The song we know today as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” was written in 1939 by South African Solomon Linda, and has been performed by thousands of artists all over the world. Nobody owns it, however, like Jay Siegel.
Siegel’s rendition, released when he was a member of the Tokens in 1961, is the version everyone recognizes, and thanks to a few lyrics added to the melody by songwriter George Weiss, the song climbed to No. 1 on the U.S. charts for three weeks in November of that year. Saturday night at Proctors, Siegel and the 2017 version of the Tokens will be performing that song as part of the Golden Oldies Spectacular with a handful of other top acts from the 1960s, including The Duprees and The Happenings. Show time is 7 p.m.
Siegel grew up in Brighton Beach and formed the original Tokens back in 1956 when he was still in high school. One of the members of that group was Neil Sedaka, who shared the vocals with Siegel before embarking on his own solo career. Along with “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” the group enjoyed some chart successes with “He’s in Town,” “I Hear the Trumpets Blow,” and “Portrait of My Love.” Making up the Tokens with Siegel Saturday night at Proctors will be Bill Reid and Kurt Yajhian. It was Yajhian who in 2014 replaced Jay Traynor, the original lead singer of Jay and the Americans. Traynor, who grew up just south of Albany in Greenville, toured as a member of the Tokens from 2006 until his death three years ago.
Siegel also got into the producing end of the business early in his record career, helping the Chiffons record “One Fine Day” and “He’s So Fine.” He was also a producer of Tony Orlando and Dawn’s three big hits, “Candida,” “Knock Three Times” and “Tie a Yellow Ribbon.”
Siegel did spend a few years in Los Angeles, but most of the time he’s remained in the New York area. He currently lives in Rockland County and he and his wife of 56 years, Judy, have three children and five grandchildren. He spoke to the Gazette earlier this week.
Question: When did you first hear the song, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight?”
Answer: think I heard it first as part of an album on the radio by The Weavers at Carnegie Hall. Some of the biggest folk acts of the 1950s were doing this song, it was called ‘Wimoweh,’ and Pete Seeger was doing the falsetto with The Weavers. I just loved hearing the song and I taught it to all my high school friends. But when RCA wanted us to record it, they were concerned because they didn’t think it had any real potential as a commercial record. That’s why I did some research on what the song was about, shared it with George Weiss and he came up with the lyrics. It had been just a traditional folk song from South Africa, but George added lyrics like “the lion sleeps tonight” and ‘in the jungle.”
Q: How was Pete’s falsetto?
A: Well, you know, it wasn’t like mine. But he did a good job with his falsetto, and he certainly inspired me to do it his way. For me, singing falsetto just came out very naturally for me; very easily. For some reason it’s very easy for me to do; part of my genes, I guess. I don’t know how this is possible, but I still perform ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’ and all the other songs I do in the original key like I did in 1961. Most artists, lose their range a little bit, but for some reason I have kept the ability to hit all those high notes. Don’t ask me how it comes out, I just open my mouth and the notes flow. When they stop flowing, I’ll stay home.
Q: Do you get tired of singing it?
A: No, absolutely not at all. A lot of people ask me that question, and I don’t know how many times I’ve sung it. But every time I sing it there are new people in the audience that never heard a live performance, and the reaction of the people who’ve seen me many, many times, they still have that same reaction. They’re standing up giving me a great reaction. Also, when “The Lion King” came out, the song had a whole new second life. Children were listening to it from the movie as they grew up, so I had a brand new audience.
Q: Why did the Tokens get into the producing end of the business?
A: We were the first vocal group to produce a number one hit when the Chiffons did “He’s So Fine” in 1963. And we had a lot of success with Tony Orlando and Dawn. I don’t know what we were thinking, but when we came out with our first hit we were concerned about being a “one-hit wonder.” We weren’t, but we decided to have a little studio office off Broadway in New York City, and we would have singers and songwriters come in and show us what they had. If we thought they had any potential, we’d get them in the studio and make a record. Some of the time, it worked. Sometimes it worked very well.
Q: What was your initial reaction to the Beatles?
A: I saw them on Ed Sullivan doing “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” and I wondered to myself, “what’s so great about this record?” It just seemed very ordinary to me. But then they kept on making records, they kept on evolving and they made some fantastic music. Lennon and McCarthy were brilliant songwriters and George Martin was a brilliant producer. Now I’m sure I have every Beatles’ album they ever made.
Q: What about the Beach Boys?
A: I loved them, right from the start. Their harmonies were great, Brian Wilson was a genius. We worked with him a couple of times. We made a record, “He’s in Town,” a beautiful ballad, a top 40 record for us written by Carol King and Gerry Goffin, and I have a newspaper article about Brian Wilson driving down a boulevard in California, and having to pull over to listen to our song when he heard it on the radio. There’s a quote from him, saying that he thought I was one of the best lead singers of that era that he ever heard. Coming from Brian Wilson, that sure meant a lot to me.
Q: How often are you performing these days?
A: I’m probably booking about 40 to 50 dates a year. It’s still a lot of fun. It was strange back in ’61. We were in London, Paris, Switzerland. We were a bunch of kids just out of high school, when we we flew into Madrid and people were waiting to greet us. It was surreal. I think I’d appreciate it more now than i did back then. I’m the only original one, but Bill Reid’s been with me for 25 years, and Kurt has been with me now for about four years. Before Kurt joined the group we had Jay Traynor with us for about 10 years. He lived in Rensselaer, up your way, and was the most humble, nicest guy, and a great talent.
Q: I’m guessing you made it through the turbulent Sixties with minimal drug or alcohol problems?
A: They say if you remember the Sixties, then you really weren’t there. But I got married in October of 1961, and when I came back from my honeymoon we were suddenly big stars. I survived everything, all the sex, drugs and rock n’ roll , and the reason was my wife. She really grounded me. The recording industry was my job. After my job I went home to a wife and some kids, and going home to my family was something I always wanted to do.
‘Golden Oldies Spectacular’
WHERE: Proctors, 432 State St., Schenectady
WHEN: 7 p.m. Saturday
HOW MUCH: $54.75-$39.75
MORE INFO: (518) 346-6204, www.proctors.org