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
file info · help

"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 U.S. 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)!"

What Baden-Powell heard was probably originally a war marching-chant. In the liner notes to one of his recordings, Pete Seeger gave his interpretation of the song, which he believed to be traditional (although the song's author Solomon Linda is a credited performer on the album), as an instance of a "sleeping-king" folk motif about Shaka, Warrior King of the Zulus, along the lines of the mythical European sleeping king in the mountain: Shaka the Lion, who heroically resisted the armies of the European colonizers, is supposed not to be dead but only sleeping and will one day awaken and return to lead his oppressed people to freedom. Baden-Powell, involved in the British suppression of the uSuthu clan of Shaka Zulu's grandnephew Dunizulu, was rumored to have confiscated Dinizulu's warrior necklace after his capture, and later parceled the necklace's beads out to his Boy Scout Wood Badge training graduates to wear around their own necks.[4]

"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]

Linda's improvised melody was wordless; no English words occur in the recording. Issued by Gallo as a 78 recording in 1939 and marketed to black audiences,[5] "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.[6]

In 1949, Alan Lomax, then working as folk music director for Decca Records, brought Solomon Linda's 78 recording to the attention of his friend Pete Seeger of the folk group The Weavers.[7][8] In November 1951, after having performed the song for at least a year in their concerts, The Weavers recorded an adapted version with brass and string orchestra and chorus as a 78 single entitled "Wimoweh", a mishearing of the original song's chorus of "Uyimbube", Zulu: You are a lion. Their version contained the chanting chorus "Wimoweh" and Linda's improvised melodic line. It reached Billboard's top ten and became a staple of The Weavers' live repertoire. It achieved mass exposure (without orchestra) in their best-selling The Weavers at Carnegie Hall LP album, recorded in 1955 and issued in 1957, and was covered extensively by other folk revival groups, such as The Kingston Trio.

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.[9] 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[10] 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] The Tokens, who loved The Weavers' version of the song and had used it to audition for Hugo and Luigi at RCA, were appalled and were initially reluctant to sing the new arrangement. But ultimately, they allowed themselves to be persuaded. 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.[11] A cover of the Weavers' version by Scots singer Karl Denver and his group likewise reached the charts in the United Kingdom in 1962. The song continued to be extremely popular and subsequent cover versions were more or less continuous.

Copyright issues[edit]

For his performance of "Mbube", Solomon Linda was paid a small fee. Gallo Records of South Africa reaped all the royalties of the record sales in South Africa and Great Britain. The Weavers' music publisher was TRO/Folkways Publishing, one of the many subsidiaries and entities (and/or aliases) created by TRO/The Richmond Organization, founded in the late 1940s by former press agent, Howard S. ("Howie") Richmond, later the music publisher for Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones, and other big names.[12] Sharing in the ownership of World Wide Music (later, Folkways Publishing) were The Weavers' managers Harold Leventhal and Pete Kameron.[13] Authorship of the song on The Weavers' 1951 recording was credited exclusively to the pseudonymous "Paul Campbell", a fictitious entity used by Howie Richmond, Harold Leventhal, and Pete Kameron to claim authorship of songs whose copyright was in question. Copyright law allows for and encourages the copyrighting of distinctive new interpretations of traditional songs as distinct from public domain songs by known authors whose copyright has expired.

After all, what was a folk song? Who owned it? It was just out there, like a wild horse or a tract of virgin land on an unconquered continent. Fortune awaited the man bold enough to fill out the necessary forms and name himself as the composer of a new interpretation of some ancient tune like, say, "Greensleeves." A certain "Jessie Cavanaugh" did exactly that in the early Fifties, only it wasn't really Jessie at all – it was Howie Richmond under an alias. This was a common practice on Tin Pan Alley at the time, and it wasn't illegal or anything. The object was to claim writer's royalties on new versions of old songs that belonged to no one. The aliases may have been a way to avoid potential embarrassment, just in case word got out that Howard S. Richmond was presenting himself as the author of a madrigal from Shakespeare's day.

