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Mitch Margo, who rode 'The Lion Sleeps Tonight' to the top of the charts, dies at 70

Mitch Margo was just 14 when he and some Brooklyn pals recorded “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” a doo-wop version of a Zulu folk song that had been recorded dozens of times over the decades.

But for the New York boy group, the song proved to be a powerful elixir as it climbed the charts and settled in at No. 1 for three weeks, and then remained in rotation on oldies radio stations for years to come.

It also set the bar impossibly high for four kids not yet out of high school.

Margo, who teamed with his brother Phil and two others to make up the Tokens, chased music the rest of his life, helping produce hits for others, musical scores for television projects and artwork for children’s books. And while the group’s lineup changed and shifted, he continued to perform with the Tokens.

Never away from the stage for long, Margo died Nov. 24 at his home in Studio City at age 70. Family members said he died of natural causes.

“Mitch was an adjective-defying human being,” said Noah Margo, a nephew who has played drums for the Tokens for 24 years. “His humor, wit and slanted observations will be deeply missed.”

Born May 25, 1947, Margo was a student at Abraham Lincoln High School in Brooklyn when the Tokens formed and recorded “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” originally an African chant that was Americanized as it was passed from recording artist to recording artist. The song ended up the centerpiece of an international lawsuit after it was used in Disney’s “The Lion King.”

The song was a quick hit for the Tokens and was only bounced from its perch atop the charts in early 1962 when Chubby Checker’s “The Twist” reached No. 1 for a second time. The Tokens followed with several modest hits, “I Hear Trumpets Blow” and “Portrait of My Love.”

The New York group also had success as record producers for others, working with the Chiffons and, later, Tony Orlando and Dawn.

In the late 1960s, Margo became infatuated with psychedelia, particularly the Beatles’ horizon-expanding “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and the dreamy Beach Boys harmonies on “Pet Sounds.” But when he persuaded his bandmates to follow his lead and record a trippy album titled “Intercourse,” the group’s label balked and pressed just enough copies to satisfy its contractual obligations. The album is now a collector’s item.

“The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” however, continued to live on and was recorded by a diverse cast of groups and musicians, from Brian Eno to REM. In all, 150 different artists recorded the song.

But when it was used in the film “The Lion King,” its DNA became a legal issue.

The song was originally written and recorded as “Mbube” by Solomon Linda, a laborer in Soweto, the Johannesburg township. When the Weavers recorded the song — renaming it “Wimoweh” — it was either unknown or overlooked that Linda had written the song. It wasn’t until Pete Seeger, then a member of the folk group, stepped forward and sent his stake of the earnings to Linda that the song’s origins became broadly known.

The Tokens, who made dramatic musical changes to the song, gave Linda credit but later fought to claim some share of the song’s publishing rights. The group’s lawsuit was ultimately dismissed due to a statute of limitations ruling.

After the song went on to earn an estimated $15 million with the release of Disney’s movie, and a subsequent stage version, Linda’s heirs sued both Disney and the music firm that licensed the song to Disney. The case was eventually settled by Linda’s heirs for an estimated $1.6 million. Linda, though, had long before died, impoverished.

Margo, who served in the Army from 1969 to 1972, never abandoned his fondness for music and artistic expression, his nephew said. As an artist, he created artwork for both an animation short and the children’s book “The Very First Adventure of Fulton T. Firefly.” He also composed music for several television projects.

He is survived by two sons, Damien and Ari; his brother Phil; and a sister, Maxine.

steve.marble@latimes.com

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