Friday, November 26, 2021

A Token Of Our Appreciation

As we begin our 23rd year of producing Forgotten Hits, we are happy to share this '60's FLASHBACK ...


In today's FH, you mentioned the passing of Philip Margo of the Tokens. It got me to thinking of how maybe the name, Tokens, came about.

I believe there was a group earlier called the Tokens. They had a record in 1957 called DOOM-LANG / COME DANCE WITH ME on Gary Records and a record in 1956 called WHILE I DREAM / I LOVE MY BABY on Melba Records with Neil Sedaka. Through the years, some people have confused the two groups thinking they were one and the same. I have copies of both records and just now got them out to play since I haven't heard them in years.  I was just wondering of the Margo Brothers and how they came about to use the name Tokens.

Larry Neal


Here is my understanding of how The Margo Brothers joined the group that in 1961 became known as The Tokens …

If anyone out there can add more to the story, we’d love to hear from you.


As Larry mentioned, there was an earlier vocal group called The Tokens that was formed in Brooklyn, New York in the mid-to-late ‘50’s.  (They were first known as The Linc-Tones, named after Lincoln High School, which they all attended.)  It consisted of Hank Medress, Neil Sedaka, Eddie Rabkin and Cynthia Zolitin.  They would perform at after school functions, sock hops, dances and bar mitzvahs.  They also used to sing in the subway stations (great echo!) for tips and, as has always been the common practice, tokens were needed to ride any of the subway trains, so this is where the name change originally came from.  (I’ve heard other variations of this story … but this one seems to be the most common.  In fact, as you'll see in our '60's FLASHBACK below, The Margo Brothers offered me a different explanation altogether!)

The group was signed to the small Melba Record Label in 1956, with Sedaka still onboard.  (“I Love My Baby,” as mentioned above, was one side of that record.) 

Before the year was over, Rabkin left the group and was replaced by Jay Siegel, who still performs as The Tokens to this day.  (We were fortunate to meet Jay a few years back at the Freddy Cannon show here in Chicago at The Arcada Theatre … great guy … and he has participated with Forgotten Hits from time to time as well.)

Anyway, Sedaka and Zolitin left the group in 1958, Sedaka going on to have his own mammoth solo recording career.

At this point, the group essentially disbanded, and Medress and Siegell went on to form Darrell and the Oxfords, another doo-wop group that recorded and performed for the next couple of years without much success.

In 1960, Medress decided to reform The Tokens and this is when Phil and Mitch Margo joined the group.  They were first signed to Warwick Records and had a #12 hit in 1961 with “Tonight I Fell In Love,” a song written by Medress, Margo and Margo.

Before the year was over, they jumped ship to RCA, where they recorded the monster smash “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” an across-the-boards #1 Hit that has never left radio since.  (The song itself dates back to the 1930’s when it was first recorded as an African folk song titled “Mbube” by Solomon Linda.  The Weavers got ahold of it in the early ‘50’s and recorded it as “Wimoweh” with some success … but it was The Tokens’ version that became the definitive one, resurrected countless times for film, tv and commercial advertisements, including ads for Burger King and inclusion in the films “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective” and “The Lion King.”) 

The group was then brought in to produce a new act for Laurie Records called The Chiffons, and another string of hits ensued.  With Jay Siegel back in the fold, they formed B.T. Puppy Records and signed and produced a string of hits for The Happenings, in addition to continuing to hit the charts under their own name.  (“B’wa Nina,” #46, 1962; “He’s In Town,” #43, 1964; “I Hear Trumpets Blow,” #28, 1966; “Portrait Of My Love,” #25, 1967, “It’s A Happening World,” #69, 1967 and “She Lets Her Hair Down,” #59, 1970.)  They even recorded a version of The Beach Boys’ classic “Don’t Worry Baby” that hit #71 in 1970 … and, in 1994, took “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” back to #51, thanks to its use in the very popular money-making film “The Lion King.”

Medress left in 1970 to produce Tony Orlando and Dawn and Siegel, Margo and Margo did a one-off hit single under the name Cross Country, which reached #18 in 1973 when they did a slowed-down version of the old Wilson Pickett track, “In The Midnight Hour.”  (Medress also produced the #2 Hit remake of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” recorded by Robert John in 1972.)

