The first artifact in the Michigan Rock and Roll Legends Hall of Fame – which honors doo-wop star Frankie Lymon – arrived this winter at the Historical Museum of Bay County.
Organizers hope the Hall of Fame eventually features Madonna, The Bay City Rollers, Question Mark and the Mysterians, and other influential musicians with ties to the Great Lakes Bay Region.
The first new artifact arrived after months of effort by Gary Johnson, a retired Essexville-Hampton Public Schools teacher. Johnson is a life-long fan of music and created a rock and roll history course at Cramer Junior High School.
“That was a lot of fun!” Johnson says. “I ended up writing a textbook and as far as I know I think it was the first multimedia rock and roll history class probably in the state of Michigan.”
Today, Johnson teaches rock and roll history for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Saginaw Valley State University. He runs the Michigan Rock and Roll Legends website, where he regularly blogs about Michigan’s rock and roll history, and serves on the Board of Directors for the Historical Museum of Bay County.
Serenus Johnson Construction helped moved the tombstone inside the Historical Museum of Bay County, where it will become part of a new Michigan Rock and Roll Legends Hall of Fame.Serenus Johnson Construction helped moved the tombstone inside the HistIn 2007, Johnson learned about a piece of music history: the monument tombstone dedicated to doo-wop star Frankie Lymon, who was 13 when he debuted with “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” in 1956.
Johnson first came across the tombstone’s story while reading a copy of Weird N.J. Lymon is buried at St. Raymond’s Cemetery in the Bronx, and for many years his grave was unmarked, Johnson says. According to Weird N.J., Lymon’s tombstone sat in a record shop for years. When the shop closed, the tombstone moved to the backyard of a private home.
But in the fall of 2020, Johnson began his quest to ship the tombstone to Bay City for the Hall of Fame.
Lymon and The Teenagers are credited with breaking new ground for doo wop, young artists, and African American artists.
“Prior to 1956, records were primarily directed at adults,” Johnson says. “They showed record companies there’s this emerging youth market that is going to be very lucrative.”
The Teenagers were together from 1956-57. Their short-lived fame was followed by tough times. The Teenagers broke up while on a European tour and Lymon found himself in a solo career. While hit songs and sold-out concerts lasted awhile, the record company executives exploited the artists’ inexperience and kept most of the profits.
When Lymon stopped having hits, he turned to heroin to fill the void. On Feb. 27, 1968, Lymon overdosed. He was just 25 years old. More on Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers can be read on Johnson's blog.
Lymon’s influence on the music world continued after his death. Detroit-born Diana Ross covered “Why do Fools Fall in Love” in the 1980s, which became a hit and says Lymon was the reason she started singing, according to Johnson. Motown founder and producer Berry Gordy looked for similarities to Frankie Lymon when signing new talent, such as Saginaw-born Stevie Wonder. Boyz II Men inducted The Teenagers into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993 and cited the group as an influence.
While other artists felt Lymon’s inspiration, his grave was unmarked. On the 20th anniversary of Lymon’s death, Ronnie Italiano, who owned a music shop in New Jersey and founded the United in Group Harmony Association (UGHA), worked with Lymon’s widow, Emira Eagle, to hold a fundraiser to purchase a tombstone.
It reads “In memory of Frankie Lymon. We ‘Promise to Remember’ ” in reference to one of The Teenagers’ songs.
The tombstone never made it to the grave. After Eagle became involved in a highly-publicized court case with two other women claiming to be married to Lymon, her lawyers advised her to purchase her own tombstone in order to bolster her case in court. This left the UGHA with a beautiful tombstone, but no grave to put it on.
Italiano died in 2008, the shop closed in 2012, and the UGHA fizzled soon after. Italiano’s widow asked UGHA member Pam Nardella to keep the tombstone. Nardella moved it to her backyard in Elmwood Park, N.J.
Then, last summer, New Jersey doo-wop artist Nicky Addeo, who was in The Darchaes, emailed Johnson about the tombstone. In October, Johnson traveled to New Jersey to visit family and ask Nardella about moving it to Bay City. Nardella was delighted to hear it would be displayed in a museum where its story could be told.
Monroe Monuments agreed to move the piece of music history. The tombstone arrived at the Bay County museum on Jan. 14. Serenus Johnson Construction helped move it inside, where it will become part of the new Michigan Rock and Roll Legends Hall of Fame.
The exhibit is currently in the planning and development stages and will be located on the second floor.
Johnson plans to “show the connection that doo wop was really one of the pillars, or building blocks I guess you could say, of rock and roll.” Doo Wop was popular between 1954 and 1963 and served as some of the roots of Motown. “The Supremes, The Miracles, the Four Tops, Stevie Wonder, even Marvin Gaye,” Johnson says. “Marvin Gaye sang in two doo-wop groups before he was signed onto Motown, and of course became their biggest male singing star.”
There are currently 114 framed photos of inductees into the Michigan Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — all which Johnson wants to hang in the Bay City exhibit.
“We’re hoping also to have a fairly large exhibit on Madonna, the most famous rock and roll star to be born in Bay City,” Johnson says. He hopes to contact her father, owner of Ciccone Winery in Leelanau County, to ask about acquiring something from the star to display at the museum. Johnson says an exhibit in her hometown honoring Madonna’s achievements is “long overdue.” So far, the museum has a set of photos of Madonna taken in 1985 at the Pontiac Silverdome by former BCHS board member Dick Van Nostrand.
Question Mark and the Mysterians recorded its hit "96 Tears," in Bay City. A display honoring the band greets first-floor visitors now, but it eventually will move to the second floor and become part of the Hall of Fame exhibit.The exhibit also will feature the Bay City Rollers. Hailing from Scotland, the band picked its name after throwing darts at a U.S. map. The museum currently has the band’s cement handprints on display from its 1970’s visit. Johnson thinks there may be more of their memorabilia around town that could add to the exhibit.
Question Mark and The Mysterians of Bay City and Saginaw are currently displayed on the first floor and Johnson plans to move that display to the new exhibit. The smash hit “96 Tears” was recorded at 405 Raymond St. in Bay City at the Art Schiell Recording Studio. Later, Meat Loaf recorded “Hello” and “Once Upon a Time” at the same studio and released them on Magenda Records in Freeland. Today, there is a plaque outside of the home where the recording studio was located.
“Bay City was also the birthplace of a highly regarded photographer by the name of Tom Bert,” Johnson adds. “Tom was mainly a car photographer, he worked for all the major automobile companies, but his great love was music.”
Bert photographed many album covers for artists such as Bob Seger, Neil Diamond, Gordon Lightfoot, and Ringo Starr. A collection of his photographs are another planned section of this exhibit.
“It’s going to be an interesting few months here to work on this,” he says. “I’m anxious to get started.”