The Lion Sleeps Tonight

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"The Lion Sleeps Tonight"
Single by The Tokens
from the album The Lion Sleeps Tonight
B-side "Dry Your Eyes"
Released 1961
Genre Rhythm and blues, doo-wop, world
Length 2:41
Label RCA
Writer(s) Solomon Linda
Hugo Peretti
Luigi Creatore
George David Weiss
Albert Stanton
Audio sample
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"The Lion Sleeps Tonight", also known as "Wimba Way" or "Awimbawe" or "Wimoweh", is a song originally written and recorded by Solomon Linda with the Evening Birds[1] for the South African Gallo Record Company in 1939, under the title "Mbube". Composed in Zulu, it was adapted and covered internationally by many 1950s pop and folk revival artists, including the Weavers, Jimmy Dorsey, Yma Sumac, Miriam Makeba and the Kingston Trio. In 1961, it became a number one hit in the United States as adapted in English by the doo-wop group the Tokens. It went on to earn at least US$15 million in royalties from covers and film licensing.

In the mid-nineties, it became a pop "supernova" (in the words of South African writer Rian Malan) when licensed to Walt Disney for use in the film The Lion King, its spin-off TV series and live musical, prompting a lawsuit in 2004 on behalf of the impoverished descendants of Solomon Linda.


Two different words have been used in Zulu to mean "lion": ngonyama and mbube. One lively Zulu warrior chant likening a leader to a lion (ngonyama) dates at least to 1888, as recorded by Scouting founder Robert Baden-Powell while in the area and published in his Scouting for Boys (1908).[2][3] In the handbook, Baden-Powell prescribed the chant as "The Scout's Chorus," a glee call for Scouts. It included a high-pitched solo call proclaiming "He is a lion!" and a low, rhythmic choral response of "Yes! he is better than that; he is a hippopotamus!"

From Baden-Powell's Scouting for Boys (1908). The high leader-call is "He is a lion (eengonyama)!" followed by the low, rhythmic choral response, "Yes(ya-boh)! he is better than that; he is a hippopotamus (invooboo)!"

"Mbube" (Zulu: lion) was written in the 1920s, by Solomon Linda, a South African singer of Zulu origin, who worked for the Gallo Record Company as a cleaner and record packer, and who performed with a choir, The Evening Birds, where, according to South African journalist Rian Malan:

"Mbube" wasn't the most remarkable tune, but there was something terribly compelling about the underlying chant, a dense meshing of low male voices above which Solomon yodelled and howled for two exhilarating minutes, occasionally making it up as he went along. The third take was the great one, but it achieved immortality only in its dying seconds, when Solly [Solomon Linda] took a deep breath, opened his mouth and improvised the melody that the world now associates with these words:

In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight.[1]

Issued by Gallo as a 78 recording in 1939 and marketed to black audiences,[4] "Mbube" became a hit and Linda a star throughout South Africa. By 1948, the song had sold about 100,000 copies in Africa and among black South African immigrants in Great Britain and had lent its name to a style of African a cappella music that evolved into isicathamiya (also called mbube), popularized by Ladysmith Black Mambazo.[5]

University of Texas folklorist, Veit Erlmann, however, argues that the song's meaning is more literal than tribal historical, and refers to an incident in Linda's own youth when he actually killed a lion cub.[6] Both analyses may have some truth, even accepting the fact that the call-response was already a longstanding Zulu war ritual.

In 1961, two RCA producers, Hugo Peretti and Luigi Creatore, engaged Juilliard-trained musician and lyricist George David Weiss[7] to fashion an arrangement for a planned new pop music cover of "Wimoweh", intended as the B-side of a 45-rpm single called "Tina" by the teenage doo-wop group The Tokens. Weiss wrote English lyrics:

In the jungle, the mighty jungle
The lion sleeps tonight...
Hush, my darling, don't fear, my darling, etc.

He also brought in the soprano voice of opera singer Anita Darian to vocalize (reprising Yma Sumac) before, during and after the saxophone solo, her eerie descant sounding almost like another instrument.[8] Issued by RCA in 1961, "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" rocketed to number one[8] on the Billboard Hot 100. The publishers of this recording, Abilene Music (owned by Weiss), listed one "Albert Stanton" (a pseudonym for Al Brackman, the business partner of Pete Seeger's music publisher Howie Richmond), as one of the song's writers (or arrangers), thus permitting TRO/Folkways a share of the author's half of the royalty earnings.[9]

Copyright issues[edit]

Social historian Ronald D. Cohen writes, "Howie Richmond copyrighted many songs originally in the public domain [sic] but now slightly revised to satisfy Decca and also to reap the profits."[10] Canadian writer Mark Steyn, on the other hand, attributes the invention of the pseudonym "Paul Campbell" to Pete Seeger.[11] Howie Richmond's claim of author's copyright could secure both the songwriter's royalties and his company's publishing share of the song's earnings.[1]

