While Motown was helping African-American musical styles crossover to the mainstream, a group of Italian Brooklynites served as unlikely ambassadors for the music of the mother continent. The Tokens’ adaptation of the 1939 song “Mbube” (“Lion”) by Zulu musician Solomon Linda weds South African vocal traditions with American doo wop with surprisingly successful results. Pete Seeger had previously introduced the West to the song as “Wimoweh,” but The Tokens added English lyrics and a rock-inflected arrangement, the key ingredients that would transform the lilting melody and layered vocals into an American chart hit. The resulting record, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” is far removed from Linda’s original but still respects the material, never sounding exploitative or culturally touristic.
But more important than a record’s authenticity is whether or not it is any good. Before revisiting the track for this entry, I had remembered only its most basic elements (chanting, impossibly high male vocals, a sleeping lion) and its frequent appearances in pop culture of varying quality. Because it’s a song about animals (strike one) filled with “nonsense” words (strike two) and beloved by children (strike three), it’s easy to dismiss it as a novelty tune. But close listening reveals a record packed with great bits – lead singer Jay Siegel’s keening wails as de facto chorus, which later mutates into trills; the whirling female soprano, which sounds more like a theremin than a human voice; the unexpected melancholy, suggesting that the lion’s slumber is the end of something as well as a triumph; and, of course, the “wimoweh, a-wimoweh” backing vocals that are perhaps the record’s catchiest hook. This attention to detail is what elevates the song above a cartoony singalong – it’s no wonder that The Tokens would also find success as producers. The elements fluidly unite to create an astonishingly thrilling record to listen to, one that’s a welcome reprieve from the increasingly bland pop that characterizes the rest of the early ’60s. 8
Hit #1 on December 18, 1961; total of 3 weeks at #1
63 of 970 #1’s reviewed; 6.49% through the Hot 100