The Golden Oldies Spectacular Saturday Night April 30th Promises to Waken The Sleeping Lion
“My son just took his two kids to Disney World for vacation. They went into The Animal Kingdom, and what record do they play? They’re playing my record. That’s a lot of years later,” says Jay Siegel of the band The Tokens.
The record is “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” It’s 61 years old, and the artist who recorded it is Jay Siegel, now 83 years old. He brings his band, The Tokens, to The Golden Oldies Spectacular show at Proctor’s Saturday night along with The Brooklyn Bridge, The Vogues, The Skyliners, Bobby Brooks Wilson who is the son of Jackie Wilson, and Vito Picone & The Elegants.
“RCA put “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” out,” continues Siegel. “They released it, and within four weeks it became number one in the country, stayed on the charts for about three months. Then it sold about three million records in the United States, was released all over the world, and became a number one record in 36 countries all over the world.
“If you tell anybody from the ages of two years old to sing “The Twist” (which bumped “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” off number one in 1961) or “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” they’ll all come up with “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” There’s still nothing like it, and they tell me to this day somewhere in the world this record is being played to this day every day, and I know because it’s in every Disney production on stage, the road production, and in Disney World.”
Rock and roll in its infancy was all about product, and people behind those products often got lost in the shuffle, not to mention screwed economically in the process.
The Tokens’ first national hit was “Tonight I Fell in Love” recorded for Warwick Records. “We never got paid, and that record was number one in most of the areas of New York or the Tri-State area. It was number 15 on the national charts, and one day we went to the President’s office and said, ‘We have an offer to come with RCA, you know, Elvis Presley and Perry Como, all those great artists.’ The four of us said we’re leaving and going with RCA Victor, and the president of Warwick said, ‘I just gave you a big hit record. What did this do for you that I can’t do for you?’ And we all in unison unrehearsed said, ‘Pay us!’ And we walked out.
“That’s a true story. That actually happened. So, we went to RCA and were assigned to Hugo Peretti and Luigi Creatore who were very hot record producers from Sam Cooke to Perry Como to all the major artists at RCA, and we had a bunch of records, three or four singles that came out that hit the national top 40 charts.
“So, one day we came in and sang – it was not “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” It was a song I heard on the radio taken from an album called The Weavers in Carnegie Hall, the biggest vocal group of the ’50s.”
Pete Seeger was one of the members of The Weavers. “I met Pete once. We did an outdoor series in Chicago. I met him in the lobby and said, ‘If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t be here.’ And he knew who I was of course. He knew about the record. Anyway, we sang “Wimoweh,” the song I heard it from the Weavers, and they (Hugo Peretti and Luigi Creatore) said, ‘That record sounds like an interesting melody, but I think it should have some kind of lyric because we just can’t do a falsetto thing with a chant in the background.’
“So, I went to the South African consulate of New York, and I found out what the meaning was behind “Wimoweh.” It wasn’t really “Wimoweh.” It was called “Mbube” which means lion in Zulu. I found out the song was written in 1939 by a man called Solomon Linda.
“It was an African lullaby. When the tribe would go out on a lion hunt, they would do this beautiful chant and sing this falsetto melody. The lion would be sleeping, and they would be able to make their kill, and then they would have lion meat for the next three months for their village. That was what the song was about.
“They (at RCA) had a partner they worked with. His name was George Weise, and George Wiese wrote some big hit records, “Can’t Help Falling in Love” and “What A Wonderful World,” and he came up with the big 10 words, “In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight.”
“So, I walked into the studio at RCA, and I was given this yellow legal pad with the lyric, and I said, ‘What a record. This lyric I can’t fit into the melody I’m familiar with. There are too many words.’ I had to come into the studio with a melody that would fit into the lyrics. So, I actually co-wrote half of that melody which Georg Weise and Hugo and Luigi took credit for writing the music which they had zero to do with, but they took the credit, and they made a lot of money. That’s the real story.
“So, we made the record. Luigi called in an opera singer from the New York Metropolitan Opera, Anita Darien. Then, one of the instruments in the rhythm section is a bongo, and then we have a soprano saxophone that sounds like Guy Lombardo. This is the weirdest record I’ve ever heard, and three of the guys in the group did not want this record to be out. Why? Because who is going to play this record? There’s nothing like this record. It goes against everything in the market. So, I responded to the three guys. ‘Maybe that’s the reason it should be released because there’s nothing like it.’”
(The guys said) “Oh, I don’t think anything’s going to happen with this record.”
“RCA put it out. They released it and within four weeks it became number one in the country, stayed on the charts for about three months, and then it sold about three million records in the United States, and then it was released all over the world and became a number one record in 36 countries all over the world.”
Between 1961 and 1994 The Tokens had 13 records on the Top 100 chart. “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” re-entered the Top 100 in 1994 at position #68, two weeks later it peaked at #51 for one week.
Siegel is 83 years, and when you hear him Saturday night he’ll make you believe this is the first time he’s ever sung that iconic song. “I’m not on automatic pilot. I just love to do it every time. I hate traveling. Any artist will tell you that’s the job. Getting to the job is the job. The performance is the joy. But, you know, hey, I really feel so lucky that I have a job that makes people happy. I say, ‘Well, how can you have a better job than making people happy? That the best job you can have.’”
Tickets are on sale now at the Proctors box office, by phone at (518) 346-6204, or on the web at Proctors.org
Three is a VIP package of great seats and a pre-show meet and greet with the stars also available. Thanks to the loyal Proctors’ audience for keeping great music alive.