With the recent passing of Phil Margo, that leaves only Jay Siegel as an original member of the hit-making Tokens left … and I can state from personal experience that he is still in fine voice and puts on a very entertaining and respectful show of this music.  (Mendress died in 2007 and Mitch Margo in 2017.)  kk


We have traced the roots of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” a couple of times now in Forgotten Hits …


But since the topic has come up again … and since it is one of the more unique song history trails … and since we just lost Phil Margo … I figured why not run it one more time.



We first did a piece on "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" back in 2006, in which we ran clips of several different versions, including The Weavers' hit, the original Solomon Linda Zulu Chant, the #1 Hit recorded by The Tokens, the Robert John remake hit version from the early '70's and a [then] recent remake by the popular boy-band N*Sync.) 

I have been talking with Mitch Margo of The Tokens recently … and decided to put together a little "background piece" on the group.

The Tokens (first calling themselves The Linc-Tones) were formed in Brooklyn, New York, back in 1955 when Lincoln High Schoolers Neil Sedaka, Jay Siegel, Hank Medress, Cynthia Zolitin and Eddie Rabkin got together to perform at weddings, bar-mitzvahs and school functions.  

Sedaka (who we've covered a number of times before in Forgotten Hits) was considered a child prodigy on the piano ... although he was classically trained (and would eventually attend Julliard), he really loved the new sounds of Rock And Roll and the street-corner harmonies of the up and coming Doo Wop Groups. 

Already writing songs as a teenager, Neil supplied some of the original compositions that this early version of The Tokens performed.  (Because he had a crush on Cynthia Zolitin, the other members of the group felt that he was favoring her by awarding Cynthia all of the lead vocals!) 

Although the other members of the group may have been jealous, they tolerated this arrangement for a while ... after all, Cynthia's Mother knew a man by the name of Happy Goday, who ran a music publishing company in the famed Brill Building (where Sedaka would eventually land as a staff songwriter!) and he just might be their ticket to fame and fortune!  Goday arranged an audition with Morty Craft of Melba Records, who signed the vocal group to their first recording contract.

Still disenchanted with how things seemed to be going, (the Melba recordings failed to chart), The Tokens eventually parted ways, with Sedaka going off on his own to pursue a solo singing (and songwriting) career and Medress and Siegel forming a NEW group (along with new recruits Warren Schwartz and Fred Kalkstein) called Darrell and the Oxfords.

By 1959, The Oxfords had already recorded a couple of flop singles and Neil Sedaka had already had a few solo Top 40 Hits (including one written for his NEW crush, Carole King, called "Oh, Carol," which topped the charts here in Chicago.  (We featured both "Oh, Carol" and Carole King's reply, "Oh, Neil" awhile back in FH). 

Hank Medress and Jay Siegel figured that they could probably do better on their own than with The Oxfords … perhaps even seek out and produce new talent ... so they returned to their old hunting grounds and soon discovered Phil and Mitch Margo, two brothers who were now attending Lincoln High.  (Incredibly, Mitch was only thirteen years old at the time!)  They started rehearsing together and liked the way things sounded.  They quickly dubbed themselves "Those Guys" and auditioned for a couple of different record companies.  Ironically, it was old pal Morty Craft (now running Warwick Records) who signed the boys to a brand new recording contract. 

Their first effort was the song "Tonight I Fell In Love," which would eventually go to #15 in both Billboard and Cash Box Magazine.  Craft HATED the name "Those Guys," however, and persuaded them to go back to calling themselves The Tokens.  Once Dick Clark got behind their new record, things began to happen very quickly.  With a solid hit record now under their belts, they next moved on to RCA Records, home of ... guess who ... Neil Sedaka! … and, working with famed producers Hugo and Luigi, cut remake of a ten year old Weavers folk tune called "Wimoweh."   

