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'The Lion Sleeps Tonight' at 50: A Song for the Ages

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Seventh grade metal shop had nothing to do with shopping and, for this suburbanite of Jewish descent, everything to do with avoiding death by power tool. But crucial as it was to focus single-mindedly on the grim task at hand -- keeping my fingers intact amid the drilling, hammering and sawing (or was the sawing in wood shop?) -- no one can survive on fear alone.

Like many a twelve-year-old through the ages, I found salvation in the glorious sounds of pop music -- in this case, if memory serves, emanating from a portable radio that somehow made its way into the classroom. Perhaps the strangest and most evocative record of that season was "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" by The Tokens. Lead singer Jay Siegel's spectacular falsetto vocal turn, surrounded by African rhythms and otherworldly harmonies, transported me to a frighteningly beautiful world in which majestic creatures slumbered peacefully in fierce jungle terrain. It also provided my just-beginning-to-crack voice with a last gasp of natural soprano-hood.

"Lion," which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, was originally written and recorded as "Mbube" by South African migrant worker Solomon Linda in the late 1930s. By the '50s, it had become a repertoire staple under the title "Wimoweh" for Pete Seeger and his hugely successful folk group The Weavers.

Siegel grew up in Brooklyn listening to a ton of folk and country music and, fortuitously, learning to yodel. He loved the Weavers' "Wimoweh" and persuaded his groupmates -- Mitch Margo, Mitch's younger brother Phil and Hank Medress -- to record it for RCA, with lyrics added by George "Can't Help Falling in Love" Weiss.

Despite what seems in retrospect to be the record's obvious greatness, no one -- least of all the Tokens themselves -- recognized the commercial potential of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight." It was released as the b-side of the hookless Portuguese folk song "Tina."

That would have been the end of that had not Dick Smith, an enteprising DJ at WORC in Worcester, Massachusetts, flipped "Tina" over and flipped over "Lion." Four weeks later the record was Number 1, a spot it would also achieve in 35 other countries. The young Tokens were not quite ready for prime time -- when an RCA honcho told the guys he was sending them to Rome, they packed their bags for the Rome in upstate New York.

All these decades later, Siegel -- having settled a dispute with the Margo brothers, who still tour under the name The Tokens -- plays 60-80 shows a year fronting Jay Siegel's Tokens. A key member of Jay's ensemble, it turns out, is another Jay -- Jay Traynor -- who during each gig reprises his monumental 1961 hit "She Cried," which, just a few months after the release of "Lion," seemed similarly doomed to b-side obscurity.

A song of pure heartbreak told from the heartbreaker's point of view, "She Cried" -- which, like "Lion," sports an African beat underpinning a haunting vocal -- was released on the flip-side of a track called "Dawning," and, also like "Lion," broke wide open thanks to an intrepid DJ. In this case it was a San Francisco spinner who, months after the sun had set on "Dawning," locked himself into his broadcasting booth and played "She Cried" continuously for four hours. The rest was chart history.

The Tokens had several more '60s successes before shifting into producing hits for others. Siegel recalls that "He's So Fine," their first effort with the sublime girl group The Chiffons, was thought "too trite" for even b-side status by their label Capitol. It might have been lost forever had it not been picked up by tiny indie label Laurie, where an impossibly young promo guy/songwriter named Doug Morris believed in it and took it all the way to the top. The song has clearly stood the test of time -- the lyric is beloved for its immortal "Doo-langs" and the tune was unconsciously copied by George Harrison for his smash hit "My Sweet Lord."

Three years later Morris wrote and The Tokens produced another Chiffons smash, "Sweet Talkin' Guy," which the group sang at my high school prom. (Doug Morris has had a fairly decent career too. A few weeks ago he left his long-time post as Universal Music Group chairman to join Sony Music as its CEO.)

"Lion" has proven throughout its 50-year history to be a cat with considerably more than nine lives, having been recorded and performed by hundreds of artists and introducing itself to new generations of fans via its inclusion in the The Lion King, Disney's mega popular movie and Broadway show.

The mobius strip of Golden Anniversary interconnectedness looped once more when Jay -- who will celebrate 50 years of marriage to his wife Judy later this year -- noticed that his wedding album features a picture of the happy couple superimposed on the sheet music of their wedding song, "Till," which was the first hit for the great girl group The Angels. As it happens, The Angels' "Till" will celebrate its own 50th at almost exactly the same time as "The Lion Sleeps Tonight." And though I don't remember "Till" helping me through 7th grade the way "Lion" did, I do feel comfortable claiming a connection to the song. It was written by my dad.