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The Tokens: A One-Hit Wonder Goes Pop

The Tokens scored a massive doo-wop hit with 1961's "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," then spent years trying to live it down.
The Tokens scored a massive doo-wop hit with 1961's "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," then spent years trying to live it down.

The Brooklyn doo-wop group The Tokens scored a place in pop history with one of its first recordings, the 1961 single "The Lion Sleeps Tonight." A confluence of a soaring African theme and vividly choreographed harmony, the song became a massive hit. And then, as often happens, it became something of a business trap for virtually everyone involved. The composer of the African tune, Solomon Linda, wasn't properly compensated for his creation; he eventually died in poverty in South Africa. (After extended legal wrangling, his estate won a settlement over songwriting royalties last year.)

Meanwhile, The Tokens spent much of the '60s trying to move away from "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," and doo-wop in general. The five-piece experimented unsuccessfully with folk, and then in 1967, primary songwriter Mitch Margo (dazzled by the horizon-expanding works of The Beach Boys and The Beatles) began working on an attempt at contemporary pop. He wrote breathless torrents of psychedelic imagery like "Waiting For Something" (audio) and surrounded them with violins and mellotrons as well as guitars. And, crucially, he employed The Tokens' distinctive harmonies more sparingly. The group's label at the time didn't like the results, and pressed only enough copies of Intercourse to fulfill a contractual obligation. These circulated as valuable collectibles, until Margo and his cohorts — including Stephen Friedland, composer of the chipper "Wonderful Things" (audio) — formally issued it in the mid-'90s. It'll see wider distribution beginning Feb. 8, when a remastered version is released on the Revola label.

Intercourse isn't top-to-bottom genius. Several short song fragments and fey fantasias make hippie oracles like Donovan seem earthbound by comparison. But the fully developed songs, among them the terse "You Loser You Fool" (audio), have an unmistakable spark. They're fanciful in the manner of much late-'60s pop, but they never just float along. Veterans in the studio by this time, The Tokens' members create a distinct ethos that brings these songs to life. An unexpected answer to a trivia question — "Whatever happened to the Tokens?" — this delightful record makes it easy to wonder how many other acts known for a single song have miniature psychedelic relics hanging out in the closet, waiting to be discovered.

Listen to last week's 'Shadow Classic.'

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Tom Moon has been writing about pop, rock, jazz, blues, hip-hop and the music of the world since 1983.