The five Brooklynites who made up the ranks of The Tokens throughout most of the 1960s were much more than just a popular vocal group. Street corner harmonizers Henry "Hank" Medress, Jay Siegel and brothers Philip Margo and Mitch Margo had developed as songwriters in the latter half of the '50s, following in the footsteps of former group member Neil Sedaka, who'd successfully lit both ends of the candle as a singer and composer of catchy pop tunes. But the Tokens, with guitar player Joe Venneri, took Neil one further. Some sort of triangular wax stick would have been required to metaphorically represent their other specialty, producing records, impressively so in the case of a particularly "Fine" Bronx-based girl group. But before that came about, an unexpected hit single ensured the Tokens' permanent place in pop culture: "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," their 1961 reworking of a classic African song, is one of the most recognizable recordings of all time.

Medress was the only member of the hitmaking '60s crew back in 1955 when The Linc-Tones came together, proudly representing Abraham Lincoln High School, the Brooklyn institution each of them attended at one time or another. Cynthia Zolotin, Eddie Rabkin and classical piano prodigy Sedaka decided The Tokens sounded better as a name; Rabkin left the following year and was replaced by Siegel. Cynthia's family had connections in the city at the Brill Building, which opened doors for her and Neil; the quartet auditioned for Morty Craft, owner of the Willows' label, Melba, and recorded "I Love My Baby" (with a lead vocal by Rabkin) backed with "While I Dream" (lead by Sedaka), both written by Neil and another Lincoln High student, Howard Greenfield. This led to an appearance on Ted Steele's Teen Bandstand show on WOR-TV, though the single didn't catch on outside the N.Y. area.

The group gradually separated and in '58 Hank and Jay ventured forth with Warren Schwartz and Fred Kalkstein as the oddly-named Darrell and the Oxfords; two 1959 singles on Roulette included the ballad "Picture in My Wallet." Late in the year another shake-up occurred when Hank and Jay began singing with younger Lincoln High student Phil Margo, who played piano, and his 12-year-old brother Mitch. They came up with another strange name, Those Guys, then in 1960 Joe Venneri joined and the group functioned as a quintet for several years. Craft signed them again, this time for the Warwick label, insisting they ditch that "Those Guys" misnomer. Reviving the Tokens name, they hit the top 20 in the spring of '61 with a catchy 'doo-be-doo-be-dum...' tune penned by Margo and Medress, "Tonight I Fell in Love."

With a hit finally under their belts, the Tokens moved right up the ladder to a major label, RCA Victor, where Sedaka had been cranking out hits for a couple of years. Former Roulette Records producers Hugo Peretti and Luigi Creatore had been working their magic at RCA for a little over a year, building an impressive resumé at the helm of hits by The Isley Brothers ("Shout"), Ray Peterson ("Tell Laura I Love Her") and Sam Cooke ("Chain Gang" and more). Their early efforts with the Tokens were doo wop songs typical of the group but resembling a smoother Belmonts style (Margo-Medress original "When I Go to Sleep at Night" and a remake of The Moonglows' 1955 standard "Sincerely"), but this approach just didn't connect and the group decided to lean in the direction of the folk movement popular at the time.

In 1939, South African singer Solomon Linda and his Original Evening Birds recorded "Mbube" (pronounced "eem-boo-beh" or something close to that), loosely translated as a Zulu "lion song." He couldn't have guessed the impact it would have, as Pete Seeger, a fan of the music of many cultures, adapted the song in 1952 as "Wimoweh," a misheard title that nevertheless became a hit for his group The Weavers in 1952. Many artists followed with both "Mbube" recordings (South African star Miriam Makeba, for example) and "Wimoweh" remakes (such as The Kingston Trio's live version). Hugo and Luigi rewrote the song with composers George David Weiss and Albert Stanton, westernizing the lyrics (but keeping it simple, like the original) and making more of the "King of Beasts" theme than Linda perhaps originally intended.

Jay Siegel delivered an attention-grabbing lead vocal with 'a-wimoweh-a-wimoweh' backing from the guys and a large dose of coloratura flourishes from female studio singers. Doubts existed as to the hit potential of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," particularly with the many previous existing versions, and the flip side, "Tina" (a Portuguese song adapted into English by Marion Roberts), was briefly promoted and received airplay on a handful of stations. Former Token Neil Sedaka was especially critical of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," going so far as to say "It stinks!"...but he later had to eat his words, which he did in a laughing, "joke's on me" way. The "Lion" charged in November and quickly leapt to number one, reaching its majestic position near the end of the year. As songwriters, Hugo, Luigi and George Weiss enjoyed a simultaneous smash, the standout Blue Hawaii track "Can't Help Falling in Love," yet even the power of Elvis Presley couldn't push it higher than number two! "Lion" was also a U.K. hit, but a liberally altered remake of "Wimoweh" by Scottish yodeler Karl Denver was even bigger, landing in the top five early in '62.

