[This is Part III of as series based on a story written by Rian Milan the appeared in the May 25, 2000 issue of Rolling Stone Magazine.
Editor’s note: Could anyone have come up with a more appropriate band name for the group who had this mainstream pop music hit than “The Tokens?” SB SM]
The Tokens were clean-cut Brooklyn boys who had grown up listening to DJs Alan Freed and Murray the K, and the dreamy teen stylings of Dion and the Belmonts and the Everly Brothers. Hank Medress and Jay Siegel met at Lincoln High, where they sang in a doo-wop quartet that briefly featured Neil Sedaka. Phil Margo was a budding drummer and piano player, also from Lincoln High, and Mitch Margo was his kid brother, age fourteen. One presumes that girls were already making eyes in their direction, because the Tokens had recently been on TV’s American Bandstand, decked out in double-breasted mohair suits with white shirts and purple ties, singing their surprise Top Twenty hit, “Tonight I Fell in Love.”
And now they were moving toward even greater things. Barely out of high school, they landed a three-record deal with RCA Victor, with a $10,000 advance and a crack at working with Hugo Peretti and Luigi Creatore, ace producers of Jimmy Rodgers, Frankie Lymon and many, many others. These guys worked with Elvis Presley, for God’s sake. “To us this was big,” says Phil Margo. “Very big.”
The Tokens knew “Wimoweh” through their lead singer, Jay, who’d learned it off an old Weavers album. It was one of the songs they’d sung when they auditioned for Huge and Luge, their nickname for the hotshot Italians. The producers said, yeah, great, but what’s it about? “Eating lions,” said the Tokens. That’s what some joker at the South African consulate had told them, at any rate: It was a Zulu hunting song with lyrics that went, “Hush, hush. If everyone’s quiet, we’ll have lion meat to eat tonight.”
The producers presumably rolled their eyes. None of this got anyone anywhere in the era of “shooby doo” and so on. They wanted to revamp the song, give it some intelligible lyrics and a contemporary feel. They sent for one George David Weiss, a suave young dude in a navy-blue blazer, presently making a big name for himself in yesterday’s music, writing orchestrations for Doris Day, Peggy Lee and others of that sort. The Tokens took him for a hopeless square until they discovered that he’d co-written “Can’t Help Falling in Love With You” for Elvis Presley. That changed everything.
Solomon Linda was buried under several layers of pop-rock stylings, but you could still see him beneath the new song’s slick surface, like a mastodon entombed in a block of clear ice.
So George Weiss took “Wimoweh” home with him and gave it a careful listen. A civilized chap with a Juilliard degree, he didn’t much like the primitive wailing, but the underlying chant was OK, and parts of the melody were very catchy. So he dismantled the song, excised all the hollering and screaming, and put the rest back together in a new way. The chant remained unchanged, but the melody – Solomon Linda’s miracle melody – moved to center stage, becoming the tune itself, to which the new words were sung: “In the jungle, the mighty jungle” and so on.
In years to come, Weiss was always a bit diffident about his revisions, describing them as “gimmicks,” as if ashamed to be associated with so frothy a bit of pop nonsense. Phil Margo says that’s because Weiss stole The Tokens’ ideas and wrote nothing save thirty-three words of doggerel, but that’s another lawsuit entirely. What concerns us here is the song’s bloodline, and everyone agrees on that: “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” was a reworking of “Wimoweh,” which was a copy of “Mbube.” Solomon Linda was buried under several layers of pop-rock stylings, but you could still see him beneath the new song’s slick surface, like a mastodon entombed in a block of clear ice.
The song was recorded live in RCA’s Manhattan studios on July 21st, 1961, with an orchestra in attendance and some session players on guitar, drums and bass. The percussionist muted his timpani, seeking that authentic “jungle drum” sound. A moonlighting opera singer named Anita Darien practiced her scales. Conductor Sammy Lowe tapped his baton and off they went, three Tokens doing the wimowehs, while Jay Siegal took the lead with his pure falsetto and Darien swooped and dove in the high heavens, singing the haunting countermelodies that were one of the song’s great glories. Three takes (again), a bit of overdubbing, and that was more or less that. Everyone went home, entirely blind as to what they’d accomplished. The Tokens were mortified by the new lyrics, which struck them as un-teen and uncool. Hugo and Luigi were so casual that they did the final mix over the telephone, and RCA topped them all by issuing the song as the B side of a humdrum tune called “Tina,” which sank like lead.
Weird, no? We’re talking about a pop song so powerful that Brian Wilson had to pull off the road when he first heard it, totally overcome; a song that Carole King instantly pronounced “a motherfucker.” But it might never have reached their ears if an obscure DJ named Dick Smith in Worcester, Massachusetts, hadn’t flipped the Tokens’ new turkey and given the B side a listen. Smith said, “Holy shit, this is great,” or words to that effect, and put “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” on heavy rotation. The song broke out regionally, hit the national charts in November and reached Number One in four giant strides.
Within a month, Karl Denver’s cover was Number One in England, too. By April 1962 the song was topping charts almost everywhere and heading for immortality. Miriam Makeba sang her version at JFK’s last birthday party, moments before Marilyn Monroe famously lisped, “Happy Birthday, Mister President.” Apollo astronauts listened to it on the takeoff pads at Cape Canaveral. It was covered by the Springfields, the Spinners, the Tremeloes and Glen Campbell. In 1972 it returned to the charts, at Number Three, in a version by Robert John. Brian Eno recorded it in 1975. In 1982 it was back at Number One in the U.K., this time performed by Tight Fit.
R.E.M. did it, as did the Nylons and They Might Be Giants. Manu Dibango did a twist version. Some Germans turned it into heavy metal. A sample cropped up on a rap epic titled “Mash up da Nation.” Disney used the song in The Lion King, and then it got into the smash-hit theatrical production of the same title, currently playing to packed houses in six cities around the world. It’s on the original Broadway cast recording, on dozens of kiddie CDs with cuddly lions on their covers and on an infinite variety of nostalgia compilations. It’s more than sixty years old, and still it’s everywhere.
What might all this represent in songwriter royalties and associated revenues? I put the question to lawyers around the world, and they scratched their heads. Around 160 recordings of three versions? Thirteen movies? Half a dozen TV commercials and a hit play? Number Seven on Val Pak’s semi-authoritative ranking of the most-beloved golden oldies, and ceaseless radio airplay in every corner of the planet? It was impossible to accurately calculate, to be sure, but no one blanched at $15 million. Some said 10, some said 20, but most felt that $15 million was in the ballpark.
Which raises an even more interesting question: What happened to all that loot?
Next: Follow the money