If you’re a regular reader of Sixties Music Secrets, you know that one of the many qualities of the decade and it’s soundtrack is diversity! And it’s in the dawn of the decade where the music of the 60’s set the Gold standard for diversity! It’s true that in the 60’s earliest day’s America and the world were consumed by a new record and dance craze with Chubby Checker and “The Twist” (You’re probably humming the melody to yourself right now!) But! With complete respect and admiration for Chubby and his hip swinging “Twist” It’s the record released just months after The Twist that will have the greatest impact on the sound of the 60’s and music for decades to come, as well as breaking and setting sales records in nearly every country in the world! However the most powerful fact about this number one “Pop Music mega-hit is, it was written by a South African “Zulu”! His name is Solomon Linda and we know, you’ve never heard of him! However we also know YOU LOVE his one and only song that took the U.S. and the rest of the world by storm! Picture the Jungles of South Africa, concentrate for a moment, and you’ll hear it: “A weem ah weh a weem ah weh, A weem a weh a weem ah weh “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” ( Now, which song are you humming) ? Many Of you know the song from “The Lion King Movies, But many more of you simply remember hearing The Token’s beautiful record day and night, unwittingly falling under the spell of Solomon Linda’s Zulu Magic in 1961
Solomon Linda (circa 1939)
In South Africa “Zulu” is a region, a primitive culture, a tribe, a language, a dance, a musical style and “Very Dark Magic!” Solomon Linda was the personification of all that Zulu represents! Interestingly, the simple translation of Zulu to English means “Heaven” Yet as exotic and foreign the Zulu nation may appear, the story of Solomon Linda and “The Lion Sleeps Tonight reads like a chapter from any American Rock in Roll “Rags to Riches” Story!
The story of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” is an entanglement Of pure inspiration, the global music industry, a very foreign land, and it’s unusual, magic native music, read on:
Solomon Popoli Linda, was born in 1909 near Pomeroy, on the labor reserve in Natal, where he became familiar with the traditions of amahubo and izingoma zomshado (wedding songs) music, He attended the Gordon Memorial mission school, where he learned about Western musical culture, hymns, and participated in choir contests. Influenced by the new syncopated music that had been introduced into South Africa from the US during the 1880s, he included it in the Zulu songs he and his friends sang at weddings and feasts.[
In 1931, Linda, like many other young African men at that time, left his homestead to find menial work in Johannesburg After a few years of go- nowhere jobs, in 1939 , Solomon Linda landed at job at the only recording studio in Johannesburg. “The Gallo Record Company” founded by Eric Gallo, an Italian immigrant who had moved to South Africa, in search of talent in what was then considered a rich resource for singers and songwriters! He found exactly what he was looking for with Solomon Linda! And so Gallo did what all savvy entrepreneurs do, he gave Solomon Linda a job at his studio, sweeping up, packing records for shipment, and locking up at night! However it didn’t take long for Gallo to come to appreciate the talent of Solomon Linda and one evening after closing time, Gallo let Solomon Linda Record four songs, three traditional pieces and one song Solomon Linda wrote! The song was called “Mbube””, the Zulu word for , you guessed it, Lion! “Mbube wasn’t the most remarkable tune, but there was something compelling about the underlying chant, a dense meshing of low male voices above which Solomon yodelled and howled for two exhilarating minutes, improvising occasionally. The third take was the best, achieving immortality when “Solly” 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”
And it was at that point Eric Gallo and every one at The Gallo Record Company knew something magical and beautiful had just happened! Eric Gallo waisted no time and made a deal with Solomon Linda for all the rights to “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” Gallo paid Linda an amount in that time that would equal approximately 87 cents! However, it should also be noted, Gallo also Let him keep his job and gave him a small raise for sweeping out the studio! Eric Gallo’s generosity was legendary!
”Mbube “by Solomon Linda took off like wild fire and immediately became the most popular song throughout South Africa and eventually sold over 100,000 records in the region. In 1939 a phenomenal feat in any country and unheard of in South Africa! Prior to the Lion Sleeps Tonight no artist would come close to that remarkable sales record! And although Gallo did acquire all the rights he did pay Solomon Linda a meager royalty, but nothing close to the future millions he deserved!
”The Lion Sleeps Tonight” became a staple of of South African radio and Solomon Linda became a star in the region! Soon this incredible and unique recording began Showing up on the radio in Great Britton, as South African immigrants were moving into England and introducing the song to local Brits!
It was in 1949 that Alan Lomax, a folk music aficionados and director of Folk music at Decca records in New York heard the South African hit and wanted it for Decca! And here is where things begin to get a bit complicated, as the music business often can be when everyone can smell a hit:
Lomax brought Solomon Linda’s 78 recording to the attention of his friend Pete Seeger of the folk group The Weavers. 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 and released it as a 78 single titled “Wimoweh”, a mishearing of the original song’s chorus of “Uyimbube“, Zulu: You are a lion, in the jungle” Their version contained the chanting chorus “Wimoweh” and Linda’s improvised melodic line. The Weavers credited the song as “Traditional”, with arrangement by “Paul Campbell”, later found to be a pseudonym used by the Weavers in order to claim royalties. It barely scratched the Billboard charts,but became a staple of The Weavers’ live repertoire, achieving further exposure on their best-selling The Weavers at Carnegie Hall LP album, recorded in 1955 and issued in 1957. The song was also covered extensively by other folk revival groups such as The Kingston Trio, and exoticasinger Yma Sumac. However, another South African artist you may recall, Miriam Makeba, recorded the same song as “Mbube”, in 1960, with the writing credit given to “J. Linda”. It went nowhere! You can see the pattern here, in America, Soloman Linda’s credit as the songwriter is gradually being eroded and eventually disappears , just as the song is about hit it’s apex!
