Gary James' Interview With Jay Siegel of
The Tokens

Let's get right to it. Jay Siegel was the lead singer for one of the early sixties biggest hits, "The Lion Sleeps Tonight". Along with The Tokens, he was inducted into the Vocal Group Hall Of Fame. The National Endowment For The Arts, along with The Recording Industry Association Of America compiled a list of the Top 365 records of the twentieth century and "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" came in at number 159.

Jay Siegel spoke with us recently about that song and The Tokens.

Q - Jay, let's see how much of what the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia Of Rock had to say about you is accurate. First, were all of the guys in The Tokens in bands before The Tokens that were based in Brooklyn?

A - Well, the original group before The Margo Brothers and myself started in Lincoln High School in Brooklyn. The guy who started the group was Neil Sedaka. So, I think that's in the Rolling Stone book.

Q - He put you together in 1958?

A - Yeah. We were called The Line Tones. That was the name of the group before it became The Tokens.

Q - Did Neil Sedaka use The Line Tones as his backup group for studio recordings?

A - No. That's not true. We did some sides together. We recorded with Neil. But, there were some songs that Neil sang background and I was the lead singer. There was this girl in the group and her name was Cynthia Zoliton and she did some lead singing too. We weren't hired by Neil to do backup. That's not true. That's not entirely true.

Q - Your first single on Warwick Records, "Tonight I Fell In Love" sold 700,000 copies in the U.S. and 300,000 copies in Canada and Europe. That's a million seller! Not too bad for your first time out.

A - That was our first national hit record. That was a re-formation of The Tokens with the Margo Brothers and Hank Medress and myself. That's a song we wrote. I think it reached Top 15 nationally in Cashbox. That was our first big national hit record.

Q - Are those sales figures accurate?

A - It was supposedly around three quarters of a million, however in those days...nobody got paid. It was what was going on in the late 50s and early 60s as far as getting statements and getting paid.

Q - Did "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" sell over two million copies?

A - That sold over three million records when it first came out. It took four weeks for it to get to be number one and stayed on the charts for about three months. Then it became number one in thirty-six countries all over the world. So it was a tremendous hit record. When the movie The Lion King came out it was re-released again and it became a Top 20 international record on the charts all over again. So, it was a hit two times.

Q - How did you become aware of that song? Who wrote it? Who arranged it?

A - I became aware of the song in high school. I was a big fan of folk songs. I heard a song one day on the radio by a group called The Weavers. It was a 'live' recording called "The Weavers At Carnegie Hall". Their version was called "Wimoweh". I used to sing it. I taught it to the guys. When we switched labels to RCA, they put a lyric to it, our producers and I changed the melody to fit the lyric. That's how it became "The Lion Sleeps Tonight", because it was originally a folk song that was written in 1939 by a group in South Africa. And that was a big hit in South Africa. That's how Pete Seeger got a hold of it. It was on Gallow Records in South Africa. He heard it and recorded it with The Weavers as "Wimoweh". We recorded it as "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" and we had the biggest record of all...all over the world.

Q - Whose idea was it for you to sing in falsetto?

A - That was my idea. I'm the one who brought the song to The Tokens and taught it to them.

Q - What was your follow-up to "The Lion Sleeps Tonight"?

A - We had a record called "B'wa Nina" and that was also taken from an African folk song. I don't know what number it became on the charts. We had a couple of other releases with RCA, but none of them ever became as big as "The Lion Sleeps Tonight". When we left RCA Victor, we started our own record company called BT Puppy Records. The puppy was the logo of our record company because we came from RCA Victor and their logo was the dog, Nipper. We were a new, young record company and we named our record company BT Puppy. BT standing for Bright Tunes. That was the name of our production and publishing company because we were all from Brighton Beach. We had some pretty big records on that label. We had a record on that label called "I Hear Trumpets Blow" and we also produced a lot of acts that became big hit records. One was The Happenings "See You In September" and all The Happenings hits. We became record producers. During that time we produced all the records by The Chiffons, "He's So Fine" and all their hits. We produced Tony Orlando and Dawn. We were in the studio all the time making records for other people. The biggest hit record after that ("The Lion Sleeps Tonight") for The Tokens was "Portrait Of My Love" for Warner Brothers. That was a pretty big hit for The Tokens in 1967.

