Hope you enjoy the latest installment in our interview series - Phil Margo of the legendary Tokens was nice enough to answer our questions.
Kyler:Phil, how did you (and your brother) become ½ of the classic lineup of the Tokens?
PHIL:Well, it’s mainly because I was in a boy’s chorus in high school and I learned how beautiful singing was, it was in my junior year and I was kind of unspectacular. We did our first concert and our teacher asked if some of us would want to entertain at the annual spring sock hop, so I volunteered Mitch and me and we sang “All I Have To Do Is Dream”, accapella. People applauded and girls introduced themselves and that was the beginning. I found that I had a talent for music and I pursued it. I learned how to play the piano, and had a band in the summer of 59. We worked in the Catskill Mountains. When I came back, our drummer (his father won the lottery won the lottery two months in a row) went to college, and I had to find a new drummer. The new drummer knew Henry Medress. And he introduced Henry to us and we started working and writing together. We did kind of a rock and roll version of Chopsticks and nothing happened. We continued to write because Hank saw something in us. And we wrote “Tonight I Fell In Love” and some other songs and we got Jay (who was in Darrell and the Oxfords with Hank) to sing lead and that’s how it all began. Mitch was actually 9-10 years old when we first sang and then when we got together (in the Tokens) I was 17 and Mitch was 12.
Kyler:What kind of music were The Tokens into offstage?
PHIL:Jay had a very eclectic view of music. he was into country and folk. Mitch and I liked 40s music. I liked some classical stuff and of course what was current. Our favorite was stuff like Ray Charles and good harmony groups.
Kyler:How did you come to be signed by Warwick Records?
PHIL:We went with Warwick because they frankly were the only label that would take the record! We made “Tonight I Fell In Love” and nobody jumped up and down and then finally Warwick agreed to put it out. Then they changed their mind. Morty (Craft, head of Warwick at the time) didn’t want to put it out because he didn’t like the name we picked for ourselves, which was “Those Guys”. He didn’t want ‘Those Guys’, and he wasn’t gonna put the record out. So we came to him, and he said “ok, we’ll use the name ‘The Tokens’, because one of his labels was the label that Neil Sedaka & The Tokens were on. So, we took the name ‘The Tokens’. It was an afterthought. We didn’t really like the name but we took it because we wanted to do anything to get a record out!
Kyler:After “Tonight I Fell In Love”, you moved from Warwick to RCA. What was the reason behind the move?
PHIL:We moved to RCA from Warwick because Morty said our record wasn’t earning any money, when it was in the Top 15. He said, “what can RCA do for you that I can’t”? And we all said in unison, without rehearsal, “Pay us!”
Kyler:Can you tell me about some great doo wop songs that graced the first RCA Tokens single – “Dry Your Eyes” and “When I Go To Sleep At Night”?
PHIL:Dry Your Eyes and When I Go were songs that we had written and nothing much to say except that I don’t think the records weren’t what we wanted. Once you turn things over to an arranger and orchestra you’re at their mercy. We weren’t in charge, so we weren’t the producers, so we had to do what was in front of us. Later on, “He’s So Fine”, when we recorded the Chiffons, we had run through the budget at Capitol Records so we had to play the instruments and do the arrangements ourselves. I think that’s what made the record successful because it had that spontaneous feel about it.
Kyler:Of course your biggest hit on RCA was “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”….how influential were The Tokens to the arrangement of the original folk standard?
PHIL:We kinda gave them the demo – we did a demo in 1960 of Wimoweh without the lyric. I just found it recently within the last couple of years (the original demo). We pretty much laid down the feel of it, the bongo drums etc. The lyric was a thing that was added later and we didn’t get that until the day of the session. We were supposed to sing the lyric to the melody line of the chant (“Wimoweh”), but it got boring, after a while repeating the same thing over and over again, so we went over to the piano and adjusted the melody. We actually wrote a new melody to go with the lyrics. We unfortunately never got credited or paid for that and it was even admitted to by the people that kind of stole it from us.
