Mitch Margo, ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’ Singer, Dies

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Mitch Margo was only 13 years old when he co-founded The Tokens in 1960 and 14 when he sang lead on their #1 hit “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” Margo died on Nov. 24 at his home in Studio City, Calif., of natural causes. He was 70.

The group that would become the Tokens was formed in Brooklyn in 1955 as the Linc-Tones, with a membership that included Neil Sedaka, who would go on to enjoy massive success as a solo artist. That group’s Hank Medress, along with Jay Siegel (who replaced Sedaka), sang together under other group names until, in 1960, they teamed with tenor singer Mitch Margo and his older brother Phil.

The Tokens in 1961 (Mitch Margo at bottom center)

In early 1961 the Tokens—the final name they took—enjoyed their first national hit, the #15 “Tonight I Fell in Love,” released on the Warwick label. Although Siegel sang most of the lead vocals, that position was given to Margo when—now signed to the major label RCA Victor after they appeared on American Bandstand—the quartet recorded “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” in the fall.

The song had a long and fascinating history by the time it came to the attention of the Brooklyn boys. It was written and recorded originally in the Zulu language by the South African musician Solomon Linda, under the title “Mbube,” in 1939. It sold more than 100,000 copies in Africa and eventually the song found its way to Alan Lomax, folk music director at Decca Records and a collector of international folk songs, who brought a copy of Linda’s recording to Pete Seeger, then with the Weavers. In 1951 that American quartet recorded the song under the title “Wimoweh,” crediting the authorship to “Traditional” and taking arrangement credit under a pseudonym in order to collect royalties.

The Weavers’ version charted at #14 in Billboard in 1952 and “Wimoweh,” as it became commonly known, due to the repetition of that word in the background, was covered by many other folk artists, including the Kingston Trio.

The U.K. single of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”

In 1961, RCA producers Hugo Peretti and Luigi Creatore, along with lyricist George David Weiss, retooled the song for the pop audience, giving it the name “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” based on the original Zulu story of Linda’s song. Soprano singer Anita Darian was brought in to add the wailing high notes and “Lion…,” credited to Peretti, Creatore, Weiss and the pseudonymous Albert Stanton (actually Al Brackman, Pete Seeger’s business partner), was released as the B-side of a song called “Tina.” (Linda was denied a credit on the hit, later triggering a huge copyright suit when his composition was used in The Lion King. It’s been recorded under its various titles by dozens of artists. Linda’s credit has since been restored to all versions of the song.)

As radio stations and fans discovered the single’s B-side, RCA promoted it instead of “Tina,” and “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” ultimately reached #1 in December 1961, remaining on top for three weeks. The Tokens went on to score nearly 20 further chart singles, including “I Hear Trumpets Blow,” “Portrait of My Love” and “He’s in Town,” most of them featuring lead vocals by Siegel; none came even close to replicating the success of their chart-topper.

Related: Neil Sedaka, whose career began in a group that became the Tokens, enjoyed success twice with the same song

The Tokens went on to produce records for other acts and launched their own label, B.T. Puppy Records. In 1973, the Margo brothers and Siegel formed a new group called Cross Country, which had one hit, the #30 cover of “In the Midnight Hour.” A revived lineup of the Tokens began playing the oldies circuit in the mid-’70s and the two Margo brothers (Phil survives Mitch) continued to perform under the name the Tokens while Siegel led his own group, also using the Tokens name. Siegel’s Tokens and the Margo brothers reunited in 2000 to perform on a PBS special.

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Listen to “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” by the Tokens

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