I have to confess to having something of an obsession with the song “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”. Whenever I hear it on the radio, I find it rather mesmerizing, and always think the same thing: “What would inspire someone to write a song like that?”
In lots of ways it’s a simple song, with a repeating I-IV-I-V chord pattern throughout the whole song and a chorus-verse-chorus structure, but somehow it’s so much more than that. Plus, there’s something just so weird, so surreal, about the whole song.
When I started doing a bit of research into the song, I found that it has an interesting history, and is a good deal older than I first thought. “Lion” has its origins in a song called “Mbube”(meaning “lion” in Zulu, go figure) written by South African singer Solomon Linda in the 1920s. It was recorded in 1939 by Linda and The Evening Birds, and released as a 78 RPM record by the Gallo Record Company in Johannesburg.
Here’s what the original version sounded like:
“Mbube” became popular in South Africa and among the African immigrant communities in the UK and Europe. By 1948 it was the first song by an African artist to sell over 100,000 copies. The song didn’t make much of an impression in the United States until music historian Alan Lomax played it to Pete Seeger. Mishearing “Mbube” as “Wimoweh”, Seeger recorded a version with his band The Weavers and had a US Top 20 hit in 1952.
Here is “Wimoweh” by The Weavers:
Around this time, things started to get murky with regard to the authorship of the song. Solomon Linda had signed the rights to “Mbube” over to the Gallo Record Company for 10 South African shillings (less than $1 US in today’s terms) and The Weavers’ version was credited by their record company to “Paul Campbell”, a pseudonym for the band. “Wimoweh” went on to be covered by the Kingston Trio and was a minor hit for them in 1959. This version was credited to “Campbell / Linda”.
In 1961, RCA producers Hugo Peretti and Luigi Creatore were looking for a B-side for a single by doo-wop group The Tokens. They commissioned George David Weiss (writer of “Can’t Help Falling in Love” for Elvis Presley among other songs) to write English lyrics for “Wimoweh”. The result was “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”, which became a US Number 1 hit for The Tokens.
Here is “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” by The Tokens:
This version of the song was credited to Peretti, Creatore, Weiss and “Albert Stanton”, a pseudonym for one of Pete Seeger’s music publishers. So now, out of three versions of the song he composed, Solomon Linda was only receiving royalty payments on one of them, “Wimoweh”, and only a small part of what he deserved (it was credited to Campbell and Linda, remember, plus the publishing company were extremely lax with their payments). A sad part of this story is that when Solomon Linda died in 1962, he only had the equivalent of US $22 in his bank account, despite “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” having been recorded by over 150 artists by that time. Two of his eight children had died from malnutrition by this point, and his widow could not afford a gravestone for him.
It wasn’t until 2000 that a South African journalist wrote an article about Linda and the song that this issue came to the attention of lawyers, who eventually won a settlement for the estate of Solomon Linda in 2006. This after the song had been covered by numerous artists and featured in the Walt Disney “Lion King” franchise which has made untold millions around the world.
“The Lion Sleeps Tonight” continues to be a hugely popular song, and as I say, one that hold continuing fascination for me. Even more so now that I know something of its tangled and troubled history.
Here is the version by Tight Fit, which reached Number 1 in the UK charts in 1982:
Do you have a song that has a strange fascination for you? If so, what is it and why?
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