The Lion Song Fact Sheet
In l939, a Zulu migrant worker and entertainer who called himself Solomon Linda stood before a microphone in Johannesburg´s first recording studio, improvising falsetto vocal lines against a rolling, driving vocal chant. He called the song "Mbube", Zulu for "lion." On the third take, Linda came up with a haunting skein of notes that went on to become the most famous melody ever to emerge from Africa. The English-speaking world knows it as the central theme from the song "The Lion Sleeps Tonight". There are versions in French, Japanese, Spanish, Danish and many other languages. More than 150 different artists and features in at least 15 movies, along with one of the most successful stage musicals in history, have recorded it. Linda´s role in the song´s creation is undisputed, but he died a pauper, leaving his family too poor even to afford a headstone for his grave.
What follows is a brief summation of the Lion song´s history:
Johannesburg, 1939. "Mbube" by Solomon Linda and the Evening Birds becomes a smash hit for Gallotone records, selling in the region of 100,000 copies over the next decade and founding a genre of music that still bears its name today.
New York, 1949. A copy of "Mbube" falls into the hands of folk singer Pete Seeger, who is immediately smitten. In his autobiography, Seeger describes transcribing the song "note for note" and teaching it to his fellow Weavers, who called it "Wimoweh", a corruption of the Zulu "uyiMbube," meaning, "He´s a Lion." "Wimoweh" becomes a number 6 hit for the Weavers in 1951/2.
New York, 1961. The Tokens fall in love with "Wimoweh" and decide to re-record it as their next single. Their producers, Hugo Peretti and Luigi Creatore, call on ace songwriter George David Weiss to revamp the song. Weiss, whose credits include Elvis Presley´s "Falling in Love with You", adds several ingenious new elements and English lyrics: "In the jungle, the mighty jungle," and so on. The song is retitled "The Lion Sleeps Tonight", and roars to number one worldwide.
In the years that follow, "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" becomes a pop evergreen, passing through as many as eight hit cycles and, according to Rolling Stone magazine, racking up nearly three centuries of radio play in the US alone. The latest of these revivals began in 1994, when "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" was used in the movie version of Disney´s "The Lion King". "The song lives a magical life," adaptor George Weiss told a reporter. "It´s been a hit eight or nine times before, but never like this. It´s going wild! The way this happened, it was magic, it was beautiful, it was destiny. I have to say God smiled at me."
New York, 2000. Rolling Stone estimated that "Mbube" and its progeny have earned at least $15 million in composer royalties over the decades. The magazine arrived at this guesstimate by compiling a list of all known commercial exploitations and circulating it among music industry professionals in SA and the USA, inviting them to speculate on the magnitude of the songs’ earnings. A slightly updated version of this list appears at the bottom of this article.
Johannesburg, 2001. Attorney Hanro Friedrich steps in to represent Linda’s daughters, who continue to live in abject poverty in Soweto. Friedrich launches a campaign to achieve justice for his clients.
Johannesburg, 2002. In their quest for justice, Gallo Records, now SA’s largest music company, agrees to fund the initial legal effort and to administer the copyright for free. Nelspruit, 2003. Friedrich buttonholes South African Arts Minister Pallo Jordan in an airport waiting room. After hearing Friedrich’s story, Jordan pledges his Department’s support behind the Solomon Linda justice initiative.
Johannesburg, 2003. The case makes its way into the hands of Dr Owen Dean, a partner at Spoor & Fisher. Widely regarded as South Africa’s foremost copyright lawyer and author of a doctoral thesis on historical aspects of South African copyright law, Dean immediately realizes that the Imperial Copyright Act of 1911 (in force in SA at the time MBUBE was recorded) contains an arcane clause that offers Linda’s family a possible shot at restitution, but before he can test this legal theory, actionable defendants must be found in South Africa.
Pretoria, 2004. Dean makes international headlines by winning a court order authorizing the attachment of legendary Walt Disney trade marks in SA. "I have no axe to grind with Disney itself," Dean tells the press. "In fact, I assume they don’t know much about Solomon Linda and the way he and his family have been treated. But they are using his music in the Lion King musical, which is still running to full houses all over the world while Linda’s daughters get nothing. As far as we’re concerned, this is profoundly unfair, so we’re holding Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and all the others hostage until certain Americans start taking us seriously." A civil action for an interdict and damages is subsequently instituted against Disney and others.
New York, 2005. Folkways Music Publishers, the New York music publishing house, announces that it will henceforth pay 100 percent of composer royalties earned by WIMOWEH to the estate of Solomon Linda.
