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