Mitch Margo, who rode 'The Lion Sleeps Tonight' to the top of the charts, dies at 70

Steve Marble, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

LOS ANGELES -- Mitch Margo was just 14 when he and some Brooklyn pals recorded "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," a doo-wop version of a Zulu folk song that had been recorded dozens of times over the decades.

But for the New York boy group, the song proved to be a powerful elixir as it climbed the charts and settled in at No. 1 for three weeks, and then remained in rotation on oldies radio stations for years to come.

It also set the bar impossibly high for four kids not yet out of high school.

Margo, who teamed with his brother Phil and two others to make up the Tokens, chased music the rest of his life, helping produce hits for others, musical scores for television projects and artwork for children's books. And while the group's lineup changed and shifted, he continued to perform with the Tokens.

Never away from the stage for long, Margo died Nov. 24 at his home in Studio City at age 70. Family members said he died of natural causes.

"Mitch was an adjective-defying human being," said Noah Margo, a nephew who has played drums for the Tokens for 24 years. "His humor, wit and slanted observations will be deeply missed."


Born May 25, 1947, Margo was a student at Abraham Lincoln High School in Brooklyn when the Tokens formed and recorded "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," originally an African chant that was Americanized as it was passed from recording artist to recording artist. The song ended up the centerpiece of an international lawsuit after it was used in Disney's "The Lion King."

The song was a quick hit for the Tokens and was only bounced from its perch atop the charts in early 1962 when Chubby Checker's "The Twist" reached No. 1 for a second time. The Tokens followed with several modest hits, "I Hear Trumpets Blow" and "Portrait of My Love."

The New York group also had success as record producers for others, working with the Chiffons and, later, Tony Orlando and Dawn.

In the late 1960s, Margo became infatuated with psychedelia, particularly the Beatles' horizon-expanding "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" and the dreamy Beach Boys harmonies on "Pet Sounds." But when he persuaded his bandmates to follow his lead and record a trippy album titled "Intercourse," the group's label balked and pressed just enough copies to satisfy its contractual obligations. The album is now a collector's item.


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