Pete Seeger expressed concerns about the copyright laws associated with the song. Folkways Records founder Moe Asch frequently voiced the belief that traditional songs could not and should not be copyrighted at all.[12] Although Linda's name was listed as a performer on the record, The Weavers assumed that the song was traditional. The Weavers' managers and publisher and their attorneys, however, knew otherwise, because they were contacted by and reached an agreement with Eric Gallo of South Africa. They attempted to maintain, however, that South African copyrights were not valid because South Africa was not a signatory to U.S. copyright law and were hence "fair game."[1] As early as the 1950s, when Linda's authorship was made clear, Seeger sent him a donation of one thousand dollars and instructed TRO/Folkways to henceforth donate his (Seeger's) share of authors' earnings. The folksinger, however, who was not a businessman, trusted his publisher's word of honor and neglected or was unable to see to it that these instructions were carried out.[1]

In 2000, South African journalist Rian Malan wrote a feature article for Rolling Stone magazine in which he recounted Linda's story and estimated that the song had earned $15 million for its use in the movie The Lion King alone. The piece prompted filmmaker François Verster to create the Emmy-winning documentary A Lion's Trail (2002) that told Linda's story while incidentally exposing the workings of the multi-million dollar corporate music publishing industry.[13]

In July 2004, as a result of the publicity generated by Malan's Rolling Stone article and the subsequent filmed documentary, the song became the subject of a lawsuit between Solomon Linda's estate and Disney, claiming that Disney owed $1.6 million in royalties for the use of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" in the film and musical stage productions of The Lion King.[14] At the same time, The Richmond Organization began to pay $3,000 annually into Linda's estate. In February 2006, Linda's descendants reached a legal settlement with 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.[15][16]

Selected list of recorded versions[edit]



"The Lion Sleeps Tonight"[edit]

"The Lion Sleeps Tonight"
The Lion Sleeps Tonight
Single by Tight Fit
from the album Tight Fit
Released January 1982
Genre Pop
Length 3:18
Label Jive
Writer(s) Hugo Peretti
Luigi Creatore
George David Weiss
Albert Stanton
Solomon Linda
Producer(s) Tim Friese-Greene[18]
Certification Gold
Tight Fit singles chronology
"Back to the Sixties Part II"
"The Lion Sleeps Tonight"
"Fantasy Island"

Charted singles[edit]

The Tokens[edit]

Chart (1961) Peak
US Billboard Top 100 Singles 1
US Billboard R&B Singles 7
Australia Kent Music Report 15
Belgian Ultratop 50 6
German Media Control Charts 23
U.K. Singles Charts 11

Robert John[edit]

Chart (1972) Peak
US Billboard Top 100 Singles 3
US Billboard Adult Contemporary 6
Canadian RPM Top Tracks 15
Canadian RPM Adult Contemporary 17
German Singles Charts 40

Tight Fit[edit]

Chart (1982) Peak
U.K. Singles Charts 1
Ö3 Austria Top 40 8
Belgian Ultratop 50 1
German Media Control Charts 3
Dutch Singles Charts 1
New Zealand Singles Charts 3
Swedish Sverigetopplistan Charts 17
Swiss Ultratop Charts 8


