Follow the trail of “Mbube”: from Solomon Linda’s Zululand beginnings to its international hit status on Broadway and beyond.
Solomon Linda is born. He grows up near Ladysmith, Zululand, singing Zulu songs with his friends.
Joining other Zulu migrants, Linda and his friends move to Johannesburg to find work. They form a local music group called the Evening Birds, and are credited with popularizing the musical form of isicathamiya, which combines call-and-response vocal music with a choral sound. Soon Linda lands a job packing records at Gallo Records, the first recording studio in sub-Saharan Africa and the recording home of most black South African musicians at the time. Started by Eric Gallo, the studio records songs in local dialects and distributes them on 78-rpm records.
Spotted by a talent scout, Linda and the Evening Birds record several songs at the Gallo studios. One especially catches the record company’s attention: “Mbube,” or Zulu for “lion,” a song inspired by an incident in the band’s Zulu childhood when they chased lions that were coming after their fathers’ cattle. Because blacks are not allowed to have royalties in 1930s South Africa, the studio gives the band a “petty cash voucher” in exchange for the rights to their song. “Mbube” becomes a hit record, selling up to 100,000 copies in the region, and Linda becomes a singing superstar among Zulu migrants in Johannesburg.
Pete Seeger, a young American folk singer living in Manhattan, receives a copy of “Mbube” from his friend Alan Lomax, who is working for a record company. Lomax had “rescued” a box of records—including “Mbube”—from the trash, which the company had received from an African record company in the hope that they could be re-released in the U.S. Seeger is fascinated by the song and transcribes it for his band, the Weavers, writing the Zulu chant “Uyimbube” as “Wimoweh.” The Weavers record and perform the song to acclaim in the early 1950s.
In A LION'S TRAIL, Seeger explains: “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.”
“Wimoweh” inspires a slew of covers by artists in a variety of genres, from jazz legend Jimmy Dorsey to the folk act The Kingston Trio, whose version remains on the charts for more than three years.
The Tokens, a pop act consisting of four boys from Brooklyn just out of high school, land a record deal with RCA Victor. Singer Jay Siegel first introduces his bandmates to The Weavers’ “Wimoweh,” which they perform while auditioning for their record deal, dubbing it a song about “eating lions.” Composer George David Weiss—the co-writer of Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love With You”—is sent in to re-make the song for the band. Weiss makes Linda’s melody the main part and adds the famous lyrics “In the jungle, the mighty jungle…”
Controversy still remains between The Tokens and Weiss over who was the true author of the song. Drummer Phil Margo claims Weiss stole The Tokens’ idea for the cover and inserted his own lyrics, while singer Jay Siegel says: “George David Weiss was the person who actually did write the lyrics to ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight,’ but Solomon Linda is the one who wrote most of the music, and I am the one who wrote all the different parts of that. The second eight bars of ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’ was my melody.”
The Tokens’ “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” becomes an international number one hit. Solomon Linda dies in poverty in South Africa, from kidney disease, at the age of 53.
The song continues to inspire covers by artists such as Brian Eno and Robert John, who releases a number-three hit version in 1972. Every radio play results in a performance royalty: Weiss receives all composer royalties, while Pete Seeger and The Weavers receive the publisher royalties, even though Seeger openly acknowledges Linda as the song’s true author. Seeger later sends Linda a check for $1,000 and instructs his publisher send all future payments to Linda’s family—but the company does not.
The South African group Ladysmith Black Mambazo releases a version of the song. “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” regains popularity with the Disney film The Lion King, which also becomes a Broadway musical.
South African journalist Rian Malan’s Rolling Stone article on “Mbube” estimates that the song—in all its versions—have generated at least 15 million dollars in composer royalties since 1939, most of which are given to George David Weiss for “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”
In a well-publicized copyright case, Solomon Linda’s family sues Disney for 1.6 million dollars—a share of the composer royalties generated from “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” after 1987— for using the song in The Lion King. The family claims that under South African copyright law, the “Mbube” rights reverted to Linda and his heirs 25 years after his death. The lawsuit is still pending.
Although TRO/Folkways, the publisher of Seeger’s “Wimoweh,” was not named in the Disney lawsuit, the company admits that it had not paid Linda any royalties. It promises to give $3,000 a year to the Linda family and finance a memorial to Linda himself.