Although I met Hank Medress and the Tokens backstage at a Murray the K Rock'n'Roll Show in 1961, it wasn't until two years later that I had my first real conversation with him. We were lying side by side on gurneys at Lincoln Hospital up in the Bronx, donating blood to songwriter Ronnie Mack ('He's So Fine'), a few days before he succumbed to Hodgkin's disease. Although it was a serious time, we managed to keep each other's spirits up, and from that time on we developed a friendship that's lasted over 40 years. One of my closest friends, Allan Rinde, and his wife, singer and songwriter Toni Wine, told me a few weeks ago that Hank had some serious health problems. So I decided to get in touch with him. I didn't know what condition I'd find the man who produced all those hits by the Chiffons, the Happenings, Melissa Manchester, Frankie Valli, Tony Orlando and Dawn. On the morning I spoke to him I was surprised to hear him sounding as strong, vibrant and relentless as I remembered him. I am honoured that he wanted to do an interview with me for Artie Wayne on the Web and Spectropop. I spoke to him yesterday at his home in New York from my apartment in the California desert.

The Tokens through the years
(click each image to enlarge)


AW: Hank, how ya doin'?

HM: Hangin' in.

AW: I know what you mean, so let's get on to our interview. I saw an early publicity picture for your first record on Warwick Records as the Tokens with a different line-up. Can you tell us about that?

HM: The original group included Cynthia Zolotin, Eddie Rabkin and Neil Sedaka. We all went to Lincoln High School in Brooklyn. A couple of weeks ago I went out to Hollywood, where the high school alumni association had a dinner to honour Neil Sedaka. My opening line to Neil was, "50 years to the day, my life changed when we first met in English class. Before the class was over, we talked about forming a group."

AW: The Tokens?

HM: No, originally we called ourselves the Linctones - the Linc is for Lincoln High School. This was back in 1956. We auditioned for Happy Goday, who in turn set up a meeting with Morty Craft at Warwick Records. We made a deal and the first record we put out was 'I Love My Baby', which Neil did not sing the lead on. Neil, however, was singing 'While I Dream' on the b-side. The record was a hit in New York, but Neil wanted to devote more of his time to classical music and his studies at Juilliard. He also was writing songs with Howie Greenfield and getting major cover records by LaVern Baker, the Clovers …

AW: Was he signed to Aldon Music at this time?

HM: Yeah. Donny Kirshner had all the best writers, Goffin and King, Mann and Weil …

AW: I was signed to Aldon for a while. I didn't have any hits, but I learned how to write songs from the best! It was like a school.

HM: It was amazing, really amazing!

AW: Now, how did you get together with Jay, Phil and Mitch?

HM: Well, Neil was starting a solo career, Cynthia and Eddie just lost interest and disbanded, but I was determined to get a group together. I knew I had to have a vehicle to take me where I wanted to go! I knew Jay Siegel from school, and Neil, who was still halfway in the group, thought Jay sang great! Then I heard about these two brothers, Phil and Mitch Margo. I went down to Ocean Parkway to check them out. Right away we all started writing songs together, which included 'Tonight I Fell In Love'. I borrowed $60 and we made a demo of the song. I was riding the subway home to Brighton Beach, some lady overhears me talking about the record we just made, says she and her son have a record company … they release it and we have our first hit! On that same session, we recorded 'Wimoweh', before it became 'The Lion Sleeps Tonight'. That was the song we used to sing on street corners. Jay Siegel was the one who turned us on to that song. He was a big Pete Seeger fan and he loved his version of 'Wimoweh'.

AW: And you brought it to Hugo & Luigi at RCA?

HM: We had an audition with them. First we played them our original songs, but they weren't very interested. Then they asked if we had anything else? I said there's a song we sing on the beach. It's a chant and it doesn't have words. They wanted to hear it. They said, "That's a hit! What does the lyric mean?" We told them Jay had checked with the African consulate and it was about a lion hunt, etc. Hugo and Luigi said they wanted to put a lyric to it. When we came to the recording session, they handed Jay the lyric as he was about to go on microphone. Jay changed the melody to make the lyric fit the meter … and the rest is history!

AW: Weren't you recently in court to claim a share of that copyright renewal?

HM: We hired lawyers, went back and forth with depositions, and passionately tried to get the copyright back.

AW: What happened?

HM: Accusations and allegations were being thrown around, and at one point in the deposition I jumped on the table and almost beat the shit out of George Weiss [the credited lyric writer of 'The Lion Sleeps Tonight'] for the things he was saying! We were already feeling like victims, now we were being made to feel like criminals! Ultimately, the judge threw the case out of court because of the statute of limitations, and also due to the fact that I ended up as president of EMI Canada. He said I should've been aware when the copyright renewal came up. He said I should have been reading law journals and that we waited too long to come forward, and because I spent my whole life in the music business how could I not see in Billboard Magazine what was going on? And that's how we lost the case.

