Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Lion Never Sleeps

Solomon Linda
Many songs must have labyrinthine and perplexing histories, histories murky by design in order to deny their creators any rightful share of royalties.  But I doubt that there are as many songs with as mysterious a backstory as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”  After that falsetto megahit by the Tokens topped the charts in 1961, it never really went away.  But the song was given new life in 1994 by its inclusion in another megahit, the Walt Disney cartoon The Lion King

As most music mavens can tell you, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” was derived from the song “Wimoweh,” which had been making the rounds in the folk clubs ever since it was introduced to a mass audience in 1952 by the folk group the Weavers.  But while the Weavers presented “Wimoweh” as a traditional South African folk song, the melody that became “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” was actually authored by Solomon Popoli Linda (1909-1962). 

In 1939, Linda, a black South African, and his a cappella group, the Evening Birds, recorded a song called “Mbube” (the Zulu word for “lion”) in the Johannesburg studios of Gallo Records.  While the song’s compelling bass line may have been derived from a traditional Zulu chant, Linda’s falsetto improvisations above it were his own, including the tune we now think of as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”  It’s the same old story: Linda sold “Mbube’s” rights to Gallo Records for a pittance, and while “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” went on to gross tens of millions — if not hundreds of millions — of dollars in royalty revenue, the song’s original author died a pauper, whose family was unable to afford a headstone for his grave. 

The twisting, turning story of “Mbube” and “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” which includes an apparently happy ending for Linda’s grown children, was meticulously detailed in 2000 in Rolling Stone magazine by South African author and journalist Rian Malan.  His history/exposé is titled “In the Jungle” and still makes for compelling reading.  I highly recommend Malan’s article. 

Fortunately, many of the songs that shaped the history of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” are available online. 

Here is Solomon Linda and the Evening Birds original 1939 recording of “Mbube”:

Pete Seeger transcribed the song from Linda’s South African record (which was brought to his attention by American musicologist Alan Lomax).  Unfamiliar with the Zulu language (which might be expected), Seeger transcribed the Zulu refrain uyembube as “Wimoweh.”  Here is the first recording of “Wimoweh” that Seeger and his group the Weavers made for an independent record company circa 1950:

After the Weavers were signed to the major label Decca Records, they did a second recording in 1952, with orchestrations by Gordon Jenkins:

“Wimoweh” was a hit in the U.S., and the Weavers’ record was soon followed by cover versions.  Here is Yma Sumac backed by Martin Denny and his orchestra, also from 1952:

Another well-known version is by the Kingston Trio from 1959:

South African artists still recorded the song as “Mbube” (although I don’t know if any of royalties at the time made their way to Solomon Linda).  Here is Miriam Makeba’s version from 1960:

A hit in the United Kingdom was this 1961 version of “Wimoweh” by Scottish guitarist-cum-yodeler Karl Denver:

The amateur doo-wop group the Tokens included “Wimoweh” in their repertoire.  After they signed with RCA Records, the label’s producers reworked the song for a youthful pop audience, which included new English lyrics by tunesmith George David Weiss.  The Tokens’ rendition, titled “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” released in 1961 to resounding success, remains the best-known of version of the song:

Solomon Linda’s original version of “Mbube” was such a success in South Africa that the Evening Birds’ forceful style of a cappella singing created its own vocal musical genre named after the song: mbube singing.  A descendant of mbube singing is the softer style called isicathamiya, whose best-known practitioner is the South African vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo.  Appropriately, Ladysmith Black Mambazo has its own version of “Mbube” from 2006:

This version by the Soweto Gospel Choir combines “Mbube,” “Wimoweh,” and “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”:

And the song continues to inspire.  Here is Angelique Kidjo’s version of “Mbube” from 2010:

Finally, here is a clip from a 2014 episode of The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon:

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