The Lion Sleeps Tonight, released in the early 60s, is one of the most successful pop songs of all time. Musicians worldwide have covered the hit, and countless television shows and movies have used it in their soundtracks.
A new generation learned this catchy tune when Disney released The Lion King in 1994. Then, as a result of an article by Rolling Stone in 2000, the secret of a family in South Africa became known worldwide.
How did a song about a sleeping lion come to be? And what did South Africa have to do with it?
Let’s find out!
Who Originally Wrote The Lion Sleeps Tonight?
Solomon Linda was born in Zululand, South Africa, in 1909. As a cattle herder within his tribe, Linda was familiar with their main predator, the lion. He often spent time chasing off the lions hoping they’d find rest or their demise.
Although he struggled to read or write, he was an excellent songwriter and choreographer. And during his time at the Gordon Memorial Mission School, teachers introduced him to new styles of music.
Orpheus McAdoo performed at his school with The Village Jubilee Singers. McAdoo was instrumental in introducing black American music to South Africa. African American composer Scott Joplin introduced ragtime, famous since the 1880s, and it also began making its way across South Africa.
These new sounds inspired Linda, and he began to incorporate them into songs and chants he and his friends would sing at ceremonies and feasts.
How Did Solomon Linda Create The Lion Sleeps Tonight?
In his 20s, Linda moved to Johannesburg. While finding work in the city, he also formed a group called Solomon Linda and the Evening Birds. They sang acapella songs in their native language in beer halls across the area.
A talent scout got the group invited into the Gallo Recording Company, the only recording studio in sub-Saharan Africa. Most of the songs recorded spoke of the injustice Black South Africans experienced under British colonial rule.
But one of the songs created, “Mbube” by Linda, came from those memories of protecting the cattle from the lions. He recorded it during the second session in less than four takes. In their native language, they pronounced “mbube” EEM-boo-beh which means lion.
The first few takes were not very good. As the group fished for the key and towards the end of the third take, Linda opened up his soprano falsetto and allowed “Uyimube” to flow into the tune we know today. “Uyimbube” translates “you’re a lion.”
The recording studio etched the song in beeswax and sent it to England. It soon returned as a 10-inch 78-rpm record.
What’s the Most Popular Version of The Lion Sleeps Tonight?
By 1949, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” was the first African record sell 100,000 copies. Although it also became popular in Europe, there is no data on the number of records sold there.
Eventually, the studio sent “Mbube” and other African records to the United States in hopes that radio stations would play them and they’d gain popularity. Unfortunately, that never happened.
In the early 1950s, legendary folklorist Alan Lomax gifted that box of records to his friend and fellow folklorist, Pete Seeger. As Seeger listened to the records, he misinterpreted the lyric “Uyimbube” as “Wimoweh” and wrote a song by the same name. Seeger later recorded “Wimoweh” with his group, The Weavers.
The Weavers released “Wimoweh” in 1952, and it reached #15 on the US Best Sellers Charts. Multiple bands covered “Wimoweh” in the 1950s. One of those groups was the Kingston Trio.
In the late 1950s, Jay Siegel heard the Kingston Trio’s cover of “Wimoweh” and loved it. Siegel was a member of The Tokens, a doo-wop vocal group from Brooklyn, New York.
Neil Sedaka, Hank Medress, Cynthia Zolotin, and Eddie Rabkin, all attending Abraham Lincoln High School, formed the original band as The Linc-Tones.
In 1956, Siegel replaced Eddie Rabkin. Then by 1961, The Tokens consisted of Siegel, Hank Medress, and brothers Mitch and Phil Margo.
The Tokens’ label commissioned English lyrics for the song. George Weiss and Luigi Creatore were two of the songwriters tasked with writing “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” as we know it today.
The Tokens were embarrassed to release a song about a sleeping lion. Because of this, they decided to place it as a Side B track on their record. No one could have imagined it would reach #1 on the Billboard charts on December 18, 1961, and stay there for three weeks.
The Lost Lion
Resources state that Solomon Linda sold the song to the Gallo Record Company for 10 shillings, or in today’s economy, less than $2. Of the profits made in South Africa and Europe, no monies were paid to Solomon Linda or any members of the Evening Birds.
The song gained popularity thanks to The Weavers’ version, but no one ever mentioned Solomon Linda or the origination in Africa. Yet, Pete Seeger once sent Solomon Linda $1,000.
Having written what South African journalist Rian Malan calls “The most famous melody ever to emerge from Africa,” Solomon Linda died destitute in 1962. He never received any royalties from The Tokens’ success with his melody.
Since its most popular release in 1961, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” has been used in multiple television shows and movies. With its inclusion in The Lion King, Malan estimates royalties could have exceeded $15 million throughout its lifetime.
Did Linda’s Family Ever Receive Any Royalties?
Rian Malan wrote an article for Rolling Stone in May 2000, bringing to light the origination of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and the legal battles that had already occurred a decade earlier regarding rights to the song.
When Malan published his article, Linda’s widow and children had not received any royalties for “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” from Weiss.
But in 2004, Solomon Linda’s descendants filed suit against the Walt Disney company seeking royalties. They were awarded an undisclosed amount for back royalties and the right to participate in royalties in the future. Unfortunately, that settlement agreement expired in 2017.
In 2019, with a new version included in the remake of The Lion King, it seems as though the Linda family will again not financially benefit from the song.
Two movies have also been made to bring to light the history of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” The Lion’s Share and A Lion’s Trail.
Malan was instrumental in The Lion’s Share, and although he knows the settlement was legal, he also believes it’s unfair. And he’s not alone.
George Weiss’ son, Bobby Weiss, is yet another advocate on the side of Linda’s family. He stated, “[Linda] wrote half that song! There’s copyright law and hiding behind all that bull$%!#, and there’s doing the right thing.”
What Will the Future Hold for The Lion Sleeps Tonight?
Created by a man who was a legend in his time, this iconic song has a complicated past rooted in South Africa. Today, Linda is acknowledged as the composer for “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” His family has received some compensation, but most feel it’s not enough. We hope wrongs will continue to be righted for Solomon Linda’s descendants.
Do you think Linda’s family should receive more compensation? Let us know in the comments!
Roberto Estrello DeMar
Friday 4th of March 2022
The entire purpose of the "copyright law" is to do "what is right" by the authors and artists. Though there were plenty of opportunities, this was not done. It still is not being done, and it is doubtful, given the love of money, that it will ever be done. After all, the recorders, producers and broadcasters are not in business to make music or art. They are in business to make money. Even so it is with the invention of all the little things that make our lives easier or more productive. Even so it is with those who buy and deal in cheap knock-offs, and those who defend them in court. They wrongly rationalize creative and many times, productive people's lives to be their rightful prey.