December 15, 2011

It’s hard to believe that it’s been 50 years when we first heard “THE LION SLEEPS TONIGHT” and the incredible falsetto of Jay Siegel of the Tokens. One of the defining records of the sixties that is still so fresh it could have been recorded yesterday. I talked to my old friend Jay a few days ago, and was amazed when he told me that he hasn’t lost the stratospheric top notes in his vocal range, which is probably why i guess Jay Siegel and the New Tokens do so incredibly well on the oldies circuit…they sound like the hit records!

The original group, Hank Medress, Jay, Phil, and Mitch Margo in addition to making hit records themselves produced classic hits for other artists, The Chiffons (“He’s So Fine”, “One Fine Day”) Tony Orlando and Dawn (“Knock Three Times”, “Candida”). Although I never got a single cut with any of their artists I enjoyed playing material for them and engaging in the knock hockey tournaments they held in their offices at 1697 Broadway.

When I interviewed Hank Medress, for Spectropop, just before he passed away, I asked him how the group got together and how they came to record “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” Hank said, “I knew Jay Siegel from school, and Neil Sedaka, who was still halfway in our group, thought Jay sang great! Then I heard about these two brothers, Phil and Mitch Margo. I went down to Ocean Parkway to check them out. Right away we all started writing songs together, which included ‘Tonight I Fell In Love’. I borrowed $60 and we made a demo of the song. I was riding the subway home to Brighton Beach, some lady overhears me talking about the record we just made, says she and her son have a record company … they release it and we have our first hit! On that same session, we recorded ‘Wimoweh’, before it became ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’. That was the song we used to sing on street corners. Jay Siegel was the one who turned us on to that song. He was a big Pete Seeger fan and he loved his version of ‘Wimoweh’.”              

Hank continued, “We had an audition with Hugo and Luigi at RCA. First we played them our original songs, but they weren’t very interested. Then they asked if we had anything else? I said there’s a song we sing on the beach. It’s a chant and it doesn’t have words. They wanted to hear it. They said, “That’s a hit! What does the lyric mean?” We told them Jay had checked with the African consulate and it was about a lion hunt, etc. Hugo and Luigi said they wanted to put a lyric to it. When we came to the recording session, they handed Jay the lyric as he was about to go on microphone. Jay changed the melody to make the lyric fit the meter … and the rest is history!”


top photo left to right- Jay Traynor, Jay Siegel, and Bill Reid

bottom photo Hank Medress, Jay Siegel, Phil and Mitch Margo


  1. Jay Siegel Says:

    Hi, It’s Jay.. This little historic story is right on!. One of the few articles that has been written about us that is so very accurate.. Artie should know as he was there!! Can’ believe it’s been 50 years that “The Lion” reached #1 in the nation..
    I’m still performing that song in the original key.. Artie , keep it up..We need you!!….Jay Siegel -The Tokens

  2. Jay Traynor Says:


    It’s funny but it’s 50 years for my Jay and the Americans hit “She Cried” also, which by the way Jay let’s me perform in our current Jay Siegel’s Tokens show. I joined him 6 years ago. I have to tell you he kills audiences today with the “Lion Sleeps Tonight! Congrats to you and all of us who are still performing and keeping this part of music history going.

  3. Jay Leslie Says:

    I have had the pleasure and honor of performing with Jay Siegel’s Tokens on numerous occasions as the featured saxophone soloist on “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” as well as other selections in their show;….
    ….and every time out, it’s guaranteed that a standing ovation will ensue when they sing their last “Wim-O-Weh”;
    Thank you Jay, Jay, & Billy for allowing me to part of your storied careers

  4. steven frei Says:

    Really enjoyed reading this.


  5. Tom Diehl Says:

    I’ve seen Jay Siegel and the Tokens a number of times (At least 5 or 6 in the last 3 years since I started actively attending oldies concerts as time and money has permitted me, I am only 26 after all, and work full time for a living). I’ve never been disappointed in their sound.

    Here’s a fun story for you. One time after a concert in Lancaster, PA my friend George and I were getting into George’s car parked behind the theater (the only place we could find a parking space at all on the theater grounds, the show was sold out) and as I’m getting in the car, I noticed someone looking very much like Jay Siegel talking to someone else close to the theater, so I grabbed the 45 I brought to possibly have signed (most acts at that show were not out doing autographs, the Tokens among them, unfortunately) and I shyly walked up to him. I had so much wanted to gush on and on about how much I love their music and have ever since I was a little kid, but I couldn’t force the words out, instead just replying “yeah!” when he asked if I had a 45 of his (the record, by the way, is of I Hear Trumpets Blow, something I’ve never heard them sing in concert but wish they would add it to their set sometime when I see them). So he signed my 45 and also one my friend brought, and then he went on his way and we went on ours. As we were driving around looking for a place to eat after the show, I think we passed by Jay in one of the local shopping centers (it would’ve been funny if we’d bumped into him again at dinner but there were no restaurants in that area, and we wanted to find someplace quick so we could eat before the second show that evening).

    Jay is one of very few artists performing songs in their original key today and he’s been blessed with an amazing voice. I’m proud that 50 years later, he still delights audiences and sounds as good as ever and I can’t wait til I get a chance to see him again (which will be in about a month at Bowzer’s Ultimate Doo-Wop Party Vol. XI at the Mohegan Sun area in Uncasville, CT — which will happen about a month from now, and a little over a week after my 27th birthday, so it will be my present to myself to attend that show).

    The lion may sleep tonight, but the lion will live on forever.

  6. Artie Wayne Says:

    posted on behalf of Warren Shatz

    I love the Tokens and Jay is a very special guy’. They were kind enough to sing on almost all my records in the sixtys along with Ellie, Jeanie and Mikie.

  7. Artie Wayne Says:

    posted on behalf of Norman Bergen

    Jay is the best!

  8. Malcolm Collins Says:

    Love “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”. It’s the only time I go into the jungle. I wish I had the opportunity to see The Tokens, but nobody comes to Tallahassee Florida to sing. And when I sing, dogs bark.

  9. Artie Wayne Says:

    posted on behalf of Richard Podolsky

    Great story Artie. Jay tells it with a little twist in my upcoming Don Kirshner book: He brought the demo into Don’s office for all to hear before it was released. At its conclusion he anxiously awaited Carole King’s reaction. “It’s a fucking smash!” she said, and Jay let out a sigh of relief.

    • Paul James Says:

      In the winter of 1976, I was having some friends over and one, a Brother in the Catholic Church, had given a ride to a fella that was hitching to a gig in Florida. Turned out, he was one of The Tokens! I don’t remember his name, but he gave me his autograph, which I have in a date-book somewhere “among my souvenirs”! He sang for us, quite well, however when he talked, he did stammer a lot. If this “rings a bell” with anyone, please give me a reply on Facebook. Paul James, Amory, MS

  10. Does anyone know the name of the soprano sax player who played on the “original” recording by The Tokens? Thanks.

  11. Thanks soooo much Jay!

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