WHERE ARE THEY NOW? : The ‘Lion’ May Sleep, but They’re Not Resting

<i> Chuck Crisafulli is a regular contributor to Calendar. </i>

The lion may be sleeping again, but the guys who first put him to bed, the Tokens, are wide awake. The Brooklyn-bred vocal group’s most memorable hit, 1961’s “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” is enjoying a healthy resurgence through the song’s use in Disney’s animated blockbuster, “The Lion King,” and as the centerpiece of a Burger King commercial.

“I’m extraordinarily thrilled,” says founding member Phil Margo, 52. “I’ve written a letter to (Disney chief) Michael Eisner and the CEO of Burger King thanking them for the break. Just to have Disney, Burger King and the Tokens mentioned in the same breath these days is pretty terrific.”

Neither the film nor the commercial uses the recording by the Tokens, whose original lineup included Phil’s brother Mitch, Jay Siegel and Hank Medress. But because the song was not included on the “Lion King” soundtrack, the only way for smitten listeners to “wimoweh” at home is to pick up the Tokens’ self-released album, “Oldies Are Now,” released on the group’s own B.T. Puppy label, or RCA’s reissue of the original single. RCA is banking on spillover from “The Lion King” exposure, having shipped 150,000 copies of the single to record stores. Sure enough, it’s No. 56 with a bullet on the Aug. 27 Billboard chart.

The Tokens’ version of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” spent three weeks at No. 1 in December, 1961. After a few more charting singles with the group, the Margos became producers, working on the Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine” and “One Fine Day,” and on most of Tony Orlando & Dawn’s biggest hits.


They also got the lion to crack the Top 10 again when they produced Robert John’s 1972 remake of the song. That version was heard during a love scene in “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.”

The original Tokens got together in 1981 at Radio City Music Hall for what was to be a final performance. But the L.A.-based Margo Brothers have continued to perform as the Tokens, with Phil’s son Noah now serving as drummer. Phil Margo says Medress is not interested in performing, and on the East Coast, Jay Siegel has his own lineup of Tokens. “There’s no bad blood,” Margo says. “Jay was the first person to call me after the earthquake. As soon as a momentous-enough gig comes along, we’ll work together.”

Margo says he’s thoroughly enjoying the refocused spotlight on the Tokens. “We’re having a great time. My mother is beside herself. There’s a Jewish word kvell , and this whole thing is a major kvell .”