The Tokens

By Gary:

We will go back, way, way back tonight.  This group started in 1956 with two of the principal participants, Jay Seigel and Neil Sedaka.  Neil left the group in 1958, but Sedaka and Greenfield would write most if not all of their early recordings.  They did not have a lot of top 40 hits but in 1961 they would have a # 1 recording that is still played today, it was huge. 

In later years I found out that, as far as credit and writing went, there are a lot of opinions about “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”. See “Controversy” Video and you be the judge.  There were a lot of changes and turmoil with The Tokens, but Jay Seigel and Neil Sedaka remain friends to this day.

The Tokens

the original (1956) Tokens with Neil Sedaka

Videos:

1939 / The Original Recording / 

.

1963 / Rare appearance on Italian TV /

.

PBS / Tonight I fell in Love / 

.

PBS / The Lion Sleeps Tonight / 

.

“The Lion Sleeps Tonight Controversy”

Music:

1956 / (with Neil Sedaka) / I Love my Baby & While I Dream/

.

1961 / Tonight I fell in Love (with Jay Seigel) / # 15

.

1961 / The Lion Sleeps Tonight / # 1

.

1964 / He’s in Town / # 43

.

1966 / I hear Trumpets Blow / # 30

.

1967 / Portrait of my Love / # 36

.

Formed in 1955 in Brooklyn, New York, USA, the Tokens were one of the most
successful white harmony groups of the early 60s, best known for their 1961
number 1 single ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’ (number 11 in the UK). The group
was originally called the Linc-Tones (taken from Lincoln High School, which
the original members all attended) and comprised tenor vocalist Hank Medress
(19 November 1938, Brooklyn, New York City, New York, USA, d. 19 June 2007),
Neil Sedaka (b. 13 March 1939, Brooklyn, New York City, New York, USA),
Eddie Rabkin and Cynthia Zolitin. The following year Rabkin left and was
replaced by Jay Siegel (b. 20 October 1939, Brooklyn, New York City, New
York, USA). With that line-up the group recorded ‘I Love My Baby’ for the
Melba label, with no success. The next change came in 1958 when Sedaka
departed for a hugely successful solo career as a performer and songwriter.
Zolitin also left in 1958 and the remaining duo carried on for a year with
other singers as Darrell And The Oxfords, recording two singles for Roulette
Records.

Twelve-year-old Mitch Margo (b. 25 May 1947, Brooklyn, New York City, New
York, USA) and his brother Phil (b. 1 April 1942, Brooklyn, New York City,
New York, USA) joined Medress and Siegel in December 1959 and the band
changed its name to the Tokens. This was the most successful and stable
line-up of the Tokens. Their first recording as such was the 1961
self-penned ‘Tonight I Fell In Love’, which the Tokens sold to the small
Warwick Records. Following the record’s rise to number 15 in the USA, the
Tokens forged a creative partnership with producers and songwriters Hugo
Peretti and Luigi Creator at RCA Records. That pair, along with songwriter
George Weiss, reworked the folk song ‘Wimoweh’, itself reworked by the folk
group the Weavers from a 30s South African song called ‘Mbube’, into ‘The
Lion Sleeps Tonight’. After the single peaked at the top of the US charts
(number 11 in the UK), the quartet took on another vocalist, Joseph Venneri,
for live performances (he later appeared on recordings, and was replaced in
the mid-60s by Brute Force (b. Stephen Friedland), who went on to record two
solo albums under the Brute Force pseudonym after leaving the Tokens in
1970).

In early 1962 the Tokens branched out from recording under their own name by
signing a production contract with Capitol Records and establishing Big Time
Productions in New York. During the same year, they attempted to repeat the
success of their number 1 record by reworking other songs, including another
African folk song, ‘B’wa Nina (Pretty Girl)’, and the Ritchie Valens hit ‘La
Bomba’ (with a slight spelling change), itself an old Mexican folk song. The
Tokens never recaptured the success they enjoyed with ‘The Lion Sleeps
Tonight’, although they appeared on the US singles chart regularly until the
beginning of the 70s on a succession of record labels, including their own
B.T. Puppy Records, which they formed in 1964 (the label’s greatest success
was with the band the Happenings, who released two Top 5 singles on the
label, produced by the Tokens). Among their other notable releases were
‘He’s In Town’ in 1964, ‘I Hear Trumpets Blow’ in 1966 and ‘Portrait Of My
Love’ in 1967. Meanwhile, their production career took off in 1963 with the
success of ‘He’s So Fine’, a number 1 single by the girl group the Chiffons.
Members of the Tokens also sang on many sessions for other artists at this
time, including Bob Dylan (Highway 61 Revisited) and the Blues Project.

In 1967 the Tokens signed with Warner Brothers Records (which refused to
release a concept album they had recorded entitled Intercourse, which the
band released itself in 1971) and two years later switched over to Buddah
Records. By then their reign as hitmakers was long over, and the Tokens
began splintering. Mitch Margo spent 1969-71 in the Army and Medress
departed the band in October 1970 to produce. His most successful venture
was as co-producer of Tony Orlando and Dawn, one of the bestselling pop acts
of the 70s. Medress also produced a 1972 remake of ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’
by Robert John, which reached number 3 in the USA, and produced records by
singer Dan Hill and New York rocker/cabaret singer Buster Poindexter, a
pseudonym for ex-New York Dolls singer David Johansen. The Tokens carried on
without Medress until 1973, when the remaining trio changed its name to
Cross Country and signed to Atco Records. As such, they placed one single on
the US chart, a remake of the Wilson Pickett hit ‘In The Midnight Hour’
which reached number 30 in 1973. The Tokens finally split in 1974, although
they cut a single together, ‘A Tribute To The Beach Boys ’76’, in 1976.

A reunion concert in New York in 1981 featured the Margo brothers, Siegel
and Medress. Some of the band members, particularly Mitch Margo, attempted
to keep the Tokens name alive by forming new line-ups into the 80s and 90s,
and one even re-recorded ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’ in 1988 for the small
Downtown label. Phil Margo went on to become a manager of rock bands. Jay
Siegel became owner/manager of a recording studio in New York.

–o–

One response to “The Tokens

  1. John Henderson

    Thanks for this. Been a Tokens fan since first hearing “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” on WKBW, Buffalo. I was near Ottawa at 2:00 a.m. and feared losing the signal so I pulled to the side of the road so I could hear all of it..

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