The Tokens - originally called the Linc-Tones - formed in 1956, at Abraham Lincoln High School in Brooklyn. Its original members were Neil Sedaka, his classmate Hank Medress, Cynthia Zolitin and Eddie Rabkin. In that year they recorded a solitary single for Morty Craft's short-lived Melba label, "While I Dream"/"I Love My Baby" (Melba 104). The A-side featured the distinctive lead voice of Neil Sedaka, who co-wrote both sides with Howard Greenfield. Two other tracks from this session, "Don't Go" and "Come Back Joe" (also Sedaka-Greenfield compositions) appeared later on Guest Star G 1448. All four tracks are available on Neil's Bear Family box-set. Eddie Rabkin went off to college and was replaced by Jay Siegel, also from Lincoln High School. After Sedaka departed in early 1958 to pursue a highly successful solo career, Medress and Siegel formed a new foursome, Darrell and the Oxfords, with Warren Schwartz and Fred Kalkstein. They had an East Coast hit with the Roulette single "Picture in Your Wallet" (featuring Siegel's instantly identifiable falsetto lead), which was followed by the less successful "Your Mother Said No", after which the group disintegrated.
A new chapter in the history of the Tokens began in December 1959, when Hank Medress and Jay Siegel invited 12-year old Mitch Margo and his brother Phil to participate in the formation of a new group. They cut "Tonight I Fell in Love" independently and took it to their old contact Morty Craft, now running Warwick Records. Craft waited six months before he released the track, which was credited to The Tokens, the old group name. A snappy production highlighting Jay Siegel's falsetto laid over a catchy hook, "Tonight I Fell in Love" rose to # 15 on the charts in the spring of 1961. Before Warwick were able to issue to follow-up, the Tokens had moved to RCA Records, where they forged a creative partnership with producers and songwriters Hugo Peretti and Luigi Creatore. That pair, along with songwriter George Weiss, reworked the old folk song "Wimoweh" (itself reworked by the folk group the Weavers from a 30s South African song called "Mbube"), into "The Lion Sleeps Tonight", their third RCA single. The record peaked at # 1 in December 1961 and was an inter- national hit (# 11 in the UK, # 2 in Australia and # 1 in several European countries), selling over three and a half million copies. The whole world was now aware of Jay Siegel's trademark falsetto and the Tokens' unusual harmony blend.
They tried to repeat the success of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" by reworking another African folk song, "B'wa Nina", employing the same high yodeling technique, but it reached only # 55 in Billboard. A remake of "La Bomba" (the Ritchie Valens hit with a slight spelling change) sold even fewer copies, stalling at # 85. The group was now thoroughly immersed in producing, signing a production deal with Capitol and establishing Big Time Productions in New York. Capitol had first option on anything the Tokens produced, but they passed on "He's So Fine" by the Chiffons. Issued on Laurie Records, this became the first number one (in March 1963) for a vocal group to be produced by another vocal group. Later in 1963, the Tokens formed their own B.T. Puppy label, scoring hits with their own "He's in Town" (1964) and "I Hear Trumpets Blow" (1966), but the biggest hit on B.T. Puppy - and the first one to go Top 10 - was "See You in September" by the Happenings (# 3, 1966). Members of the Tokens also sang on many sessions for other artists in the 1960s, including Bob Dylan ("Highway 61 Revisited"), Del Shannon, Connie Francis and the Blues Project.
By 1973, the Tokens had transformed into a Crosby, Stills and Nash-styled contemporary rock group called Cross Country. As such, they placed one single on the charts, a remake of the Wilson Pickett hit "In the Midnight Hour" (# 30, 1973). Meanwhile, Hank Medress continued to be successful as a producer, most notably with Tony Orlando and Dawn ("Tie A Yellow Ribbon" etc.), a group he co-produced with Dave Appell, formerly with Cameo-Parkway. Medress also produced a 1972 remake of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" by Robert John (aka Bobby Pedrick, Jr), which reached # 3 in the USA.
A reunion concert in October 1981 featured the Margo brothers, Medress and Siegel. During the 1980s, some of the group members, particularly Mitch Margo, attempted to keep the Tokens name alive by forming new groups, 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.
Further reading: Jay Warner, The Billboard book of American singing groups (1992), page 466-469.
CD: Wimoweh : The Best of the Tokens (RCA, 1994). 20 tracks.
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