The Songs of Summer #75: ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight (Wimoweh)’ by The Tokens
Back to the 60’s for today’s Song of Summer. ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight‘ was a massive #1 hit for doo-wop group The Tokens in 1961. Now, I’ve loved this song my entire life, again thanks to my mother’s love of 50’s and 60’s music and its near-constant presence around our house. It was only much later in life that I learned that this lovely, happy little song has a long, sordid history.
The song we all know as ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight‘ is actually a South African song originally called ‘Mbube,’ which is Zulu for lion. (It’s pronounced em-boo-beh by the way.) It was recorded in Zulu way back in 1939 by South African Solomon Linda, who wrote the tune way way back in the 1920s. It probably would’ve never been heard outside of South Africa if not for the work of noted folk archivist Alan Lomax, who heard the song while traveling in Africa and brought back a copy of the record to the States. It fell on the ears of Lomax’s good friend Pete Seeger, who soon recorded a version of the song with his popular folk group The Weavers in 1952. Hearing the word Mbube incorrectly, Seeger interpreted it as ‘Wimoweh‘ (wee-mo-way) which is what The Weavers called their version. You can hear it here. It was a hit amongst the folk crowd, and many recordings were made of the song throughout the 1950s.
Fast-forward to 1961…It’s kind of a dark period in popular music, the time between the first wave of rock and roll and the beginning of The Beatles and the British Invasion which would reinvigorate the genre. Lots of strange stuff hit the charts in between say, 1960 and 1964. RCA was looking for a b-side to the single ‘Tina’ by a teenaged group of doo-woppers called The Tokens. RCA executives decided a pop version of ‘Wimoweh’ would make a good choice, and hired Brill Building songwriter George David Weiss to punch up the song with some English lyrics. Some of those new lyrics would become the name of this ‘new’ song, ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’. The song went on to become a huge smash, with its new lyrics and sax solo. As for The Tokens? Well, it was really their only hit song.
In the wake of the success of ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight‘ though, all mention of Solomon Linda’s original Mbube, and the fact that the new pop version is basically Mbube with some new words, gets brushed under the rug.
It wasn’t until 2000 when a Rolling Stone article about the history of Wimoweh was published that Linda’s role in the song came to light. The article estimated that Solomon Linda had missed out on about $15 million in royalties. It’s a really interesting article that you should check out if you’re interested in learning more.
A 2004 lawsuit between Solomon Linda’s estate and the Walt Disney company (which had begun using ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’ in stage productions of The Lion King) began to rectify this injustice by awarding Linda’s estate $1.6 million from Disney, and issuing an agreement to give $3,000 per year to the Linda estate. A further settlement was reached in 2006 between the Linda estate and Abilene Music Publishers, who held the worldwide rights and had licensed the song to Disney, to place the earnings of the song in a trust.
But enough with the legal talk! That shit is boring!!! Oh, it’s important, but it is a little bit Dullsville. It’s all about the music, right? And I can’t think of a better summery song for TODAY than ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight.’ But let’s all remember the man behind the song, Mr. Solomon Linda, a man who should’ve been a millionaire as a result of his art, but died basically penniless.
And let’s give credit where credit is due. Here’s Solomon Linda and his original version, Mbube.
This song’s been covered a zillion times; here’s one of my favorites, recorded as a b-side in 1993 by R.E.M. It’s the only song of theirs I’m aware of with a trombone solo. Enjoy.