Kyler:Some of my favorite Tokens songs from the early Sixties are little known gems which have very little information to be found on the web – namely, “Right Or Wrong”, “Somewhere There’s A Girl”, and “Dear Judy” – can you provide any details?
PHIL:“Right or Wrong” was written by Neil Sedaka, that was on our original session. “Somewhere There’s A Girl”, Neil Sedaka also wrote. We wrote “Dear Judy”. We were trying to do a record like “Little Darlin’”, so we did “Dear Judy”.
Kyler:What was the major impetus behind the creation of BT Puppy Records?
PHIL:We started BT Puppy because we were leaving RCA and we wanted our own label, like a little RCA. BT stands for Bright Tunes (our publishing company), and Puppy, as a reference to RCA’s dog.
Kyler:Many, if not all, of the Tokens original songs were followed by the credits “Margo/Margo/Medress/Siegel”. Did each of you actually write parts of every song or was it more like a Lennon/McCartney situation?
PHIL:Margo/Margo/Medress/Siegel were the credits. Mitch and I wrote most of the songs, in fact Mitch even more than me. Jay and Hank didn’t really write that much. Jay’s edition was to make little changes in the melody once a song was written. Basically the songs were written by Mitchell and I. Although Hank, with us, did write Tonight I Fell In Love and I’ll Always Love You.
Kyler:How did The Tokens acquire “He’s In Town”? Were you good friends with Goffin, King and the other writers from the Brill Building?
PHIL:We were friends with Carole and Gerry because once we produced “He’s So Fine” for the Chiffons, they came to us with the demo for “One Fine Day” (sung by Little Eva on the demo), and I said we would want to do that (with the Chiffons). She sent it over and we used the backing track, with Carole on piano, and added to it to make the master. So we were friends with Carole and she called us up and said “I have a great song for you guys”.We were friendly with Mann and Weil, Barry and Greenwich, Artie Resnick, all of those people from the Brill Building.
(above: Carole King and Gerry Goffin, writers of "He's In Town")
Kyler:Who came up with the Puppy design for BT Puppy? Was it meant to be a knock on RCA Victor’s dog?
PHIL:It wasn’t a knock on RCA, it was an homage to them – that was where we had our biggest hit record so the last thing we wanted to do was knock them!
Kyler:“I Hear Trumpets Blow” has a set of wonderful lyrics. What was the inspiration behind that tune?
PHIL:I Hear Trumpets Blow is an interesting story. It continues now – we always loved it. Mitch wrote it as a homage to our family. It would have been a big record if New York would have played it. The only area we couldn’t get it played was New York City so the record wasn’t as big as it could have been. Noah (Phil’s son) and I wrote a play which is being considered for Broadway called “Oh My Goddess”, and one of the songs we put in it is “I Hear Trumpets Blow”. Hopefully it will have another life – we’ll see!
Kyler:Many of the Tokens songs have intricate background parts – for example, “Breezy” and “Greatest Moments In A Girl’s Life”. Did you guys arrange those parts yourselves?
PHIL:We did all the background parts ourselves. The only one we didn’t do was “He’s In Town”, which Carole King did.
Kyler:You produced many great records and artists – do you have a favorite?
PHIL:Out of all of them, there were only three that I knew would be hits – Knock Three Times (Tony Orlando and Dawn), I Got Rhythm (Happenings) and One Fine Day (Chiffons). I guess I don’t really have a favorite My favorite Tokens record is “Tonight I Fell In Love”. There was something wonderful about the innocence of the background parts. If you notice, the background parts are a descending triad instead of the obvious part. And the record turned out the way we all heard it, so that was kind of exciting.
Kyler:Finally, I bet out readers would like to know what Phil Margo and Tokens are up to these days.
PHIL:We tour all over the country and we travel. We do television and we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”!
Thanks to Phil for the interview! You can check the Tokens official website out HERE
Also, be sure to check out the Rare Rockin Records shop (just click here). You can find many great compact discs to order, and information about two upcoming ones - Billy Meshel (Songwriter's Series) on RRR and Paul Petersen (Hits & Rarities) on Teensville.