Getting Rich Slow

updated 12/07/1992 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/07/1992 01:00AM

ON THE BULLETIN BOARD IN JIMMY MERCHANT'S modest Queens, N.Y., apartment is a sweepstakes circular urging, CLAIM THE PRIZE YOU MAY ALREADY HAVE WON. Two weeks ago, Merchant and Herman Santiago, both 52 and founding members of the '50s doo-wop group Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, took a big step toward winning the prize they have been trying to claim for 36 years. A federal jury ruled that they were the authors of the 1956 blockbuster hit "Why Do Fools Fall in Love?" and are entitled to what could be millions in royalties. (A second trial within a few weeks will determine the exact amount.)

Witnesses testified that Merchant and Santiago were 15-year-old street-corner harmonizers who came up with the tune before Lymon joined them. But promoter George Goldner registered Lymon and himself as the composers. According to Santiago, when he and Merchant challenged this, they were threatened with injury or worse.

After going solo, Lymon died in 1968 from a heroin overdose. The promoter to whom Goldner signed over the copyright, Morris Levy, succumbed to cancer in 1990, three years after the songwriters launched their suit. As the case against Levy's estimated $75 million estate ground through the courts, Santiago worked sporadically as a stagehand. Merchant, a father of five, drove a cab, and together they plied the oldies circuit with a new edition of the Teenagers. Merchant recalls being so "sickened" at hearing Diana Ross' remake of "Fools" on a 1981 album—for which neither he nor Santiago got a penny—that he switched to playing jazz stations in his cab. "The people who initially raped us as children still had the rights to our creation," he says.

Now the pair plan to sink some of the anticipated windfall into their very much alive group. Merchant, who shares cramped quarters with his mutt Barney, hopes to buy a country place "with no houses around it." For him the jury's verdict is proof that, ultimately, injustice cannot be sustained. "Thirty-six years is a long, long, long time," he says. "But they never really do get away with it."

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