Pretoria, February 2006. With the court action about to go for trial, Abilene Music announces that it is willing to accommodate the Linda family’s claim to an equitable share of the earnings of THE LION SLEEPS TONIGHT.
More information about this issue can be found in the following articles on our website:
Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and others "kidnapped and held hostage" in extraordinary legal proceeding
Copyright infringement claim in respect of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight"
Commercial exploitation of Mbube/Wimoweh/The Lion Sleeps tonight
The object of this exercise is to guess earnings over the past 60 years in constant l999 dollars. We’re probably talking publisher’s gross, after societies have taken their cut. Ballparks are inevitable, and a range of estimates would be nice, i.e. low to high. Versions by more famous artists are underlined for emphasis. We will average the responses, and let you know the outcome.
Lion King musical
Press reports indicate that initial Broadway production, which debuted in 1997, cost $20 million. Seven years later, the show continues to play to packed houses in seven cities worldwide, and is said to have grossed around $1 billion in total (San Francisco Chronicle 2002).
Lion Sleeps Tonight is the only non-Elton John song in the show. New York agents say that the composer of a musical typically receives around six percent of gross. If Lion Sleeps Tonight is earning a twelfth of the gross, and if the musical has indeed grossed $1 billion, royalties from this source alone might have amounted to $5 million.
1. Mbube l939 – Solomon Linda and the Evening Birds (Gallotone).
Sold estimated 100,000 78s over a decade. After paying a flat session fee, Gallo owned the song outright, and no composer royalties were paid initially. (Today, Gallo administers the song gratis, passing all income to the Linda family.)
Wimoweh 1951/2 – The Weavers.
Allegedly authored by the fictitious "Paul Campbell," but really adapted by Pete Seeger, who copied Mbube "note-for-note". Peaked at number 6 on Variety charts, and sold somewhere between two hundred thousand (Leventhal) and one million (Seeger). Royalties were shared between the individual Weavers and their management, with Solomon Linda (thanks to Seeger’s intervention) receiving 3/24ths of the total from circa l970 onwards.
Lion Sleeps Tonight – The Tokens 1961. Immortal hit single, US number one for three weeks, topped charts worldwide, often in cover versions (see Karl Denver). Weiss says Tokens alone sold six million. Song was originally copyrighted as an original "by Weiss, Peretti and Creatore". When owners of Wimoweh charged plagiarism, a compromise was reached, with composer royalties going to the Weiss parties and publisher royalties to the Wimoweh parties. After circa 1970, Linda’s family received a tiny fraction, not covered by any known contract. Cynics maintain these payments were intended to create an impression of "implied consent."
Tuxedo Swingsters, featuring Abdullah Ibrahim, early fifties.
Manhattan Bros. (Their live album for EMI, issued in exile in sixties)
Miriam Makeba’s debut LP USA 1960, produced by Belafonte, featuring Chad Mitchell Trio. Made US Top 40. Title Miriam Makeba of King Kong Fame. "The most exciting new singing talent to appear in many years" – Time.
Easy Walkers, according to Prof V. Erlmann of UTexas.
Kingston Trio – track on 1959 album Live from Hungry I that peaked at number two and spent 178 weeks on US charts.
Jimmy Dorsey – April 52 (Bandstand)
Wilder Bros. 1955 (Erlmann)
Beyond this point, most (but not all) covers would be new versions of "Lion Sleeps Tonight." Sales are anyone’s guess, and hard information is almost impossible to obtain. What follows is a list of the major artists that performed it.
Source: ASCAP.com database
Karl Denver – l962 UK cover, #1, four months on charts.
Springfields (Top 20 British sixties hit, apparently)
New Christy Minstrels
Davy Graham – British socialist folkie, quite big in 63.
Eric Donaldson – Love of the Common People LP 1972
The Tremeloes, plus several greatest hits comps.
New Zealand Army Band
Klaus Wunderlich (cheesy German organmeister)
Robert John, peaked at US number 3 in l972.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo (at least four recordings)
Soweto String Quartet (big in SA, UK and Australia)
Henry Jerome and orchestra
Thames Side Four/Davy Graham.
Bert Kaempfert. Lion version appeared on A Swinging Safari, ‘62, a huge LP worldwide. "One of the most successful records of its time," says Prof. Erlmann. Is this accurate?
Sam Sklair (SA danceband)
Chet Atkins My Favourite Guitars 1965
James Last (huge German danceband)
London Pop Orchestra
Ratton World Music Group
Aki Aleong/L. Twisters
England World Cup Soccer Squad 1986
Glen Campbell 64
Terry Lightfoot’s Jazzmen
PJ Powers - S. African Afropop, very big locally.