Q - When did you leave RCA?

A - I think it was somewhere in '63. It's been a long time. (laughs)

Q - Did you see the change that was about to happen in music prior to February, 1964?

A - Of course. The British Invasion...most radio stations weren't playing American groups. They were playing anybody who ever came from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. That's the records they were playing. When we had a hit with "Portrait Of My Love" it was a major thing 'cause it was right during the middle of the British Invasion. The radio played that and we got some great reaction.

Q - But, did you hear about The Beatles or The Stones prior to their appearances in the States?

A - We heard about "I Want To Hold Your Hand". We first saw them perform on The Ed Sullivan Show and nobody was very impressed by that record. I guess there were about ten record companies in the United States that passed on The Beatles as well.

Q - How did life change for you when "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" went to number one?

A - We were one of the first groups that toured all over Europe. It was an amazing thing for us to get to these foreign countries in 1962 and everybody knew who we were and our pictures were all in the newspaper. We were on TV all over Europe. We just couldn't believe that this was happening. These four kids form Brooklyn and all of a sudden we're known all over the world.

Q - Maybe it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to say that one of the members of some of these British Invasion groups were in the audience.

A - Could've been. We were all over there a couple of times and I remember seeing a lot of them before they even came to this country like The Kinks, The Moody Blues. However, we still continued to produce records and make records as The Tokens. We just forged ahead. We never knew what the longevity would've been for a recording artist in the United States. That's why we learned how to produce records. We learned about the publishing end of the business. We just learned all we could about the music business.

Q - Now, you teamed up with the Margo brothers to become Cross Country and recorded for Atlantic Records in 1973.

A - Yes, because of the change in music in the 70s, we thought radio was getting a little tired of or not playing the real Pop music like The Tokens were doing. It was the same people, we just changed our name to Cross Country. We grew our hair real long. We wore denim shirts and weird clothes. We took a classic song by Wilson Pickett called "In The Midnight Hour" and we made it into a ballad like Crosby, Stills and Nash and that was a Top 20 national hit on Atlantic Records. We toured all over the country as Cross Country. We had original material. We were on Don Kirshner's Rock Concert TV show. We appeared on that show with The Rolling Stones, Earth, Wind and Fire and Black Oak Arkansas. You could also say we were one of the first American groups to play with The Beatles at the New York Paramount in 1964. Ed Sullivan was the emcee of that show.

Q - Did you get to meet The Beatles?

A - They were in a dressing room and no one was allowed to go up there. Paul McCartney did come onstage during our rehearsal and sound check. He said hello to us. He was pretty friendly. We didn't get to meet the other guys.

Q - Who else was on the bill?

A - It was a very weird show. The Shangri-Las were on the bill...Steve Lawrence. I can't remember who else, but I do remember in the press the next day, the press was very kind to us and said The Tokens were the only group that the audience really listened to. They didn't shout "we want the Beatles." So, that was terrific.

Q - Where do you perform these days?

A - We perform all over the country and out of the country. Coast to coast we do concerts. It's not a part-time thing for us. It's a full time thing. We tour all year 'round. We play casinos. We do a week at a time or two or three days at a time. We do extended engagements. We were in Atlantic City for six weeks at Resorts International. We did six weeks in Hawaii. We do some corporate stuff. This is it for us. This is all we do.

Q - You're a lucky guy.

A - Well, I guess I'm lucky my voice can still hit those high notes and I sing those songs in the same key as I did when we recorded them. So, I guess I must've done something right to take care of my voice. We get called back every venue we play. People always want us back because we have a great time and the audience can tell that we're having a great time. Every show to me is like the first show and I just want to be the best that we can be. We still enjoy performing as it was in 1961. I probably enjoy it more today.

© Gary James. All rights reserved.