AW: I'm sorry to hear that. You guys obviously contributed a lot to the creation of 'The Lion Sleeps Tonight', the song you adapted from 'Wimowheh', but at least you fared better than Soloman Linda, the black South African who composed 'Wimoweh' back in the 1930s. He never received a dime of royalties, and died penniless.

HM: I hear that his estate will be getting a share of the copyright … a small share, but it's long overdue!

AW: Can you tell us how you found the Chiffons?

HM: After 'The Lion Sleeps Tonight', Capitol Records gave the Tokens a record production and publishing deal to produce 10 sides, 5 singles. We had an office up there, and they let us use the conference room.

AW: I remember going up there and playing songs for you guys! It was like walking into a Marx Brothers movie!

HM: (Laughs) We've been told that before.

AW: How'd you find the Chiffons?

HM: One day the Capitol Records receptionist buzzed me in my office. She said that there was a group outside with their manager who wanted an audition, but none of the Capitol A&R men had time to see them. I told her I'd be happy to see them. So they came back to my office with their manager, Ronnie Mack, and sang me a song that he wrote, 'He's So Fine'. I said, "Oh, my God!" It was one of those times when you know something is an absolute smash!

AW: Wow!

HM: We already spent our $12,000 budget Capitol gave us to produce singles, so we went in and recorded it on our demo budget for the publishing company. We used Capitol Recording Studios, and it was the first time we ever played our own instruments on a record. I didn't even know how to play bass! Johnny Cue, our engineer, suggested that we use "Doo-lang, doo-lang, doo-lang", the catchy little figure the girls sing later in the record, in the beginning of the record as well.

AW: I'll bet all the record companies freaked out over it!

HM: Artie, CapitoI Records passed on it. Then I went to every record company in New York City, and everybody turned me down!

AW: You're kidding?

HM: I started with all the majors - RCA, MCA, Columbia - then I went to the small labels at 1650 Broadway, the Brill Building [1619], 1697 Broadway - everybody turned me down! Finally, I went to a little record company that was off the beaten track, Laurie Records. I played the record for Bob and Gene Schwartz. They locked the door and wouldn't let me out until we made a deal!

AW: Do you remember back in 1968, when we were at MIDEM, the international music conference in Cannes, France? You were there with the Tokens and I was there with my first wife, Sheilah and my partners, Sandy and Kelli Ross

HM: Sure I do! I remember one night in particular, I saw the Moody Blues perform. On stage there was a symphony orchestra, which stopped playing when the group came out. The Moody Blues started singing 'Nights In White Satin' while the guy on keyboard played this instrument that sounded like a complete symphony orchestra!

AW: The Mellotron!

HM: Yeah. I bought one! We were the first American group, even before the Beach Boys, to have one!

AW: I remember when the Musicians' Union in the US banned it from being used on sessions, because it had the potential to put a lot of musicians out of work.

HM: After MIDEM we located a Mellotron in England, but we had to have an English person buy it and send it to us in the US as a gift, in order to bypass import restrictions. We kept it under wraps in the studio, took it apart and replaced rhythm loops like rumbas and cha chas, with other sound samples. We used it on Brute Force's cult classic, 'The King Of Fu' [aka 'The Fu King'], which came out on Apple Records after we made a handshake deal with the Beatles.

AW: Wow, that's some story! But getting back to the night of the Moody Blues concert, do you remember what happened after the show?

HM: (Puzzled) No. What?

AW: You, Phil, Sheilah and I were schmoozing in the lobby when we saw a pickpocket in evening clothes slashing tuxedo pockets of the guests and stealing wallets. We all just looked at each other, then we followed this guy for about a half an hour. After making some remarks to each other out of an Abbott and Costello movie, Phil found a security guard and we had the guy arrested. Then you said, "What if he wasn't working alone?"

HM: (Laughs) No, I don't remember that.

AW: At our age, you don't remember a lotta shit! (Both laugh) I remember on one of my trips back to New York, I dropped by to see you at EMI and you introduced me to Buster Poindexter. You played me a record you just cut with him that's still one of my favourites, 'Hot, Hot, Hot!'

HM: That's interesting, 'cause 'Hot, Hot, Hot!' became another one of my earworms.

AW: Earworms?

HM: Yeah, the kinds of songs that come into your head while you're showering or when you're walking. You don't want them in your head.

AW: But they're there anyway.

HM: Yeah. I just did an interview for a new TV pilot with Pete Fornatale, who used to be on WNEW radio, called 'Earworms', 'cause a lot my records - 'The Lion Sleeps Tonight', 'Hot, Hot, Hot!' and 'Tie A Yellow Ribbon' - fit that description.

AW: Speaking of "Tie A Yellow Ribbon", you have a pretty long history with Tony Orlando?

