The Tokens began as one of the many tough doo-wop groups that emerged from New York City during the early-to-mid-1950s. The original line-up included future pre-Beatles era star Neil Sedaka, Hank Medress, Eddie Rabkin, and Cynthia Zolotin. By the end of the decade the only original member left was Medress. He was then joined by brothers Mitch and Phil Margo, Jay Siegel, and guitarist Joe Venneri.
The reconstituted Tokens would go on to a moderately successful career that was highlighted by issuing one of the most memorable singles of the rock ‘n’ roll era.
Meanwhile in South Africa there had been a local song that had been popular several decades previously. Zulu musician Solomon Linda had written the song “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” and with his group, The Evening Birds, released it as a single in 1939. It became a huge hit in South Africa, selling in the neighborhood of 100,000 copies. By the late 1940s, it had become a staple for American folk group The Weavers. Dozens of artists recorded the song during the 1950s.
The Tokens and “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” met during 1961 when they issued the song as a single for the RCA Label. It reached the top of the Billboard Magazine Pop Singles Chart, December 18, 1961, and remained in that position for three weeks.
Jay Siegel’s high falsetto lead vocal, soaring above the tight harmonies of Hank Medress and the Margo brothers, was a slice of pop heaven. They also increased the tempo, which made the song perfect for radio play during the early 1960s.
It was one of the songs that moved the doo-wop sound of the 1950s into the more pop era of the 1960s. This modernization of a classic 1950s vocal style helped to open up a new decade of music and recording techniques. Their version of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” still sounds modern 50 years after its release.
The song gained new life when it became a part of Disney’s The Lion King. It has been estimated that the song has now generated 15 million dollars in royalty revenues.
“The Lion Sleeps Tonight” ushered 1961 out and welcomed 1962 in style as The Tokens topped the music world 50 years ago