By Charlie Deitch
Pittsburgh Current Editor
Jay Siegel remembers exactly what he was thinking after his band, The Tokens, saw their 1961 single, “Tonight I Fell in Love,” hit number 15 on the Billboard Hot 100.
“I just didn’t want us to be known as a one-hit wonder,” Siegel told the Current recently by phone from his home in Rockland County, New York. “One of those artists you never hear from again after one big song.”
Then later that year, they would record this odd, but catchy little tune that the band sang on the street corners of Brooklyn and Brighton Beach. That song was “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”
“We really embraced that song, that music,” Siegel says. “We would sing it in the gymnasium, on the corners, on the boardwalk, in the subways. We were four guys who, when we sang together, sounded like eight.
“But back in those days we were singing mainly to get girlfriends.”
Siegel had heard the song, called “Mbube” (Lion) which was written improvisationally in 1939 by South African musician Solomon Linda. Linda was working as a record packer at Gallo Records in Johannesburg when he and his band, The Evening Birds, were discovered by a company talent scout. In 1951, folk singer Pete Seager adapted a version of the song called “Wimoweh.” In 1961, it was turned into the pop song, The Lion Sleeps Tonight.
The song, originally a B-side for the Tokens’ “Tina,” sold a million copies and was a certified gold record and number-one hit. But, Siegel says, it almost didn’t happen.
“I always felt this record had a shot to be really successful,” Siegel says. “I brought them the song [“Wimoweh”], and taught it to them.”
But not everyone agreed, they thought it was too strange, too weird. “They thought it was a novelty song.”
The Tokens’ version, however, would be different. “Wimoweh,” always featured those famous high notes. With “The Lion Sleeps tonight,” however, Siegel put his four-actave range to work and developed arguably the most recognizable falsetto performance in rock and roll.
“I’ve always joked with people that I don’t actually speak in falsetto,” Siegel said. “Even today when I sing it at our shows, 30-40 times a year, I sing it in the same key as the original.”
Technically, as we speak, Pittsburghers may get the chance to hear Jay Siegel’s Tokens along with several other classic rock acts on April 11 at the Benedum Center. Due to the restrictions enacted during the COVID-19 crisis, the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust canceled all events through April 4. But if you plan to go, check to make sure the show is still going on before buying tickets. Also, as the virus continues to spread, cancelations are very likely.
The Tokens got their start in 1956 at Brooklyn’s Abraham Lincoln High School. Siegel joined a group with now-legendary singer/songwriter Neil Sedaka and, most notably, Hank Medress. Sedaka who was a year older than Siegel, left the group and Siegel and Medress formerd another group before forming in 1960 what would be the most famous lineup of the Tokens, along with brothers Mitch and Phil Margo.
“Lincoln High School turned out some very talented people,” Siegel says. Besides Sedaka, other notable alumni were actor Harvey Keitel, playwright Arthur Miller and singer Neil Diamond, to name just a few. “Maybe there was something in the water over there.”
The Tokens continued to turn out hits after “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” Not only as performers, but as producers for other acts. Not just one of the members, but all four as a team.
“After ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight,’ the label was impressed and they signed us on to produce ten singles,” Siegel says. “We hadn’t done anything like that before, but we learned on their dime. So, we did nine singles for them, not one of them was successful. But on that tenth single, we became the first vocal group ever to produce a number one hit for another artist, ‘He’s so Fine’ by The Chiffons.
“Apparently,” Siegel adds with a laugh, “we were so green we didn’t even know what we knew. It came natural to us.”
Siegel says the four Tokens each did 25 percent of the work when they produced other artists. “One guy handled the mixing in the studio, two guys worked on instrumentation and I worked on vocals and harmonies,” Siegel said. “We loved working with other artists. Probably more than we loved working with each other.”
They would go on to produce hits for Tony Orlando and Dawn, Randy and the Rainbows, the Chiffons, The Happenings and the Del-Satins.
The current lineup of the Tokens is at two-thirds the same as it’s been for the past 25 years. That’s how long Siegel has been with famed background singer Billy Reid. Reid got his start at age 15, around the same time the original Tokens were preparing to breakout. Reid, from the Bronx, and his twin brother grew up singing on the street corners and subways, like Tokens and countless other groups. The Reid Brothers were performing in a group and doing background work when a record company executive wanted to make them a “brother duo,” a niche that had few acts except for, most famously, the Everly Brothers. But the Reids turned it down because they wanted to sing group harmonies. Reid was signed as a contract background singer at age 15 and sang on countless hits since then. The third spot is filled by Kurt “Frenchy” Yahjian, a former actor and singer who appeared in the 1973 film Jesus Christ Superstar.
Of all the accolades that Siegle and the song have received, There is one thing that makes him stand out from a lot of his peers — fans of all ages are still singing his song.
“Listen, I have faans in the 60s, 70s and 80s but I also have a ton of fans who are three-years-old,” Sigel says. “Because of the Lion King, there isn’t a kid alive anywhere who doesn’t know that song. Someone sent me a video the other day of a Lithuanian boy’s choir singing The Lion Sleeps Tonight.’
“It was something. We recorded a lot of songs. That’s the one that made history.”