Monday, November 28, 2011
The Original Version of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight"
Solomon Linda (sharp suit on the left) was a South African singer and songwriter who worked cleaning and packing for a Johannesburg record company in the 1930's. In 1939, with his band The Evening Birds, Linda recorded his composition, "Mbube," named for the Zulu word for "lion." The mesmerizing chug of the low-voiced chorus below Linda's high improvised wail made an infectious groove and the 78 rpm record was a South African hit. Although the song sold over 100,000 copies, Linda sold his song rights to the record company for less than two dollars.
Fast forward to the 1950's and folk historian Alan Lomax gives a copy of "Mbube" to Pete Seeger. Thinking the song was a traditional song, handed down and of fair use, Seeger took the chorus of "Uyembube" ("You are a lion" in Zulu), translated it phonetically to "Wimoweh" and recorded it with his folk group The Weavers. The song went on to be recorded internationally by dozens of musical groups, including the doo-wop boy-band the Tokens for whom the song went to #1 on the pop charts, the Kingston Trio, Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Jimmy Cliff. In what may have given the song its largest audience, Disney used "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" in the film and stage musical The Lion King.
Solomon Linda died destitute in 1962. It was eighteen years later before his family could afford a tombstone for his grave.
Another tragic story of an artist denied the credit and rewards for his work? Yes, but there's a happy coda. In 2000, Solomon Linda's daughters sued for the rights and royalties to "Mbube." Six years later, they won. The settlement gave Linda's heirs "payment for past uses of 'The Lion Sleeps Tonight' and an entitlement to future royalties" and acknowledgment of Solomon Linda as its co-composer.
Justice prevailing adds another zing of joy to one of the music world's happiest compositions.