The Lion Sleeps Tonight
“In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight…”
Is there anyone who doesn’t know the song, ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’? If you’re an older person, you remember it as a hit record by The Tokens in the early 1960s, if you’re younger you remember it from “The Lion King”.
But there’s a backstory to that song that few people know. And it’s a story of poverty and of strong vs. weak. A story of wealth and power vs. a poor man and his family.
And it’s also the story of one of the biggest and most recognizable hit songs of all time.
The song “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” has its roots in “Mbube”. According to Wikipedia…
“…Mbube is a form of South African vocal music, made famous by the South African group Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
The word mbube means “lion” in Zulu. Traditionally performed a cappella, the members of the group are male although a few groups have a female singer. In this form, groups of voices singing homophonically in rhythmic unison are employed to create intricate harmonies and textures…” (Wikipedia “Mbube (genre)”.
‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight ‘ was written and recorded as ‘Wimoweh” in 1938 (you can listen here), in Johannesburg, South African by singer and itinerant worker Solomon Linda and his band The Evening Birds.
‘Wimoweh’ slowly evolved into ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’. By the time The Tokens released “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” in 1961, Solomon Linda’s name was nowhere to be found. The record label said the song was written by George David Weiss, Luigi Creatore, and Hugo Peretti. The Token’s version of ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’ became one of the biggest hits of all time. But Solomon Linda received nothing; he was not even credited with being a co-writer.
Going back to 1938, Solomon Linda and The Nightbirds’ recording of the song ‘Wimoweh‘ became a small, regional hit in South Africa. And, as it so happened, a copy of Linda’s record made its way back to New York City where a man named Alan Lomax, a talent scout, and ethnomusicologist, picked it out of a pile of other imported records and gave it to then-popular folk singer Pete Seeger.
Seeger arranged it and recorded it with his band, The Weavers. The Weavers released their recording of ‘Wimoweh’ in 1952 (it sounded like this). Unfortunately for The Weavers, they were about to be blacklisted as communists during the McCarthy era…which is another story in its own right.
By this time, Solomon Linda, the creator of the Mbube chant that evolved into ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight‘, had been forgotten.
In 1960, Jay Siegal, the lead singer of The Tokens, became enraptured with the ‘Wimoweh”. And in1961, with new English lyrics by George Weiss, and the song retitled, ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’, it was released by The Tokens. However, Solomon Linda didn’t get credit anywhere – not on the record label, or by the publishing company, or by The Tokens. Instead, the song was credited to Weiss, Creatore, and Peretti, and all the royalties went to them, their publishing companies, the Tokens, and the record company, RCA Victor. ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’ soared to number one on the U.S. pop charts and went on to become one of the best-selling recordings of all time.
And Solomon Linda remained in obscurity.
By this time, Solomon Linda had received only $1000, and that came from a grateful Pete Seeger. And with due credit to Seeger, he had also asked this publisher to give his share of the royalties to Linda. However, he failed to follow up on it with the record company and none of those royalties were ever paid.
Of the tens of millions of dollars his song generated, Solomon Linda received only a $1000 check from folk singer, Pete Seeger.
Then in 2000, a South African journalist looking into the background and the origins of the song, discovered an extensive cover-up by several well-known music publishers who made millions from the song.
Why no royalties for Solomon Linda? Because music publishers considered Solomon Linda’s ‘Wimoweh‘ to be traditional folk music and thus in the public domain. Other than the $1000 check from Seeger, Solomon Linda never received another penny despite the millions of dollars of royalties generated by ‘Wimoweh’ or ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’.
When The Lion Sleeps Tonight’ became a number-one hit in the USA, then publisher, Gallo Music, managed to maneuver Linda into signing over his copyright to them – although his daughters’ insisted later that their father could not read or write. The publisher managed to swindle Solomon Linda, out of his copyright and licensing rights for ‘Wimoweh’ and ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’. The song was public domain only by subjugation.
Solomon Linda and his family were finagled out of a fortune. His widow was so poor in fact, she could not afford a gravestone for his grave.
Linda’s heirs fared a bit better when, in 2004, the song became the subject of a lawsuit between Linda’s estate and Disney Studios. This happened when a famous copyright attorney, Dr. Owen Dean agreed to represent Solomon Linda’s three daughters.
Dean argued that Disney owed the Linda family $1.6 million in royalties for using ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’ in the movie and stage productions of “The Lion King”.
In the end, though, Solomon Linda’s three daughters settled with Disney and George Weiss’s music publishing company, Abilene, who jointly held worldwide rights to the ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’.
Solomon’s daughters, Elizabeth, Delphi, and Fildah, each received $250,000 – an insignificant amount compared to the tens of millions of dollars their father’s song generated for the performers, record companies, and the publishers who ripped off Solomon Linda’s song and profited from it.
Now, finally, at last, Solomon Linda is being credited as one of the writers of ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’, in The Lion King remake, as well as on the soundtrack. But by the terms of the settlement his daughters made with Disney and Abilene music, they are prohibited from making any further claims against the music publisher, Abilene, Disney, or the three Americans who are credited as being the composers of ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’… $250,000 each is all they will ever get.
While much better than nothing, $250,000 is a stunningly small amount compared to the many others who became wealthy from their father’s work.
And now you know the real story of ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’.
Above: The Tokens singing “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” circa 2005.