The song that topped the Billboard pop chart on December 18, 1961, was an instant classic that went on to become one of the most successful pop songs of all time, yet its true originator saw only a tiny fraction of the song’s enormous profits.
The story begins in Johannesburg, South Africa, where in 1938, a group of Zulu singers and dancers called Solomon Linda and the Evening Birds stepped into the first recording studio ever set up in sub-Saharan Africa and recorded a song called “Mbube”—Zulu for “the lion.” “Mbube” was a regional hit, and it helped make Solomon Linda into a South African star. But the story might have ended there had a copy of the record not made its way to New York City in the early 1950s, where it was saved from the slush pile at Decca Records by the legendary folklorist Alan Lomax. Without actually hearing any of the records in a box sent from Africa, Lomax thought a friend of his might be interested in the box’s contents. That friend was the folksinger Pete Seeger.
Unable to understand the lyrics of “Mbube,” Seeger transcribed the central chant as “Wimoweh,” and that became the name of the song as recorded by the Weavers and released in early 1952, just as the group was about to be blacklisted thanks to the McCarthy hearings. Eventually, Jay Siegel, the teenage lead singer of the Tokens, would hear and fall in love with “Wimoweh” through the Kingston Trio’s cover version of the Weavers’ song. The Tokens’ label commissioned English-language lyrics for the song, which was re-titled “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and went on to become not just a #1 song on this day in 1961, but one of the most-covered, most successful pop songs of all time.
In an excellent article for Rolling Stone magazine in 2000, South African journalist Rian Malan followed both the music and the money associated with “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” exposing the sequence of business arrangements that ended up making millions for a handful of prominent U.S. music publishers while yielding only a $1,000 personal check from Pete Seeger to Solomon Linda during Linda’s lifetime. Because his composition was treated as public-domain “folk” material by Seeger and by the subsequent writer of the English-language lyrics in the Tokens’ version, Linda never participated in the royalty stream generated by either “Wimoweh” or “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” And prior to reaching an undisclosed settlement in 2006, his heirs received only a tiny fraction of the millions of dollars they might have been due had Linda retained his songwriting credit on what Malan rightly calls “The most famous melody ever to emerge from Africa.”