On December 18th 1961, The Lion Sleeps Tonight hit number one on the Billboard Charts. It was an instant classic that endured to become one of the most successful pop songs of all time. Few realise, however, that its true originator saw only a minuscule portion of the song’s massive profits.
The story began in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1938, when a group of Zulu singers and dancers called Solomon Linda and the Evening Birds walked into the first recording studio ever set up in sub-Saharan Africa. They recorded a song called “Mbube”, Zulu for “the lion.” “Mbube” was a local hit, and helped make Solomon Linda into a South African star. The story might have ended then if a copy of the record hadn’t made its way to New York City in the early 1950s, where it was saved from the trash bin at Decca Records by the legendary folk artist Alan Lomax. Without ever hearing any of the records in a box sent from Africa, Lomax thought a friend might be interested in the box’s contents. That friend was the folksinger Pete Seeger.
Not able to understand the lyrics of “Mbube,” Seeger wrote down the central chant as “Wimoweh,” and that became the name of the song as recorded by the Weavers and released in early 1952, just before the group was blacklisted thanks to the McCarthy hearings. Later, Jay Siegel, teenage lead singer of the Tokens, fell in love with “Wimoweh” after hearing the Kingston Trio’s cover version of the Weavers’ song. The Tokens‘ label commissioned English-language lyrics for the song, which was renamed “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and went on to become not just a number one song in 1961, but one of the most covered, most flourishing pop songs of all time.
In an article for Rolling Stone magazine in 2000, South African journalist Rian Malan followed both the music and the money associated with “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” He exposed the series of business arrangements that made millions for a handful of high-flying U.S. music publishers while giving only a $1,000 personal cheque from Pete Seeger to Solomon Linda during Linda’s lifetime. Linda’s composition was treated as public-domain “folk” material by Seeger and by the subsequent writer of the English-language lyrics in the Tokens’ version, Linda never participated in the royalty stream created by either “Wimoweh” or “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” Prior to reaching an undisclosed settlement in 2006, his heirs received only a tiny portion of the millions of dollars they might have been due had Linda retained his songwriting credit on what Malan rightly calls “The most famous melody ever to emerge from Africa.”