Stories behind the songs

by Bob Shannon, Bill Brent & Fred Clemens  


The Lion Sleeps Tonight 1961    

            This is the story of an African doo-wop song. Its original title was “Mbube,”  (pronounced EEM-boo-beh) which means “Lion,” and it was sung with a haunting Zulu  refrain that sounded, to English-speaking people, like “wimoweh.” “Mbube” was a big  hit in what is now Swaziland; it sold nearly 100,000 copies in the 1940s by its  originator, South African Solomon Linda.  Linda had written it based on a boyhood  experience chasing lions that were stalking the family's cattle, and recorded the  tune in 1939 with his group the Evening Birds. It was so popular that Zulu choral  music became known as “Mbube Music”. Then it passed into the broad field of  “folk”  music, albeit by an indirect route. The South African recording company sent it along  with some other 78s to Decca Records in the U.S.  Decca wasn't interested, but folk historian and musicologist Alan Lomax was. He took the records to Pete Seeger, of the American folk group the Weavers. Seeger was enchanted by “Mbube”, especially the  refrain which sounded to him like “awimbooee” or  “awimoweh”  (it was actually  “uyimbube” in Zulu).    

    The Weavers (led by Gordon Jenkins' Orchestra) adapted it into a Top 15 hit in  1952, as “Wimoweh”.  It was basically an instrumental with the group singing “wimoweh” over and over, with other vocal flourishes.  The tune really took off in the Weavers'  live version at Carnegie Hall in 1957. Linda was not credited as the writer; that honor  went to “Paul Campbell”, a pseudonym for the group. However, when the Kingston Trio  released their version in 1959 (on the From the Hungry i LP) the writer credit was  listed as “traditional; adapted and arranged by Campbell-Linda.” Meanwhile, Linda died  with only $25 in his bank account; his heirs are still pursuing royalties from the song  that is perhaps one of the most well-known worldwide hits. The complete story, too long  to be included here, was thoroughly documented in an amazing work of scholarship by Rian  Malan, in Rolling Stone, May 25, 2000 ("In the Jungle"). Luckily, it can be read online  at 3rd Ear Music.  

    THE STORY: In New York City, there was a doo-wop group called the Tokens. They  had originated in a Brooklyn high school with Neil Sedaka as the lead singer, but when  Sedaka left to become a solo star, they broke up. Only Hank Medress was left; he put a  new quartet together with Jay Siegal and the Margo brothers, Phil and Mitch. Then they  went out, got a recording contract with Warwick Records, and turned out a doo-wop hit  called “Tonight I Fell In Love” (“Dom-dooby-dom-wo-oh, dooby dooby”). It hit #15 on the  national charts.  

    A few months later, the Tokens had a chance to move up in the world. They were  offered an audition with the top RCA production team of Hugo (Peretti) and Luigi (Creatore).  And what song did these doo-woppers pick to audition with? “Wimoweh.” Like much of America  in 1961, they were caught up in the folk music boom. Jay Siegal explains: “I loved folk  music and discovered ‘Wimoweh’ on the album The Weavers at Carnegie Hall. We used to sing  it for our own pleasure, and everybody loved it...We thought we were going to be another  Kingston Trio or Highwaymen.”       Hugo and Luigi were impressed, but they decided the song needed new lyrics. With  George Weiss, they keyed in on the tune’s origins and wrote “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”   “They thought it was fantastic,” Jay says, but  “the rest of the group didn’t want it to  come out. They were embarrassed by the title; it sounded so ridiculous. We were purists  then.”  Despite their objections, the Tokens recorded the romanticized version in May  1961 at RCA Studios on 23rd Street in Manhattan. Classically-trained singer Anita Darian  supplied the high soprano during the sax solo and as the counter melody to the lead vocal.  Darian has a four-octave vocal range, and has sung everything from opera to television  jingles in her long career. The year before the Tokens' session (1960) she had recorded a rare album of Near and Middle Eastern songs called East of the Sun (Kapp KS-3052/KL-1168).  Anita still performs today and was featured in a 2003 Cabaret Festival in New York City.   

    The session also yielded another folk song, this time from Portugal, called “Tina.”  RCA promoted that side, and it started to get airplay in New York on deejay Murray the K’s  radio show. Jay recalls: “I had gotten married when we had just recorded the record. When  I got back I took a job. Two or three weeks later we heard from a manager or lawyer who  said, ‘Quit your job. The record is going to be a smash.’ ”  

    But it was the B side that was starting to sell. In the interim,  Dick Smith of  WORC in Worcester Massachusetts, had flipped the Tokens’ record over and began playing  “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” By November it was on the national charts, and reached #1 by  Christmas time. “We weren’t embarrassed anymore” says Jay.  

    FOR THE RECORD: After this smashing success, the Tokens’ career took a different  course. They began producing records, not singing them [ “He’s So Fine”, “Tie a Yellow  Ribbon”, “Knock Three Times”]. Then late in 1971, exactly ten years after the first “Lion”  captured the American audience’s ear, he began roaming the airwaves once more, in a  note-for-note duplicate by Robert John that reached the Top 10 and sold a million copies  again. Although Hank Medress is the only one credited, the Tokens actually produced their  own comeback. Both Jay and Mitch sang on the new record, with songwriter Ellie Greenwich,  amazingly, singing bass. Jay Siegal: “We did not put our names on as the Tokens because  we thought radio people and program directors would not believe it was another person  singing if they saw that we produced it (it really was Robert John singing, by the way).”   

