“Why Do Fools Fall in Love” is one of the classic hits of the ‘50s. Along with its importance to the history of rock ‘n’ roll, the song has one of the most convoluted copyright histories in all of music publishing—one that illustrates the often shady practices of the music business over the decades.
The story begins with small-time label owner George Goldner. Schmatta seller by day, mambo dancer by night, Goldner’s love of music led him to form his first label, Tico Records. From its beginnings, Goldner began an endless search for investors to keep the operation afloat. It didn’t help that Goldner was addicted to gambling, often losing any profits he made.
In 1953, Goldner formed Rama Records, scoring his first hit a year later with “Gee” by the Crows. Lacking cash to press records to meet demand, he took on a new partner: the wily Morris Levy, operator of the nightclub Birdland, a music promoter and publisher with an eye to muscling into the record business.
One of the first groups signed to the new alliance was the Cleftones, who hit with “You Baby You” in December 1955. When the record hit, the group was called down to see Goldner at his offices. When they arrived, they were introduced to Morris Levy, along with two tough-looking characters, Tommy Vastola and Johnny Roberts. Levy announced that these men would be their new managers; Vastola was also given a co-author credit for “You Baby You.” (A member of the DeCalvacante Mafia family, Vastola worked with Levy on many deals over the decades.)
Goldner next auditioned a group of teenagers from upper Manhattan. They sang “Why Do Birds Sing So Gay?,” written by lead singer Herman Santiago and tenor Jimmy Merchant. Singing in the background was the group’s newest and youngest member, 13-year-old Frankie Lymon. Goldner recognized that Lymon was the vocal standout and suggested that he sing the lead and retitled the song “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” On the original release, the song was credited to Lymon-Santiago-Goldner, but as soon as Goldner realized he had a major hit on his hands, he dropped Santiago’s name from the label credit and—most importantly—left it off the copyright registration. (Merchant never got credit at all.) The implications of Goldner’s exploitation of this copyright resonated over the following decades.
In 1965, the ever in-debt Goldner sold his authorship in the song to Levy; that same year, Frankie Lymon—now a has-been addicted to heroin—also sold out to Levy. Over the years, Santiago, Merchant, and others from the group tried to collect royalties for the record from Levy, but they claimed he threatened them with bodily harm if they continued to demand payment. “You want royalties,” Levy was said to quip, “Go to England!”
The story might have ended there if not for two unexpected developments: a change in the copyright laws; and an unexpected revival of interest in doowop songs. In 1978, the copyright laws were amended so that if a person died during the first 26 year term of an agreement, his heirs could reclaim the work from its original publisher. Meanwhile, “Fools,” was a major hit in 1981 for Diana Ross.
The popularity of ‘50s rock and doowop did not escape the notice of a small-time agent named Chuck Rubin. In the early ‘60s, Rubin was booking pop harmony groups in North Jersey clubs as a sideline to his work as a teacher. Then, he was hired by New York’s General Artists’ Corporation that represented acts like Chuck Berry and Sam Cooke. In 1963 GAC nabbed a new act trying to break into the US market: the Beatles. Rubin did much of the grunt work for the Beatles’ first US visit in 1964.
Within the next few years Rubin went out on his own, ending up managing one-time hitmaker Wilbert Harrison. Harrison complained to Rubin about never receiving royalties from his hit, “Kansas City.” Rubin decided to take on Harrison’s cause, beginning his new life as an artist-advocate. His initial success with Harrison inspired Rubin to continue to hunt for ‘50s artists who might be owed money either for songwriting or recording rights. This led him to “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” Rubin tracked down Lymon’s wife, Emira, and arranged for her to bring suit against Levy in 1984.
Levy was not about to let Emira and Rubin claim authorship to “Fools” without a battle. Faced with this lawsuit, the ever-wily Levy pulled an ace out of his sleeve: He challenged Emira’s status as the true heir to Lyman’s estate by producing not one but two other women who claimed to have been married to Lymon. Levy advanced them the money to bring their counterclaim as Lymon’s true heirs. The judge suspended Emira’s case until it could be determined which of the three women was in fact the legitimate ex-wife of Lymon.
Both women’s claims were shaky at best. Lymon’s first “wife,” Elizabeth, began living with him in 1962. Although they were wed in 1964, Elizabeth’s divorce from her first husband was not yet complete, raising questions about their marriage’s legitimacy. In 1965 Lymon took off for California and moved in with Zola Taylor, ex–lead singer of the Platters. Zola claimed that they were married in to Mexico, but could not produce either proof of her divorce from her second husband or the marriage certificate itself. While Taylor was touring Japan in 1966, Lymon returned to New York and his original “wife” Elizabeth, claiming that the Mexican marriage was just a “publicity stunt.”
In December 1966, Lymon was drafted into the army and was sent for training to Fort Gordon, Georgia, where he met his third wife, Emira. After a brief time together, Lymon returned to New York to try to renew his career. He was found dead from a heroin overdose on February 17, 1968.
While initially the court decided that Elizabeth had the strongest claim as Lymon’s heir, eventually an appeals court in 1989 sided with Emira. Levy settled with Emira and agreed to split the publishing income with her.
When Rubin and Emira were first planning to take action against Levy, they enlisted Santiago and Merchant to testify on Emira’s behalf in return for her sharing two-thirds of the settlement—in essence belatedly acknowledging their claim of authorship. However—perhaps because they were not needed to make the case—Rubin cut them out. This infuriated Santiago and Merchant who then sued Emira, Rubin, and Levy. Ironically, Rubin agreed to represent Levy and his publishing company in defending their mutual rights to the song.
Levy and his codefendants asserted that Goldner in fact helped write the song. When deposed during the original lawsuit, Levy incredibly claimed to have “made some changes in the lyric” to “Fools” even though he was not at the session and did not meet the Teenagers until after the song was released. Levy’s claim was rejected by the jury in light of Merchant and Santiago’s compelling evidence that they were singing the song before Lymon joined the group.
However, Santiago and Merchant faced another problem: the statute of limitations. Under the law, copyright owners have to bring suit within three years of their discovery that their rights are being abused. Taking account of the fact that both were underage when they signed with Goldner, they should have brought suit no later than 1964. Three trials later, the duo lost in their claim for past royalties. By this time, Levy had passed away from colon cancer. Despite losing their case, Levy’s son agreed to credit the songwriters and pay future royalties for both the recording and the song.
Adapted from Godfather of the Music Business: Morris Levy by Richard Carlin (U Press of Mississippi; www.upress.state.ms.us/books/1933; © Richard Carlin