Africa provided further inspiration for the Tokens' follow-up, "B'wa Nina (Pretty Girl)," a bit more contrived but consistent with the "Lion Sleeps" sound. Then came a respelled remake of the traditional Mexican song "La Bomba," which had been a big hit for Ritchie Valens in early '59 at the time of his tragic death. A weird novelty instrumental, "The Fly Swatter," under the name D.D.T. and the Repellents, kicked off a series of experimental recordings that the Tokens sporadically unleashed throughout the years. None of these 1962 efforts came anywhere near the top 40, an elusive benchmark that would only be attained two more singers. But as producers, their biggest hit was still to come. In early '62 the four (without Venneri) signed with Capitol to make records under the name "Bright-Tunes Productions," while their previous recording contract stayed in effect for two more years; only one more chart single appeared on RCA, the uptempo "Hear the Bells" in the summer of '63.

Eddie Rabkin, Hank Medress, Cynthia Zolotin, Neil Sedaka

Hank, Jay, Phil and Mitch had cause to celebrate the Bright-Tunes deal when they produced The Chiffons, a girl group made up of Bronx high schoolers Judy Craig, Barbara Lee, Patricia Bennett and Sylvia Peterson (who also recorded as The Four Pennies and did backing vocals for another Bright-Tunes teen, Andrea Carroll). The first Chiffons offering was the Ronnie Mack-penned "He's So Fine," which Capitol rejected; the Tokens sold the masters to Laurie Records...and in March 1963 it shot to number one, followed by many other hits by the hot female quartet. Queens, New York group Randy and the Rainbows jumped on the Bright-Tunes bandwagon with "Denise" on Laurie's Rust label and the Tokens themselves somehow flew beneath RCA's radar with a single of their own on Laurie, "Please Write."

Still working with Hugo and Luigi, the group made an unrecognizable attempt at joining the car song craze with "Let's Go to the Drag Strip." At the end of the RCA Victor contract in 1964, the Tokens put out a single reminiscent of their "Tonight I Fell" breakthrough, "Remember Last Summer" as The Four Winds on the Swing label (credited to "Big Time Productions"), then started B.T. Puppy Records (as in the "child" of Bright-Tunes/Big Time), christening the label, as the Tokens, with a dance tune called "Swing." "He's in Town," a Gerry Goffin-Carole King composition, just missed the top 40 (in England it was a major hit for The Rockin' Berries). In 1966, "I Hear Trumpets Blow" landed the Tokens in the top 30, establishing it as their biggest post-"Lion" hit.

The Bright-Tunes boys signed a New Jersey group, The Happenings (Bob Miranda, Tom Giuliano, Ralph DiVito and Dave Libert), to B.T. Puppy in 1966, producing them in a style similar to Tokens records. Several hits resulted, all remakes of classic tunes; "See You in September" in '66 (previously a hit for The Tempos in '59) and "I Got Rhythm" in '67 (a Gershwin Brothers song originally featured in the 1930 Broadway musical Girl Crazy) were the biggest of the bunch and highlights of the Bright-Tunes catalog. In 1967 the Tokens signed with Warner Bros. Records and reached the top 40 one last time with a remake of "Portrait of My Love," which had been a 1961 hit for Matt Monro in the U.K. and Steve Lawrence in the U.S. The group continued making records under creatively confusing alter egos; they joined The Kirby Stone Four on "Life is Groovy," released as United States Double Quartet, and did an oddball single as Margo, Margo, Medress and Siegel, "Needles of Evergreen."

A pair of minor hits appeared on the Buddah label, starting with "She Lets Her Hair Down (Early in the Morning)," a Miss Clairol hair color commercial from 1969 that competed for radio airplay with a cover by Gene Pitney. In 1970, the Tokens had their final chart single, a remake of The Beach Boys' hit '64 B side, "Don't Worry Baby." Founding member Hank Medress left the group and wasted no time in putting some big hits on the board producing Tony Orlando and Dawn. In 1972, he and Dave Appell produced a seemingly pointless, near-identical remake of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" by Brooklyn-born singer Robert John, for whom it was an unexpected breakthrough (he'd been making records since 1958)...a million seller, in fact, causing almost as much a sensation as the Tokens' version had a decade earlier.

Jay Siegel, Phil Margo and Mitch Margo emerged as Cross Country on Atco, going top 30 in 1973 with an easygoing rendition of Wilson Pickett's mid-'60s hit "In the Midnight Hour." They had a brief stint as performers on the television game show Musical Chairs, hosted by singer Adam Wade in 1975 and 1976, while more Tokens records (some as the Four Winds) appeared on various labels. Then in 1994, thanks to Walt Disney's blockbuster animated film The Lion King, The Tokens were hot again and practically all the children in North America went around singing along with "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," just like their parents had been doing since the early '60s.

- Michael Jack Kirby



I Love My Baby Tonight I Fell in Love The Lion Sleeps Tonight La Bomba Hear the Bells