    MORE INFORMATION    Solomon Linda: "Mbube" by Solomon Linda's Original Evening Birds was released originally  as Singer GB.829 in 1939.  It's available on the excellent compilation Mbube Roots - Zulu  Choral Music from South Africa, 1930s-1960s (Rounder 5025).  The record was a huge hit in  South Africa, and stayed in the catalog for at least 15 years, during which time the label's  name changed from Singer to Singer-Gallotone, then to Gallotone-Singer, and finally to simply  Gallotone.  It shows up on all four labels  One copy located is from so late in the record's  catalog tenure that the original metal parts had been exhausted, and an alternate take was  used in its place; there are three takes of "Mbube" on 78. This alternate is of considerable  interest, since it proves that the falsetto vocal part near the end of the record (which  provided the melody for the verse of  "The Lion Sleeps Tonight") was a chance improvisation  by Linda, not a part of the song itself.  The other alternate take of the tune does not have  any similar part, but has instead some other vocal effects that the familiar take lacks. Take  three was reissued on Yazoo 7010, SMM Vol. 4 (also accapella; Linda's choice of style). "Mbube"  was covered by several other African groups, including the Manhattan Brothers (a minor local  hit) and others. Linda's group made many other records, but this one from the beginning of  their recording career was by far their biggest seller, and in fact gave name to the singing  style in which the song was performed--Mbube. The first appearance of  Solomon Linda's original   "Mbube" in the United States comes about 1954, when Tony Schwartz used an excerpt of it on N.Y.  19 (Folkways FP 58). Schwartz is an award-winning media guru, who has among his many accomplish- ments the first use of real children's voices in commercials (instead of actors imitating children).   

    The Weavers: The original Decca release (27928) has "Gordon Jenkins & His Orchestra" in large  print and "The Weavers" in small print.     Miriam Makeba: In 1953, "Lakutshona Ilanga" was the first song ever recorded by Makeba, on  an album by the Manhattan Brothers, for whom she had become vocalist the previous year. The  song became known (not literally translated) as "Lovely Lies" in English in 1955 (London Records)  and charted in the Top 100 in America, peaking at #43 in 1956. The record was evidently big in  Boston, where according to Cashbox, it reached #7. Apparently, during her time with the Manhattan  Brothers, Makeba picked up "Mbube", although she may have known it from the Linda version. The  RCA album (LSP-2267) containing her rendition was Miriam Makeba, and she is backed on the song  by both the (Harry) Belafonte Folk Singers and the Chad Mitchell Trio.     The Tokens: had a follow-up release to their "Lion..." hit, called "B'wa Nina". That song was  also based on an earlier African tune, also previously recorded by Miriam Makeba, "The Click Song"  (later referred to as "The Click Song #1", since she later recorded a similar "sounding" tune she  entitled "The Click Song #2"). "The Click Song" (#1) had it's origin in the Xhosa language as  "Gqongqotwane":     Gqongqotwane is the dung-gathering beetle-- the miser of the insect world, known to the Xhosas  as the Road Wizard.     (Quoted from an early mid-60's LP by the Manhattan Brothers, issued in the  US on Joy Records [#5004]). This is why "The Click Song" was also known in English as "The African  Beetle Song".    

    "Wimoweh": Borrowing loosely from Gordon Jenkins' arrangements, the song appeared by Jimmy Dorsey   (Columbia) and Yma Sumac (Capitol). Later, it was revived again by Bert Kaempfert  (Decca). After  the Tokens, the list starts to get silly and long, as with Manu DiBango's twist 45 version. From  there the lion goes back to sleep for a while until the '70s (Robert John), then returns in the  '80s (r.e.m.) and full circle in the '90s to Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and of course, the Broadway  production of The Lion King.  

    The Aftermath:  Since the song The Lion Sleeps Tonight was penned by Zulu tribesman Solomon Linda over 60 years  ago, it has generated over $55 million (in one form or another). But despite his melody's success  Linda died in poverty, having sold the track to record producer Eric Gallo for just ten shillings. To his credit, when Pete Seager learned of this, he made sure Linda's widow receive a portion of the royalties from his recordings.   It now looks as though his daughters may soon recover their father's legacy, thanks to a little- known law stating that rights to a song should revert to the creator's estate 25 years after his death.   This means the composer's three daughters, who still live in poverty in Johannesburg townships, may  soon become extremely rich. Because Gallo Records, which originally bought the tune, has decided the  time has come to make amends.   The company, which had sold the US rights to another firm, instructed its lawyers to find a way of  recovering the money for the family. They found the legal provision in British Imperial Copyright  Law, and it seems the rule can be used to rake back much of the wealth generated by the song.   The Supreme Court in Pretoria in 2003 appointed an executor to Linda's estate, and the process of  recovering the money is still underway. "The copyright provisions could be enforced retrospectively  and could run into millions of pounds," says Pretoria copyright lawyer Owen Dean, who is working  with Gallo Records. "It is high time that Mr Linda's family, who are living in abject poverty,  finally received some redress."