"The Lion Sleeps Tonight" is one of those songs that we’ve all heard a million times, and it’s been covered so many times that anytime you hear it pop up in a movie or TV show, you probably wouldn’t be able to recall if it’s the same version you heard the last time. But it goes deeper than that. It turns out that even the original recording of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" is a rip-off of a different song, and the song it’s based on isn’t original either. 

The fight for proper songwriting credit (and royalties) for "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" has taken some weird turns along the way, including bad contracts, international copyright laws, greedy music executives, political witch hunts, and of course, Disney had to get tangled up in this mess as well. So, let’s dive in ...

The Three Versions

In order to help give this story better context, we first have to provide samples of the three songs at the center of the story. We’re gonna start with the one everyone is most familiar with and work our way back to the beginning of this whole sordid affair.

In 1961, doo-wop band The Tokens released the “original” version of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight". In the highly improbable event that you’ve never heard the song, here you go:

"The Lion Sleeps Tonight" was essentially an effort to add lyrics on top of a song that was released a decade prior called "Wimoweh" by folk combo The Weavers. That song was originally credited as being arranged by Paul Campbell based on a traditional African song. It would later be discovered that not only was it not a traditional song, but also that Paul Campbell didn’t actually exist, but more on that later.

But Wimoweh wasn’t based on a traditional African song but rather Mbube, an original a cappella composition from South Africa in 1949 written by Solomon Linda and performed by his group The Evening Birds. In this song, you can easily recognize several snippets of melodies that would eventually make it into "The Lion Sleeps Tonight."

Solomon Linda and Mbube

In 1938, Solomon Linda was living a life that’s all too real for a lot of musicians: working a boring day job to keep the bills paid between gigs. His day job, however, helped him get his foot in the door. He worked as a record packer at the Gallo Record Company in Johannesburg, South Africa, which just so happened to run the only recording studio not just in South Africa but in the whole region of sub-Saharan Africa. This helped Linda and his group, The Evening Birds, to get the attention of one of Gallo’s lead talent scouts.

The next year, while recording other songs in the studio, Linda and the Evening Birds started riffing on some melodies and lyrics and came up with "Mbube." The song became a huge hit, selling over 100,000 copies in 1939, and made Solomon Linda a celebrity in South Africa. What it didn’t make him, however, was a lot of money. He got paid to perform his hit song at gigs, but not from royalties

Via Wikimedia Commons

Let’s take a moment to admire the Evening Birds in their slick suits before, predictably, the story turns soul-crushing.

That’s because he sold the song’s copyright to Gallo Record Company shortly after recording it. His payment for those rights: 10 shillings. We know that sounds ridiculously low because it was. Converted to U.S. dollars, adjusting for inflation, carry the one, today that would be … $25?!? Why did Linda agree to this? Did he even read the contract first? Actually, no, he couldn’t. He was illiterate.

With South Africa being a British colony at the time, the rights were under the jurisdiction of British copyright laws that would have guaranteed the rights would revert to Linda’s family 25 years after his death. The family’s stake in the international copyright got a little murky due to a series of bureaucratic snafus, namely South Africa declaring its independence from the British Commonwealth in 1960 and deciding to make up their own damn copyright laws.

Solomon Linda died of kidney failure in 1962. Even though he and his music were still popular at the time of his death, he died in such poverty that his family couldn’t afford a tombstone for his grave for another 18 years. But his legacy lived on through his music, and his biggest hit inspired a new genre of African a cappella music called Isicathamiya, also referred to as Mbube. 

How Mbube Came to America and Became Wimoweh

In 1949, a copy of "Mbube" found its way into a stack of albums that American ethnomusicologist (fancy word for music snob with a passport) Alan Lomax had saved from being thrown away at his job at Decca Records. Lomax had sent the records to his friend, folk legend Pete Seeger, to see if there was anything in there that piqued his interest. That copy of "Mbube" definitely caught his ear, and over the next couple of years, Seeger had adapted the song with his band The Weavers into their single “Wimoweh,” which peaked at #6 on the charts.

Library of Congress

If you’re trying to preserve a folk song, you could do a lot worse.

What does the title Wimoweh even mean? Not a damn thing. The Weavers were merely going off what they thought was being chanted on the recording of "Mbube," which was actually "Uyimbube," which means “He is a Lion” in Zulu. It’s unclear whether Pete Seeger and the Weavers couldn’t find a fluent Zulu speaker to correct them, or they figured “Wimoweh” sounded just African enough to pass muster with their audience. Either way, this is what the world got. 

Now that you know this, the next time you hear "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" playing in public, start loudly singing “Uyimbube, uyimbube …” instead of “Oh wimoweh, oh wimoweh.” If anyone tries to correct you, bet them $20 that you’re right and they’re wrong, then drop this knowledge bomb on their ass. Even if they don’t pay up, they’re likely to never want to speak to you ever again. That’s a win-win!

It might be unfair to say that Pete Seeger and The Weavers flat-out stole this song from Solomon Linda. At the time, they were basing their composition on an obscure recording of the song and merely assumed that it was a traditional African folk song that fell in the public domain. The industry suits whose job it was to do the due diligence to make sure that was indeed the case knew differently because they had been contacted by Eric Gallo, the guy who paid Solomon Linda a mere pittance for the rights to "Mbube" all those years ago.