  1. ^ a b c d e Malan, Rian. "In the Jungle".  .
  2. ^
  3. ^ Baden-Powell, Robert S.S. (1933). "Chapter 5. Soldiering". Lessons from the 'Varsity of Life. Pearson. But when we topped the rise we saw moving up towards us from the valley below three long lines of men marching in single file and singing a wonderful anthem as they marched. 
  4. ^ Cad, Saint. "Top 10 Famous Songs With Unknown Originals". Retrieved 21 June 2013. 
  5. ^ Frith, Simon, Popular music: critical concepts in media and cultural studies, Volume 4, London : Routledge, 2004. ISBN 978-0-415-33270-5.
  6. ^ Erlmann, Veit, African stars : studies in Black South African performance, Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 1991. ISBN 0-226-21722-1. Cf. pp. 165–7, "'Imbube': The Career of Solomon Linda", and various.
  7. ^ Weiss had arranged "Can't Help Falling in Love with You" (based on Jean Paul Egide Martini's eighteenth-century musical parlor chestnut "Plaisir d'Amour") for Elvis Presley. Weiss, whose most celebrated song is now "What a Wonderful World" (whose melody belongs to the familiar European tune family that includes "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star"), later became president of the Songwriters Guild of America.
  8. ^ a b "Show 18 - Blowin' in the Wind: Pop discovers folk music. [Part 1] : UNT Digital Library". Pop Chronicles. 18 May 1969. Retrieved 24 September 2010. 
  9. ^ Royalty earnings are customarily divided 50–50 between a song's composers and the music publisher, though other combinations are possible. Rian Malan writes that when Howie Richmond heard "The Lion Sleeps" on the radio in 1961, he contacted Weiss, Peretti, and Creatore and threatened to sue them. Malan describes TRO, Peretti, Creatore, and Weiss as cutting a deal that excluded mention of Linda altogether (and The Weavers, too, apparently, though they may have gotten something through "Paul Campbell"). Malan writes that in the settlement: "TRO received the full fifty percent publisher's cut. [Writer-producers] Huge and Luge and Weiss [and "co-writer" "Albert Stanton", too] were happy. The only person who lost out was Linda, who was not even mentioned in any document: The new copyright described "Lion" as "based on a song by 'Paul Campbell'" (see Malan, "In the Jungle", 2000, Rolling Stone).
  10. ^ Ronald D. Cohen, Rainbow Quest: the Folk Music Revival and American Society (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2002), page 71. Contrary to what Ronald D. Cohen implies, however, the U.S. copyright law is structured so that Howie Richmond's music publishing companies were financially separate from Decca. In return for a percentage of the profits, music publishing companies, a holdover from the sheet music era, collect and distribute royalties, license compositions, and monitor where they are used. They also secure commissions for music and promote existing compositions to recording artists, film, and television, and collect what are called "mechanical license" fees. To spare the expense of dealing with music publishers, many modern performers have learned to incorporate themselves as their own music publishers.
  11. ^ [1][dead link]
  12. ^ See, for example, Moe Asch's many declarations that in his opinion the people's "right to know" superseded copyright law in Richard Carlin's, Worlds of Sound: The Story of Smithsonian Folkways (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Publications, 2008), pp. 74–77, and passim.
  13. ^ ", National Television Academy Presents 27th Annual News & Documentary Emmy Awards" (press release), September 25, 2006.
  14. ^ "3rd Ear Music Forum - Mbube - Mickey Mouse Under House Arrest in SAfrica?". Retrieved 2014-03-29. 
  15. ^ "Penniless singer's family sue Disney for Lion King royalties". Telegraph. 30 October 2004. Retrieved 14 June 2007. The family of a South African performer and composer who died in poverty are suing Disney for £900,000 over claims that the company used of one of his tunes in their hit film and stage show The Lion King. Solomon Linda, who died in 1962 aged 61, wrote "Mbube" while eking out a living as a beer-hall singer in Johannesburg. The tune was later used for the hit single "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" and in a 20-second sequence of the 1994 film featuring the voices of Jeremy Irons, Rowan Atkinson and Whoopi Goldberg. 
  16. ^ "It's a Lawsuit, a Mighty Lawsuit". Time (magazine). 25 October 2004. Retrieved 14 February 2007. It is one of the most naggingly catchy tunes in pop music – and, it turns out, one of the most controversial. "The Lion Sleeps Tonight", featured in Disney blockbuster The Lion King, is based on the 1939 song "Mbube", written by South African musician Solomon Linda. But Linda, a cleaner at a Johannesburg record company when he wrote the song, received virtually nothing for his work and died in 1962 with $25 in his bank account. His family is suing Disney for $1.5 million. Disney says it will fight the suit, but it's already paying off. Though not named in the suit, U.S. music-publishing house TRO/Folkways last month admitted it had not been paying royalties on a version of the song, and promises to give some $3,000 a year to the Linda family and to finance a memorial to the unsung songwriter.  See also, Dean, Owen, "Copyright in the Courts: The Return of the Lion", WIPO Magazine, April 2006.
  17. ^ "The Lion Sleeps Tonight 1939 : Linda Solomon, The Evening Birds". Retrieved 2014-03-29. 
  18. ^ Rice, Jo (1982). The Guinness Book of 500 Number One Hits (1st ed.). Enfield, Middlesex: Guinness Superlatives Ltd. p. 222. ISBN 0-85112-250-7. 
  19. ^ Roberts, David (2006). British Hit Singles & Albums (19th ed.). London: Guinness World Records Limited. p. 406. ISBN 1-904994-10-5. 
  20. ^ "De Nederlandse Top 40, week 16, 1982". Retrieved 2008-02-18. 
  21. ^ Ami Sedghi (4 November 2012). "UK's million-selling singles: the full list". Guardian. Retrieved 4 November 2012. 

External links[edit]

Preceded by
"Please Mr. Postman" by The Marvelettes
Billboard Hot 100 number one single (The Tokens version)
December 18, 1961 (three weeks)
Succeeded by
"The Twist" by Chubby Checker
Preceded by
"Town Called Malice" by The Jam
UK Singles Chart number one single (Tight Fit version)
28 February 1982 - 20 March 1982
Succeeded by
"Seven Tears" by Goombay Dance Band