“The Lion Sleeps Tonight” has such a fresh 60s sound that it is surprising to me that it was written in 1939. It was originally written by a man from South Africa named Solomon Linda and he recorded it with his group called The Evening Birds. Back then it was called “Mbube” which is Zulu for “lion.” The original song was written in the Zulu language and first marketed to black audiences. When sung in Zulu, the word “Mbube” sounds like “wimoweh,” the word sung throughout “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”
During the Fifties, it got picked up by various folk groups recording at the time, groups like The Weavers, Miriam Makeba and the Kingston Trio. It took a doo-wop group called the Tokens to put the song on the charts and turn it into a number one song at the end of 1961.
The Tokens were made up originally of four members, Neil Sedaka, Hank Medress, Eddie Rabkin, and Cynthia Zolotin. Did you notice the name Neil Sedaka in there. Yes, it was that Neil Sedaka. He did not stay with the group long, leaving in 1957 to start his own solo career, so he did not sing on “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” Actually, everyone but Medress left that original group and the Tokens name was lost for a time. By 1959, Medress, a guy named Jay Siegel and two friends were singing under the name Daryl & the Oxfords. Soon, the two friends left and two brothers, Mitch and Phil Margo joined Hank Medress and Jay Siegel and they had a group that could write and record records.. The first time they sang together was December 7, 1959 but they didn’t yet have a name. (Their temporary name was Those Guys.)
In early 1961, the group recorded for the first time the song “Tonight I Fell in Love” and it reached number fifteen on the pop chart. Before the record was pressed, the record company asked the group what their name was. They didn’t want to use Those Guys so Hank, remembering his old group from years earlier, decided to go with the Tokens. The name was back.
The success of “Tonight I Fell in Love” gave them some leverage to approach RCA Records and producers Hugo Peretti and Luigi Creatore. Hugo and Luigi are responsible for many hit songs that were produced in the late Fifties and throughout the Sixties. The list of artists they produced is long, people like Sam Cooke, Perry Como, Elvis Presley and, of course, the Tokens. The Tokens gained a spot on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand and suddenly everyone knew who the Tokens were. Looking for a second hit, Hank remembered a song from an old Weaver’s album called “Wimoweh” and they decided to record that. The voice you hear that sounds distinctive female (you can hear it clearly during the instrumental bridge in the middle of the song) is opera singer Anita Darien, although I don’t think she is credited anywhere.
“The Lion Sleeps Tonight” was the B-side of the record with a song called “Tina” (a Portuguese folk song) on the A-side. No one was playing “Tina” however and one day a disc jockey in New York flipped the record over and played “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and like many other stories, the public went wild. The song was a hit.
“The Lion Sleeps Tonight” entered the pop chart on Dec 18, 1961 and spent three weeks at number one.