Tight Fit – this was the second-ever single from Clive Calder’s Jive Records. Reached number one in UK (l982) and charted USA.
Mint Juleps (US stars of Spike Lee’s a-capella documentary, with LBM)
The Sugar Beats
Arlo Guthrie "More together again," 94. Also "Precious Friend," 82.
Boys on the Block
Tyrone and The Clouds – Jamaican steel band.
Ledernacken – German progressive rock, ca 1990
Salif Keita - unknown but mentioned on fan website.
Mori Kante – again, mentioned on fan site.
Source: SABC airplay cards
Mango Groove, SA pop band, huge locally
Kariba, obscure SA
Golden Heavies, produced by Clive Calder using session cats..
Funky Party 73
Murray Campbell & orchestra
Harald Winkler, poss. German
24 Goue Kitaar Treffers
Source: Allmusic.com – generally restricted to ‘90s releases
Kooky Crazy Classic Rock for Kids
Steelband and Calypso
Don’t hang up – rock’n roll answering machine
Kid’s Fun: games, songs and sing-a-longs
Teenagers in Love
Kingston Trio’s greatest hits
21 Rock’n’Roll Favourites
Goa Spirit, by Goa Spirit
Great rock dance hits…
Retro Rock Dance Hits – new dance mixess…
Best of the Nylons
World of Holiday Hits
Main Attraction (89)
Discovery Channel’s Animal Planet
Lion King – original Broadway cast recording
Perfect Fit – Nylons album
Believe in music
Only rock/n/roll 70 to 74
I love rock’n’roll (hits of sixties)
Drew’s Famous Kid’s Birthday Dance Party
WCBS 25 th anniversary
Billboard Top R&R Hits
Nipper’s Greatest Hits
Atlantic Hit 45s
Spike & Co, a capella
Beat Goes On…
Folk Song America, vol 3
Eric Donaldson Cherry Oh Baby – maxi single? BMI.com
Soft Rockin’ Seventies
Ace Ventura Pet Detective soundtrack
Robert John’s Greatest Hits. (new version l992)
Super Hits of the Seventies "Have a nice day"
Pop History 1961
Juke Box Jive
Decca Jahre (german)
Decade of the sixties
Reach out for Tremeloes
Seamless – Nylons
Jambo Africa – Bobby – son of Weiss (1994)
Both sides now – Tokens compilation
Oldies are now – Tokens ditto
All time greatest hits – Tokens
Best of B103 – Long Island’s Oldies
Child’s Celebration of Song
….twelve Weavers/Seeger albums
...at least two more Kingston Trio albums…
Roots of British Rock
Mondo Exotica (96)
Western Wind Vocal Ensemble (94)
Roger Whittaker Live!
Very Best of New Christy Minstrels
Rock’n’roll reunion, class of 62.
Nutter Mayf – on Going Skinny Dippin’.
Source: comprehensive Google search, incidental, press cuts
Manu Dibango, Le Lion Est Mort Ce Soir, on waAfrika l994 (All music too)
Lion King movie soundtrack, later pressings – according to Weiss
Pow Wow, Le Lion Est Mort Cesoir, # 1 in France l993
Title unknown, number three Japan 1995 – according to Weiss, in US press interview
They Might Be Giants
Phish (bootlegs only?)
Jimmy Dorsey (Live at the Edgewater, re-release late nineties.)
Woody Herman (?)
Lebo M – Rhythm of the Pridelands – 1995 - African music by Lion King arranger.
New SA version, 1999, heard on radio, artist unknown??? Could be…
Bayete, according to Linda’s daughters.
Tulasiza ladies’ choir .
West India Company – 1989 EG Records
REM – flipside of Sidewinder single.
Neil Diamond??????? Any takers?
Toucans – see web download.
Sandra Bernhardt??? Very obscure recording.
The Peter Pan Chorus – see www.songfile.com
Rapper Snow, sampled Lion in Mash up da nation, a track on his l997 album Justuss.
Easy Walkers Imbube -- per Prof Erlmann
Wilder Brothers l955 -- ditto
Stylistics 1978 -- ditto
Lion King the Musical – Japanese cast recording.