Much the same happened with "Frankie & Johnny", the hoary old murder ballad, or "Rovin' Kind", a ribald ditty from the clipper-ship era. There's no way [Richmond's partner] Al Brackman could really have written such songs, so when he filed royalty claims with the performing rights society BMI, he attributed the compositions to "Albert Stanton", a fictitious tunesmith who often worked closely with the imaginary Mr. Cavanaugh, penning such standards as "John Henry" and "Michael Row the Boat Ashore". Cavanaugh even claimed credit for "Battle Hymn of the Republic", a feat eclipsed only by a certain Harold Leventhal, who copyrighted an obscure whatnot that turned out to be India's national anthem.[1]

The claim that India's national anthem was an obscure ditty may be in doubt, as India's national anthem Jana Gana Mana is directly attributed to Rabindranath Tagore.

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."[14] Canadian writer Mark Steyn, on the other hand, attributes the invention of the pseudonym "Paul Campbell" to Pete Seeger.[15] At the same time, Steyn also acknowledges, however, that this was a longstanding Tin Pan Alley practice. Rian Malan contends that it was a practice Howie Richmond and his Tin Pan Alley associates, who included partner Al Brackman and Weavers' managers Pete Kameron (to whom Richmond had accorded half of TRO/Folkways' publishing rights) and former song plugger Harold Leventhal, were particularly adept in. 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.[16] 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 fact, TRO/Folkways crafted an agreement with Gallo Records giving Gallo distribution rights to the song in South Africa and Rhodesia while TRO reserved the rights to royalties earned elsewhere.

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.[17] Interviewed in the documentary, Pete Seeger publicly expressed regret at not having asked TRO/Folkways (The Richmond Organization) to persuade Linda to sign a contract, explaining: “The big mistake I made was not making sure that my publisher signed a regular songwriters’ contract with Linda. My publisher simply sent Linda some money and copyrighted The Weavers’ arrangement here and sent The Weavers some money.”[18]

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. Brought by the firm of South African copyright lawyer Owen Dean, the suit asserted that under the terms of the Imperial Copyright Act, in force in Britain, South Africa, and the Commonwealth Countries during the life of Solomon Linda, ownership of "Mbube" reverted to Linda's heirs 25 years after his death, thereby revoking all existing deals and requiring anyone using Linda's music in Commonwealth territories to negotiate new agreements with his estate. Dean stated that Linda's heirs had received less than one percent of the royalties due him from Abilene Music Publishers (and before them TRO/Folkways) and 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.[19] 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.[20][21]

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[23]
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 f 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. ^
  5. ^ Cad, Saint. "Top 10 Famous Songs With Unknown Originals". Retrieved 21 June 2013. 
  6. ^ Frith, Simon, Popular music: critical concepts in media and cultural studies, Volume 4, London : Routledge, 2004. ISBN 978-0-415-33270-5.
  7. ^ Liner notes, Pete Seeger's Greatest Hits, released 1962.
  8. ^ a b c "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. ^ 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.
  10. ^ 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.
  11. ^ 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).
  12. ^ Subsidiaries of TRO include: Ludlow Music, Folkways Music, Essex, Hollis, Hampstead House, Spencer Music, co., World Wide Music, Melody Trails, and Cromwell. See Music Publisher's Directory and Billboard, 12, 30, 1950.
  13. ^ Leventhal continued as manager of the Weavers. Kameron went on to manage The Modern Jazz Quartet, and found The Who's Track label Music Publishing Company. He was a major investor in the LA Weekly, and upon his death endowed the Pete Kameron Chair in Entertainment Law at UCLA and the Gait Analysis Laboratory at the UCLA Medical Center. See "Goodnight Pete: An Appreciation of L.A. Weekly Co-founder Pete Kameron", in the July 10, 2008, LA Weekly.
  14. ^ 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.
  15. ^ [1][dead link]
  16. ^ 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.
  17. ^ ", National Television Academy Presents 27th Annual News & Documentary Emmy Awards" (press release), September 25, 2006.
  18. ^ "Independent Lens . A LION'S TRAIL . The Film". PBS. Retrieved 2014-03-29. 
  19. ^ "3rd Ear Music Forum - Mbube - Mickey Mouse Under House Arrest in SAfrica?". Retrieved 2014-03-29. 
  20. ^ "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. 
  21. ^ "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.
  22. ^ "The Lion Sleeps Tonight 1939 : Linda Solomon, The Evening Birds". Retrieved 2014-03-29. 
  23. ^ 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. 
  24. ^ Roberts, David (2006). British Hit Singles & Albums (19th ed.). London: Guinness World Records Limited. p. 406. ISBN 1-904994-10-5. 
  25. ^ "De Nederlandse Top 40, week 16, 1982". Retrieved 2008-02-18. 
  26. ^ 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