With some quickly-written additional lyrics, The Tokens soon had their first (and only) Number One Hit ... retitled "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," the record raced up the charts.  Collectively, the producers (Hugo and Luigi) and the singers (The Tokens) had come up with a whole new musical style, which caught the ear of virtually all of America ... the record took the country by storm!  It can be said that the combination of the popular new folk trend ... along with their street corner Doo-Wop roots ... made for just the right mixture to create one of the most popular, famous and time-tested #1 Hits of all-time ... but you've also got to give an awful lot of credit to Jay Siegel's soaring falsetto lead vocal ... it simply makes the tune. 

DIDJAKNOW?-1:  Obviously, Brooklyn's Lincoln High School produced some pretty good vocal talent ... but DIDJAKNOW that it was ALSO the setting for the film "The Lords Of Flatbush"???

DIDJAKNOW?-2:  It has been reported for the past forty years that The Tokens took their name from the subway tokens they used to buy in order to ride to Manhattan ... but The Margos told us that their name REALLY came from the expression "A TOKEN Of My Affection."  Cool, huh?!?!?

DIDJAKNOW?-3:  The origin of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" dates back to 1939, when a South African singer named Solomon Linda first recorded a Zulu chant called "Mbube."   Thirteen years later, The Weavers got ahold of the tune and recorded it (with a few new lyrics ... VERY few, in fact) and, as the newly-retitled "Wimoweh," scored a #14 Pop Hit in 1952.  When Hugo and Luigi learned that "Wimoweh" was actually about a lion hunt, they recruited songwriter George Weiss to write new English lyrics and the song became "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," which went on to top the U.S. Charts ten years after The Weavers' Top 20 single.  (The following year, that same songwriting trio penned one of Elvis Presley's biggest hits, "Can't Help Falling In Love," this time inspired by an old French tune!!!)

A SPECIAL TREAT:  The Evolution Of A Song:

Thanks to some pretty rare clips tracked down by FH Reader Hil (aka THEONEBUFF), we are now able to track the evolution of the song that we have all come to know and love as "The Lion Sleeps Tonight."

Listen first to "Mbube" by Solomon Linda, a 1939 recording of not much more than a Zulu chant.  


In 1953, The Weavers took it to another level when they added a few lyrics to the African beat and released it as "Wimoweh."  


When The Tokens auditioned for RCA Records with their rendition of "Wimoweh," producers Hugo Peretti and Luigi Creatore liked it enough to call in songwriter George Weiss and commissioned him to write a complete new set of English lyrics, taking the song to its final state.  In hindsight, it's truly amazing to think that each enterprising new producer heard enough of a magical melody in the previous rendition to push it to another level ... but "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" has stood the test of time ... it truly is a rock and roll classic!  


Ten years after The Tokens went to #1 with their Pop Hit version of the song, it became a hit all over again for an artist by the name of Robert John … he took his version of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" all the way back up the charts to #2 in 1972.  (John would hit the #1 Spot in both Billboard and Cash Box Magazine seven years later when "Sad Eyes" topped the charts.

DIDJAKNOW? - 4:  The Robert John remake of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" was produced by original Tokens Hank Medress and Jay Siegel!!!  How unusual (and intimidating!) it must have been to have your remake of one of the most famous, most popular, best-known songs ever recorded be produced by a couple of the guys who were involved with the recording of the original hit itself!!!

The fact is that after their own successful recording career, The Tokens formed B.T. Puppy Records and, over the years, worked with and / or produced DOZENS of other artists (including recording artists as diverse as The Chiffons, The Happenings, Bob Dylan and Connie Francis) ... and yet STILL found the time to sneak in a comeback record (or two) of their own.  ("I Hear Trumpets Blow" went to #30 in 1966 and "Portrait Of My Love" hit #25 the following year.)

DIDJAKNOW? - 5:  In 1973, Jay Siegel, Mitch Margo and Phil Margo regrouped as Cross County and recorded the absolutely AWESOME, slowed-down, acoustic, harmoniously-rich version of the Wilson Pickett classic "In the Midnight Hour" … which gave them ANOTHER Top 20 Hit. 


AND FINALLY:  Here's one more version of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" … 

this one performed by the popular Boy Band N*SYNC.