The Tokens Biography

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 Creatore 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.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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