In a Johannesburg studio in 1939, Solomon Linda recorded a new melody over a background of vocal chants. He named the song “Mbube,” or Zulu for “lion,” and it went on to become one of the most famous melodies in the world, spawning hundreds of cover versions in Japanese, Spanish, and French, among other languages. The English version, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” has been recorded by more than 150 artists and appears in more than 15 feature films.
Editor's Note: Due to the legal issues central to the film itself, we are unable to provide audio clips or lyrics of the songs referenced on this Web site.
An early publicity photo of Solomon Linda (at far
left) and the Evening Birds
Pete Seeger in 1948 (Library of Congress)
The Tokens, with their original line-up, with lead
singer Jay Siegel at center
Solomon Linda and the Evening Birds, “Mbube” (1939)
Gallo Records paid Linda and his group a flat session fee for the recording, after which the company owned the song and did not have to pay any composer royalties, even though the record sold an estimated 100,000 copies over a decade.
The Weavers, “Wimoweh” (1951)
Folk musician Pete Seeger and his band adapted “Mbube” into the Anglicized “Wimoweh.” Their version became a best seller in the U.S.
The Tokens, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” (1961)
Topping charts worldwide and selling millions of copies, this song was copyrighted as an original by George Weiss, although the melody was identical to the original “Mbube.” The song is one of the most played radio hits of all time.
Hundreds of musicians have covered “Mbube”—some even before The Weavers and The Tokens—generating millions of dollars in royalties. Here are just a few of them.
The Tuxedo Swingsters: This early 1950s version featured Abdullah Ibrahim.
Miriam Makeba: A U.S. Top 40 hit in the early 1960s with the Belafonte Folk Singers and the Chad Mitchell Trio.
Jimmy Dorsey: Jazz legend Dorsey recorded his version in 1952.
The Kingston Trio: This folk version stayed on the charts for more than three years.
Karl Denver: A number-one hit in the U.K. in 1962.
Robert John: A number-three hit in the U.S. in 1972.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo: This South African super group has recorded at least four versions of the song.
Klaus Wunderlich: German organist created his own rendition.
Tyrone and the Clouds: This cover is by a Jamaican steel band.
The England World Cup Soccer Squad: A rallying song in 1986.
Brian Eno: Created by the former Roxy Music leader.
Leadernacken: Performed by a German progressive rock band in the 1990s.
Phish: A favorite live performance by the post-Dead jam band.
R.E.M.: The U.S. alt-rock group recorded a cover on the B-side of their “Sidewinder” single.
NSYNC: The U.S. boy band released its own pop cover.
In addition to appearing on countless audio recordings, versions of “Mbube” have also been featured on the big screen, on stage, and in video and television commercials.
Coming To America: This 1988 Eddie Murphy film featured a version of the song by Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
Cry the Beloved Country: Starring Richard Harris, this ‘90s remake featured “Mbube.”
Dogfight: The Weavers’ “Wimoweh” appeared in this 1991 River Phoenix film.
Ace Ventura, Pet Detective: This 1994 blockbuster featured “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” on its soundtrack.
The Lion King: “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” played a starring role in the Disney movie-turned-Broadway musical, fetching hundreds of thousands of dollars in performance royalties.