Zola Taylor, who broke gender barriers as the first female member of the 1950s R&B group The Platters and later became entangled in a public soap opera as one of three women claiming to be pop idol Frankie Lymon’s widow, died April 30 in Riverside, Calif. She was 69.
Taylor, who had been bedridden following several strokes, died from complications of pneumonia, said her nephew Alfie Robinson.
Founding Platters member Herb Reed said he spotted Taylor, the sister of Cornell Gunter of the Coasters, rehearsing with a girl group in 1955 and knew immediately she had the charisma and vocal chops the band needed.
The all-male group had just signed with Mercury after its single “Only You” topped the charts and its manager thought they needed a female voice to soften their sound.
“She was a very pretty young lady and what a great, great smile,” Reed told The Associated Press. “And she had this baby voice that everyone liked.”
Reed said Taylor, a contralto, turned out to be a great fit. She showed up on time, knew her harmony parts and charmed audiences with her smile and beauty. With her in the lineup, “The Great Pretender” raced to the number one spot on both R & B and pop music charts in the U.S. and Europe, according to The Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock and Soul” by Irwin Stambler.
It didn’t take long before the group’s success spawned a rush of imitators.
“It was a great surprise to everyone,” Reed said. “We were the first Afro-American group to have a girl singer. That was the talk of the nation. All of the sudden, other groups started looking for girls.”
The Platters’ success began to fizzle after 1959, when four members were arrested in a Cincinnati hotel and accused of using drugs and soliciting prostitutes. Reed said he had been out of touch with Taylor since the early 1960s.
Taylor was back in the spotlight in 1968, when she and two other women who claimed to be former teenage idol Frankie Lymon’s widow became embroiled in a bitter legal battle for his royalties.
Robinson said she told him that the two wed in Mexico while she was touring with the Platters and forgot to file papers in San Diego.
Reed said he was as surprised by the uproar as the titillated public.
“I never heard Zola say anything about marrying Frankie Lymon, I never saw him with her and he never mentioned anything about it,” he said.
The drama was a focal point in the 1998 Lymon biopic “Why Do Fools Fall in Love.” Halle Berry played Taylor.
Robinson, Taylor’s closest known living relative, said his aunt continued touring with other lesser-known acts until 1996 and wed two other times. Her last husband died in 1982, he said. She had no children.