In 1961, two RCA Records producers, Hugo Peretti and Luigi Creatore, Heard The Weavers recording and knew what they had and what to do to make this unusual song into a smash in America! They hired Juilliard-trained musician and lyricist George David Weiss to arrange a pop music cover of “Wimoweh” for the B-side of a 45-rpm single called “Tina”, sung by doo-wop group, The Tokens. Weiss wrote the English lyrics: “In the jungle, the mighty jungle, The lion sleeps tonight …” and “Hush, my darling, don’t fear, my darling …” Yes, the Tokens phenomenal recording was originally intended to be a ‘B’ side!
At this point RCA was unsure about the future of The Tokens, they were considered a “doo-wop group and doo-wop was on the way out in 1961. The band had released one prior single which made some noise, but you likely don’t remember “Tonight I Fell In Love” The aforementioned “Tina might be their last shot, so RCA slapped the odd and unusual song on the B-side and prayed! But within weeks the song shot to number one and stayed there seemingly forever and The Tokens took off like a rocket! Scoring nine more Top Ten hits between 1962 and 1970! All thanx to a Zulu native, a vague idea for a song and a voice that no one anywhere had ever heard before!
“The Lion Sleeps Tonight goes on to become one of the most popular and successful songs not just of the 60’s but the 20th and 21st century’s !
And Here is the Epilogue:
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 Disney movie The Lion King alone. The piece prompted filmmaker François Verster to create the Emmy-winning documentary A Lion’s Trail, that told Linda’s story while incidentally exposing the workings of the multi-million dollar corporate music publishing industry.
In July 2004, as a result of the publicity generated by Malan’s article and the subsequent documentary, the song became the subject of a lawsuit between 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.[ At the same time, the Richmond Organization ( The Weavers original publishing Company) began to pay $3,000 annually into Linda’s estate. In February 2006, Linda’s descendants reached a legal settlement with Abilene Music Publishers, ( George David Weiss original music publisher) who held the worldwide rights and had licensed the song to Disney, to place the earnings of the song in a trust.
In 2012, “Mbube” fell into the public domain due to the copyright law of South Africa. “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”, however is still in copyright
And now, re-enjoy The Tokens And discover the simple magic of Soloman Linda’s original South African classic:
P.P.S. “ The Lion Sleeps Tonight” is Biographical! As a young man Soloman Linda grew up laboring as a farm worker! All the farms in South Africa suffered from one common, very serious problem! Lions! They would frequently hunt at night stalking a farms livestock, the workers and farmers! To survive and remain safe, the workers would study the hunting patterns of the Lions, noting when the lions were most aggressive and when the lions would Sleep!….”Hush my darling don’t fear my darling, THE LION SLEEPS TONIGHT”
Super BACKGROUND “Shoe”!! I am real happy we have the chance to listen to the original Zulu recording by Soliman Linda!! I never knew Seeger recorded this. I do remember Marian Make a WOW FLASH BSCK and Lomax! Probably because in 6th & 7th grade I begin to follow the whole folk music scene! That set the stage for the soon to be 60’s amalgam of music creation. And the Tokons WOW!! TOTALLY FORGOT! BUT I DID remember Neil Sedaka. Story I had learned was that Neil left the Tokens soon after recording Tina & The Lion Sleeps Tonight. Is that about right?? Supposedly BAD TIMING for Neil at the time but I know he had some good chart singles on his own.
Geese, I love it when you “Get in the weeds” on a song or band! And you are so right with The Tokens, the great Neil Sedaka In fact was one of the original members of ?The Tokens as well as Hank Medress who went on to produce mega-hits like “Tie a Yellow Ribbon” For us The Tokens we’re thee most talented “Doo Wop group in history! Check out this live performance from the ‘90’s, It’ll blow your mind!
Shoe, I remember it well. as a wee lad, the tokens version was on my radar, DAILY. When I put together my fist group, a little trio called “The Folkswingers” we of course had to do that one. It was a big hit at the occasional talent show at Junior High. Then when we discovered the Kingston Trio Version, we put it in the our set at the local Pancake Breakfast. “Way UP Boys”..
“The Folkswingers” Are you kidding? He’ll, I’d hire you just for that great play on words! Meanwhile, as you are someone who actually played this great song, what the heck is the baritone singing in the chorus? We always thought it was simply “Way up high” but you implied “Way up boys”
So, after 50 years of wondering, what is it “High” or “Boys”?
Either way you continue as my idol!
Ah weem a weh my brother!
Wonderful story, Rick. Thank you for sharing.
Have you ever known anyone who didn’t love “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”?
Neither have I “A weem ah weh” indeed!