor, a glamorous diva with the Platters who was eight years older than Lymon. Says Berry: “He had a boyish quality that appealed to women.”

First wife Elizabeth Waters, played in the film by Vivica A. Fox, married Lymon in 1964 and had an arrest record for prostitution and shoplifting. Waters, last known to be living in Philadelphia, detailed her husband’s drug binges and thievery. Though Manhattan’s surrogate court recognized Waters as the legal widow, her victory was overturned in 1990; the estate (by then worth more than $1 million) instead went to third wife Emira Eagle Lymon, a retired teacher in Augusta, Ga. “Other people say he was rude and obnoxious, but he treated me like I was his queen,” says Emira. Of Lymon’s drug addiction, she adds, “I did not know that side of Frankie, the bad side.”

That’s because Emira knew Lymon during a period of sobriety—courtesy of the U.S. Army. Lymon, drafted in 1966, was stationed in Augusta, Ga., when he met Emira through an Army buddy. “I did not like him at first,” recalls Emira. “I thought he was a little cocky.” But Lymon persisted and married her in June of 1967 at the local Beulah Grove Baptist Church. Emira’s memories are fond. “If it was cold,” she says, “he’d get up and start my car and take the shaving cream and write ‘I love you’ on it.” But two months after his December discharge from the Army, Lymon took a trip to New York City, one of many attempts to revive his career. Four days later he was found dead.

Lymon, born in 1942, the second of four sons to Howard Sr., a truck driver, and Jeannette, a housekeeper, had a relatively stable early childhood. But his parents divorced sometime during Frankie’s boyhood, and Lymon moved with his mother and siblings into their grandmother’s apartment. On Sundays he went to St. Rose of Lima Church, where his mother sang in the choir. “She was always very strict with him,” says Frankie’s aunt Mary Weston. Herman Santiago, the neighborhood pal who founded the Teenagers, agrees. Santiago recalls Lymon’s mother (who died in 1961) calling to the singer each night through a window, ” ‘Frankie! It’s time to come home!’ I still remember her screechy voice.”

But not as nostalgically as he remembers Lymon. “He was a natural superstar,” says Santiago, 57, who still lives in the old neighborhood and often performs the old tunes. “There was nobody like Frankie.”

Beth Karlin

Julia Campbell in New York City, Karen Brailsford in Los Angeles and Grace Lim in Miami