Monday, June 25, 2007

The Man Sleeps Tonight

Hank Medress passed away last week.

You may not know who he is. Even the name of the band he fronted -- the Tokens -- may be unfamilar to you. But I bet you know their big 1961 hit "The Lion Sleeps Tonight." This is probably the only #1 American hit that was a cover of a song first popular in Swaziland, Africa. It was written by a man named Solomon Linda and recorded in 1939 by him and his band The Evening Birds. It sold 100,00 copies under its original title "Mbube," which is Swazi for "lion."


Several years later it came to the attention of Pete Seeger of the folk group The Weavers. They recorded a version of it that was instrumental except for the "Wimoweh's" and some other melodic but nonsensical syllables. That's what they titled it: "Wimoweh."


That's where Hank Medress and the Tokens come in. Hank had originally started out in doo-wop with Neil Sedaka, but when Neil went solo, Hank formed the new band. They had a Top 15 hit with "Tonight I Fell in Love." They were caught up in the folk boom of the early 60's and when they got a chance to audition for a couple of super-producers at RCA they chose to audition with "Wimoweh." The producers liked it but decided it needed more lyrics before it could have a chance at mainstream success. So they wrote the verses, and titled it "The Lion Sleeps Tonight." And the rest is Hitsville history. The Tokens never really had another hit, but Medress went on to become a very successful producer, producing "He's So Fine" by the Chiffons, "Tie a Yellow Ribbon" and other hits for Tony Orlando and Dawn. He even worked with former New York Doll David Johannson on creating his Buster Poindexter persona.

Hank Medress was 68.

4 comments:

Austin said...

Produced the Chiffon's "He's So Fine"?

Coincidence that that was one of the clue's in today's puzzle?

Norrin2 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Norrin2 said...

I think it has to be a coincidence because the puzzles are prepared so far in advance. But it's a heck of a coincidence -- not only was that song referenced in the SUN puzzle, but as pointed out by Linda G, it showed up in the NY Times puzzle today and in the same spot -- 24 Across. If it turns out that the number 24 meant something to Medress I might think it was more than a coincidence.

Orange said...

That's a great story about a familiar song that turns out to be less familiar than I thought.

Think there's anywhere to hear the original 1939 version online?