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The Weavers’ management and publishers had struck a handshake deal with Gallo over the rights to the song, even though they argued that U.S. copyright law shouldn’t apply to something that originated in South Africa. After Solomon Linda was properly credited for his part in "Wimoweh," Pete Seeger personally sent Linda a check for $1,000 and instructed his publishers to give whatever Seeger earned from the song directly to Linda. Unfortunately, the publisher never carried out that request, and Seeger never followed up on it, so Solomon Linda’s total payment for "Mbube" at this point had maxed out at one thousand U.S. dollars and ten British shillings.

Oh, that thing we said earlier about the arrangement of "Wimoweh" being credited to Paul Campbell, a man who did not exist? That’s because that name was a pseudonym used by The Weavers so they could claim their royalties. The reason for this was because Pete Seeger and bandmate Lee Hays were both blacklisted in the industry after an FBI informant named the two as members of the Communist Party to Joseph McCarthy’s House Committee on Un-American Activities. Even though the informant later recanted his testimony and McCarthy was exposed as the unscrupulous fear-mongering fraud that he was, the careers of Seeger and Lee (and everyone else on the blacklist) never recovered. 

Library of Congress

That’s right: Record executives, apartheid South Africa, and Joseph McCarthy. It’s pick-your-evil today!

How it Became "The Lion Sleeps Tonight"

In 1961, The Tokens had just landed a three-album deal with RCA Records. When meeting with their new producers and trying to decide what songs they wanted to record, one of the band’s members suggested doing a cover of "Wimoweh." Their producers liked the song but weren’t sold on the idea of putting out a single where all the lyrics could best be described as “Some form of African, I think? I dunno, I’ve been told it has something to do with lions.”

The producers decided to keep the same rhythm and flavor of “Wimoweh,” but give it a Western culture makeover. They brought in lyricist George David Weiss to adapt the song and write some English lyrics for it. Three short verses where every other line is the song’s title and a bunch of Soprano AH-WEEEEs later, they had "The Lion Sleeps Tonight."

The band, the producers, and the label weren’t very confident in the song they had recorded, so they B-side to a different single called Tina. Tina didn’t chart at all, but once radio DJ’s flipped the record over, "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" quickly became The Tokens’ first and only #1 hit. 

RCA Victor

Wait, this picture was supposed to be of a pop band.  Why did this photo of the debate team at a Mormon high school come up?

By the end of 1989, the copyright to "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" was set to expire, and the song’s composer George David Weiss and his company Abilene Music, Inc., intended to renew the copyright and publish the song on their own, leaving the original publishers (TRO/Folkways) out of any future royalties. But TRO wasn’t gonna go down without a fight.

Going into this legal battle, Weiss had no idea about "Mbube," Solomon Linda, or the handshake deal Eric Gallo had made when Wimoweh came out. TRO tried to use that bombshell in litigation to say that Weiss couldn’t claim ownership over a song he technically didn’t write in the first place. Weiss countered by saying that also meant TRO shouldn’t have had ownership over it at all, and at least Weiss wrote the lyrics, so there! 

Weiss and Abilene Music ended up winning the rights to "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," and he promised to pass Solomon Linda’s family his share of the performer’s royalties, which through the magic of music industry math amounted to about $12,000 over the course of a decade.

Time to Make It Right

Solomon Linda’s three surviving daughters were still living in extreme poverty in crumbling houses in South Africa. They had no idea how music royalties were supposed to work, so they never questioned if the paltry checks coming in were even close to the right amount. And they sure as hell didn’t know how much money Abilene Music was raking in thanks to a certain cartoon meerkat and his flatulent warthog friend.

The Lion King was a huge hit for Disney in 1994. This tiny scene in the film featuring Timon and Pumbaa singing just the first verse of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" made the song more popular than ever before. No one really knows the exact details of the licensing agreement between Disney and Abilene Music, but between the theatrical run of the film, home video sales, and television broadcasts, it’s believed that by the time the Linda family lawyered up in 2006, the movie had generated at least $16 million in royalties for the song. That number would’ve been so much higher if the song had made it onto the film’s soundtrack album. 

However, the Lindas had no way of going after Abilene Music directly. The South African court system could not exert jurisdiction over a defendant unless they held assets or a place of business in South Africa. Abilene Music, Inc. had no business or assets in the country, but Walt Disney Enterprises, Inc. held around 200 registered trademarks there. So, the Lindas were able to move forward with their lawsuit based on that and, through the song’s copyright license, lump Abilene Music into the suit by proxy. The amount they were asking for: $1.6 million.

We’d love to tell you the story of a long, drawn-out story of steamy intellectual property rights action. However, Disney settled the suit before it could make it to the courtroom. But what this story lacks in legal drama, it makes up for in justice for Solomon Linda getting screwed over for the past 67 years. Solomon Linda will be credited as a co-writer of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," his heirs will receive payment for past and future royalties from the song, and "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" is now officially acknowledged as being derived from "Mbube." As for money, the settlement’s dollar amount remains undisclosed, but the family’s lawyer stated, “We are satisfied with it.” 

Dan Fritschie is a writer, comedian, and frequent over-thinker. He can be found on Twitter, and he thanks you for your time.

Top image: Via Wikimedia Commons, Disney

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