The Tokens’ Philip Margo Dead At 79
The Tokens’ Philip Margo has died at 79, as The New York Times reports. Margo’s biggest claim to fame was singing on his band’s version of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” which eventually hit #1 on the Billboard charts in 1961. Margo sings the baritone “wimoweh”s to Jay Siegel’s distinctive falsetto.
Margo was born in Brooklyn in 1942 and began singing with Siegel, his younger brother Mitch Margo, and Hank Medress in 1959, emulating the popular doo-wop style of the time. Siegel and Medress had been in a band with Neil Sedaka a few years earlier called the Tokens; after Sedaka left the group, they reformed it with the Margo brothers in 1961. One of the first songs they wrote together, “Tonight I Fell In Love,” became a hit on the charts and they continued to put out songs throughout the ’60s, including nine that landed on the Top 100.
None were as big as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” though, which has quite the backstory. The melody was originally written and recorded in 1939 by Zulu singer Solomon Linda, and the resulting “Mbube” became an African hit. Eventually, folk singer Pete Seeger was exposed by to the song by folklorist Alan Lomax, and Seeger recorded a take on it with the Weavers, called “Wimoweh” because Seeger couldn’t understand the words. That was a hit in 1952, but it wasn’t until a decade later when the Tokens hired songwriter George David Weiss to turn the melody into a pop song that it became a chart-topper. Its legacy was solidified when it was covered in the 1994 film The Lion King. The original composer, Solomon Linda, was not properly compensated for writing the original — in 2006, decades after his death, his family won a settlement from the publishers of the song.
The Tokens eventually fractured into two separate groups, one led by the Margos and another by Siegel, and they performed on the oldies circuit. In 1998, Margo’s version of the Tokens performed the national anthem in every major league ballpark that baseball season — the first time that had been done. He also wrote and produced TV movies and sitcom episodes in the ’80s and ’90s, and was Benson star Robert Guillaume’s manager for a while. He passed away in a hospital in Los Angeles this past Saturday after suffering a stroke.