The Lion’s Tale

- August 18, 2011

"An African Zulu chant leads to a chart-topping pop song"

Whatever your age, the song is inescapable -- from a ’50s folk ditty to a Number One ’60s rock hit, to Disney’s use of it in their 1994 film "The Lion King." The famous melody of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” has made millions of dollars for American publishers & (re)writers. Unfortunately, its true originator died destitute in 1962.

In the early 1930s, South African musician Solomon Linda sang in a Johannesburg vocal group called the Evening Birds, performing at weddings and choir competitions. Later in the decade, Linda worked as a packer for Gallo Records. A company talent scout was impressed enough with their sound to have the Evening Birds cut some songs at their studio—the only facility willing to record black artists! One selection, “Mbube,” credited to "Solomon Linda’s Original Evening Birds," became a big regional hit in South Africa, eventually selling an amazing 100,000 copies. But because blacks were not allowed to receive royalties at that time, the group only got a token cash payment for rights to the tune.

Mbube, the Zulu word for lion, was basically a chant. Low voices supported Solomon Linda’s wild falsetto. The hit recording was the result of their third attempt at the song and included Linda’s improvised melody at the end, which we now recognize as the basis for “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” His simple Zulu lyrics about lions were inspired by boyhood memories of chasing the big cats away from family cattle.

Following Linda’s success, this group style of Zulu singing became known as “Mbube music.” This use of call and response can be heard in contemporary groups such as Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

In the early ’50s, Gallo Records shipped a number of recordings, including “Mbube,” to American Decca Records in hopes of having them issued in the States. The label declined, but an enterprising employee, folklorist Alan Lomax, retrieved the unwanted discs and passed them on to his friend Pete Seeger, who was intrigued by “Mbube.” Seeger heard the title lyric as “Wimoweh” ( it's actually pronounced “EEM-boo-beh” ) and had his group, the Weavers, record it in 1952. The Weavers’ “Wimoweh” was a hit and prompted other versions throughout the decade, keeping the melody alive.

Solomon Linda’s record had no writer listed and Seeger unwittingly gave his group arrangement credit under their collective composing pseudonym Paul Campbell. As it turned out, "Mbube” was not copyrighted at the time, but that’s doesn’t mean just anyone could claim it.

In 1961, a doo-wop vocal group called the Tokens in New York City set about revamping the Weavers’ hit. The Tokens’ producers, not excited at the prospect, brought in writer George David Weiss, who’d had some success with “adult” stars like Peggy Lee and Doris Day. Weiss reconstructed “Wimoweh,” toning down the yelling aspects and writing some lion-centric lyrics but retaining the essence of Solomon Linda’s melody.

Despite what the group considered to be unhip lyrics, the Tokens cut “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” in July, 1961. Their producers remained so casual about it that “Lion” was issued as the B-side of a 45. The A-side ("Tina") was going nowhere fast, when a Massachusetts DJ flipped the record and its popularity exploded. ”Lion” eventually soared to the top of the  national charts here and abroad. In the ensuing years, countless versions have been cut, including another U.S. hit by Robert John and a 1982 UK Number One hit by Tight Fit. Artists ranging from Jimmy Dorsey to Brian Eno, R.E.M. and They Might Be Giants have put their marks on the melody.

The  song’s royalties had been quite lucrative and surged even further when “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” was used in The Lion King film (sung, uncredited, by Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella). The Tokens’ producers, Hugo Peretti and Luigi Creatore along with George Weiss, continued to be the designated songwriters occasionally combined with Paul Campbell, with Solomon Linda’s name nowhere in sight.

Credit must be given to Pete Seeger though. When he realized Linda should benefit from the Weavers’ recording, he asked that royalties be sent to him. Seeger himself directly forwarded $1,000 but Solomon’s family maintains they received only a fraction of that.

An extensive “Mbube”/”Lion Sleeps Tonight” expose´ in the May 25, 2000 issue of Rolling Stone led to a settlement between American interests and Solomon Linda’s heirs. The undisclosed payment in 2006 was thought to approach a million dollars.

It’s ironic that the opening lyrics to the song are

"In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight..."

since a lion’s habitat is the plains and grasslands. But jungle is definitely the appropriate word for the tangled tale of “Mbubue.”

Listen to the songs:

Solomon Linda’s Original Evening Birds