Source: BMI.com database
A Child´s Celebration Of Song 2 Ladysmith Black Mambazo
Robert John • Greatest Hits • Lion Sleeps Tonight (new version) , 1992
The Lion King: Return To Pride Rock • Lion Sleeps Tonight - Lebo M , 1998
Your Favorite Songs • Lion Sleeps Tonight - Robert Johns
WODS-FM´s 10th Anniversary: Best...60s • The Tokens
WOGL-FM´s 10th Anniversary: Best...60s The Tokens
30 Big Hits Of The Airwaves, Vol. 3 • The Tokens $13.57
Capital Lounge Series, l999 compilation (Wimoweh)
Your Hit Parade – The Fifties Pop Revival. (Wimoweh) Ditto
HARP – Seeger/Arlo Guthrie collaboration
Panharmonics 1991 (Screen ventures)
Best of the Best Classics Vol 1
Your Favorite Songs (91)
Dave Newman (UK minor hit)
Spanish version, lyrics by H. Richmond under alias, recorded l965.
Jungle Rumble Band – minor UK hit, heavily promoted, 2000.
NSYNC – Scandanavian markets release only. See Nordisc documents.
Helmut Lotti – his monstrously big Safari album 1999.
Bamses Venner – Danish comedian, had a hit with "Vimmerswej" in 1973, returned to Top 10 in 2000, according to data from Nordisc. Title unknown.
Track on "WHO LET THE DOGS OUT" CD, which sold five to eight million worldwide in 2001/2002. (Source G. Paynter, Gallo).
One assumes there are many more covers in languages other than English, but researching these is difficult.
Additional sources of income
Each time a song is played on radio, anywhere in the world, a few cents accrue to the listed composer.
US-based Val Pak and 106.9 FM publish an annual Top 500 Oldies list, " determined by listeners who respond both online and to an annual mailing of over 100,000 Val Pak mailers." The Tokens 1961 recording of Lion Sleeps Tonight slotted in at number 7 in l998. If this is accurate, performance royalties must be huge.
For comparison purposes: BMI gives out "Million-Air" awards to songs that have been played a million times, equalling 57 years of continuous airplay. Lion is an ASCAP song so it’s not rated. But let’s look at the songs immediately above and below it on the l998 Val Pak Oldies hit parade. Dock of the Bay, at number six, has racked up 6 million airplays. When a Man loves a woman has four million. So let’s allocate Lion a theoretical five. Result: around 285 years of airplay in US alone.
Movie licenses fetch $25,000 to $100,000 in US, depending. Additional income in form of performance royalties for theatrical screenings outside USA – potentially huge, given Lion King and Ace Ventura’s popularity. Beyond that, every TV showing in every market on the planet would trigger additional performance royalties.
Mbube – Ladysmith Black Mambazo recorded a version for Coming to America, the 1988 Eddie Murphy vehicle. Mbube also used in Cry the Beloved Country, the mid-nineties remake, starring Richard Harris.
Wimoweh used in Dogfight starring River Phoenix. 1991
Lion Sleeps Tonight used in…
Private Parts (biggish hit – Howard Stern) 1997
Dead Calm 1989
Ace Ventura Pet Detective (huge hit plus soundtrack) 1994
That Night 1992
Lion King (huge hit) 1994
29 th Street, 1991 Brain Donors
Bandit – 2002 Bruce Willis vehicle, according to Jay Savage.
Movie producers usually secure video rights as part of the initial licensing deal. If US copyright holders were able to retain video rights, however, they might later have made a killing in video royalties, especially on Lion King, with every copy made triggering mechanical royalty payments. (Lion King video reportedly sold 40 million.)
Related to use of a song for advertising purposes, or as incidental music in TV production.
Friends (used twice, according to Phil Margo)
Burke’s Law (ditto)
Discovery Channel’s Animal Planet – theme for kid TV series, ongoing.
What a time that was – Prime-time CBS documentary on Weavers, 1989. Shown worldwide.
Do it a-Capella – Spike Lee documentary PBS.
Theatrical release some markets Is it art? – SABC TV insert, l999
The Lion’s Trail – Award-winning documentary by Francois Verster, 2003.
Commercials (must be many more)
Burger King national US with Lion King tie-in (Weiss)
Embassy Suites hotels US
Sun City SA – TV promo theme, early nineties. Fee was about 150k dollars.
All-Africa Games promo SA 1999.
Brit Lions Rugby promo, UK. Used repeatedly, according to Brit. Diplomat.
"Goodyear sync adv" – according to Gallo publishing statement.
Jungle.Com - Lion Sleeps Tonight is the theme song of "Britain’s largest retail website."
As of March 2000, it was being used in radio ads on 270 stations.
SPOOR & FISHER