HM: We've been friends since the early '60s when Jack Keller and Brooks Arthur were producing him. Dave Appell, who was running our publishing company, got a song from Wes Farrell - 'Candida' by Toni Wine and Irwin Levine. I thought it was a smash. I wanted Tony to sing lead on it, but he didn't want to record 'cause he had a job and he didn't want to blow his marriage! He was working at April-Blackwood Music, and was afraid he'd lose his job … and his wife, if anyone found out it was him singing. So we used the group name, Dawn. Then we had 'Knock Three Times' and we couldn't keep it a secret any longer!

AW: Tell us the story behind "Tie A Yellow Ribbon".

HM: As we were planning our next recording sessions, I asked Tony what he wanted to be ultimately in his career? He said he wanted to be like Bobby Darin, who was his idol, a Vegas and television personality. I said, "OK". Then one day this song came in by Larry Brown and Irwin Levine. Larry could hardly play it on the guitar, and Dave Appell had to help him figure out the chords. I heard the song on their guitar/voice demo and said, "That's a number one record!" I play the song for Tony and he looks at me like I've gone out of my mind: "You want me to sing a song about yellow ribbons?" I said, "Do you want to be like Bobby Darin? If you record this song you'll work for the rest of your life!" He said he couldn't record the song - it was embarrassing. So we negotiated and Tony agreed to do 'Tie A Yellow Ribbon' if I agreed to produce an aesthetic album with him. Then I played him an Allen Toussaint song, 'Freedom For The Stallion'.

AW: That's a song Tony Byrne, one of my Warner Raiders, gave you. As I remember, you also cut Alan O'Day's 'Caress Me Pretty Music' on the same album.

HM: Wow! Anyway, Tony comes into the studio to record 'Ribbon' with a chip on his shoulder and asks me how he wants him to sing it. I said do it like Bobby Darin would do it! He did and, as they say, the rest is history!

AW: I was always impressed with all those commercials you and the Tokens did!

HM: That's interesting. They certainly kept us alive for a while - 'Pan Am Makes The Going Great', 'Great Shakes', (sings) "Any place can be a soda shop" …

AW: Sure!

HM: … 'She Lets Her Hair Down', 'A Silly Millimeter Longer', '101 Chesterfield Cigarettes'. We were the first group that Madison Avenue contracted to put the whole package together - to write, produce and perform. We'd leave the studio after doing these commercials and wonder why we weren't doing records with this kind of mentality. We didn't think about it, we weren't trying to do anything, but maybe have a good time! It was always a mystery to us, 'cause sometimes the commercials came out better than our records!

AW: It always was a dream of mine to sing on a record with you guys. That dream came true when Jerry Ross asked me to get you to sing background on some songs he was producing with Keith.

HM: (Lights up) '98.6'! That was a big record!

AW: What other singers have you done backgrounds for?

HM: Chubby Checker, Connie Francis, but mostly we did them for our own productions.

AW: Do you know that I've never had an appointment with you? Whenever I wanted to see you to play a song, I'd just drop by your office and you'd always make time to see me. Sometimes I had to wait, but you'd always see me, which I appreciate.

HM: What the business doesn't have for me today is a sense of urgency. In those days you could hear a great song, the next day you could be in the studio recording it, and that night an acetate would be played on WABC! I've done projects for companies who've given me a ton of money, I spend months producing the record, but by the time the record's finished, the person I made the deal with is no longer with the company, and the record gets lost in the process. That urgency unfortunately no longer exists.

AW: You're currently working on a project with a real sense of urgency. Can you tell me about Sound Exchange? *

HM: I locate and contact recording artists who are entitled to royalties that have been collected by Sound Exchange from digital services, satellite radio and TV, webcasters and digital cable. You'd be surprised how many people are owed money, but don't know it!

AW: How do you find out if you're on the list?

HM: Go to our website [details below]. If you're on the list, then it'll tell you how to collect your money!

AW: I think what you're doing is incredible and obviously keeps you in a positive frame of mind!

HM: I'm fighting lung cancer, but I'm keeping a positive attitude. God gives us a way of dealing with things. Every morning I wake up knowing I have another chance to give something back.

AW: Hank, I not only want to thank you for this interview, but for all the joy your music has given the world! Know that all our prayers and good thoughts are with you and how proud I am to be your friend.

(With thanks to the Spectropoppers who supplied illustrations and questions: Clark Besch, Phil Chapman, Don Hall, Andrew Jones, Alan V. Karr, Phil Milstein, Mick Patrick, Country Paul Payton, Steve Popkin, Martin Roberts, Paul Rusling and Will Stos.)

* Sound Exchange is the performance rights organization designated by the US Copyright Office to collect and distribute digital performance royalties on behalf of the performers and copyright owners of sound recordings, for their use/play by satellite radio services such as XM and Sirius; webcasters such as AOL, Live 365 and Yahoo; and digital cable and satellite television music services such as Music Choice and Muzak.