Getting Rich Slow
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."