November 24, 2017 – Mitch Margo (The Tokens) was born on May 25, 1947 in New York City. He began singing a cappella at age 9 alongside his brother Phil.
Young Margo learned to play piano in those early days, but over the years established himself as a multi-instrumentalist, also playing guitar, bass, drums and percussion.
Margo was a student at Abraham Lincoln High School in Brooklyn when he and his brother joined the Linc-Tones, also featuring Neal Sedaka, Hank Mendress and original member Tokens founder Jay Siegel, who soon renamed themselves the Tokens and recorded “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” while Mitch was just 14 years old.
Originally an African chant on a 1939 recording, “Mbube” — Zulu for “The Lion” — by the South African musician Solomon Linda and his group the Original Evening Birds, the tune was Americanized as it was passed from recording artist to recording artist. Pete Seeger recorded a version in the 1950s as “Wimoweh,” which is how he heard the original lyric “mbube”, pronounced EEM-boo-beh. American songwriter George David Weiss reworked it in 1961, adding the lyrics “In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight,” which became the version made famous by the Tokens. The opening falsetto became one of the most recognized song openings of the rock era.
The song was a quick hit for the Tokens and was only bounced from its perch atop the charts the last two weeks of 1961 and the first week of 1962 after which Chubby Checker’s new dance sensation “The Twist” reached No. 1 for a second time. Although moderately successful in the music industry, the Tokens never reached this level of success.
The Tokens’ other minor hits in the 1960s included Margo’s co-written “I Hear Trumpets Blow,” “Portrait of My Love” and “He’s in Town.”
“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.
The Tokens went on to produce records for the Chiffons, the Happenings, Randy and the Rainbows, and Tony Orlando and Dawn. It was Mitch’s idea for the Happenings to do an up-tempo version of the Gershwin brothers’ “I Got Rhythm,” which record reached No. 3 on the Billboard singles chart in 1967.
Several songs Mr. Margo wrote or helped write were recorded by other artists, including “Laugh,” released by the Monkees in 1967, and “Slow Dance,” released by the Carpenters in 1969.
In the later 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.
He then left the music industry to serve in the Army from 1969 to 1972, in the Special Services division.
Upon his return in 1973, the Margo Brothers and Jay Siegel formed a new group, Cross Country, who recorded one album and went to number 30 with a cover of Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour”.
Even after Jay Siegel left the Tokens and formed his own version of the band, the Margo brothers continued to tour. Along with the Tokens, Margo also scored a number of TV movies and released his first solo album, ABCDEFG, in 2010. He was also a well known artist whose paintings have been exhibited in galleries, along with his illustrations used in children’s books. (“The Very First Adventure of Fulton T. Firefly.”) He also wrote and illustrated another children’s book called “Sara Smiled”. His paintings have appeared on album covers and his animation has been shown on USA Network.
With the tech help of his son Damien, Margo designed and developed a free online reading tool called the Margo Reader. He hoped to eventually see it in multilingual hand held devices that can be given to anyone who wishes to learn how to read. The reader provides the user with an experience of some of Margo’s art, animation, music, photography, voice talent, humor, and heart.
The two versions of the Tokens came together in 2000 for the PBS program Doo Wop 51 and Mitch was still a member of the group at the time of his death on November 24, 2017 from natural causes. He was 70.
The Tokens posted to social media:
The Lion went to sleep…Mitch Margo, co-founder of The Tokens passed away peacefully in his sleep. The shock is still reverberating though our family as we try to make sense of this loss. Much will be said about Mitch in the upcoming days, but we wanted our incredibly dedicated fans to know.
Mitch left an indelible mark on the world with both his art and music. We hope that all of you who love listening to The Tokens explore the work of this amazingly talented individual. So “hush my darling, don’t fear my darling, the lion sleeps tonight.”