Back in the 1920’s a black South African man named Solomon Linda wrote a song. You know it. Everyone knows it. But you probably don’t know it by the name Linda gave it. He called it Mbube, Zulu for “The Lion” and the version he recorded with his band the Evening Birds in 1939 went like this…
Recognise it now?
Mbube went through a variety of mutations. America folk singer Pete Seeger turned it into song called Wimoweh and recorded it in 1952 with the Weavers. Popular and covered by many artists throughout the 50’s it was rewritten by one George David Weiss (co-writer of Elvis’s I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You) who added some mediocre lyrics about lions, retitled it, and gave it to Doo-Wop group the Tokens who released it as a B-Side in 1962.
You can probably guess the rest. The Lion Sleeps Tonight went on to become one of the most recorded songs in human history.
But what of Solomon Linda? He was paid a token fee of about 87 cents for the recording back in 1939. That was it. The success of the record made him a star in South Africa, but when he died in 1962 he had only $22 to his name, and his widow couldn’t even afford a gravestone for him.
Happily, things eventually worked out alright. In 2004 his family sued Disney – who were making millions from featuring the song in The Lion King – and a settlement was reached wherein the Linda family is now receiving the royalties they deserve. The lawsuit and settlement were prompted in no small part by the remarkable and evocative article In the Jungle by Rian Malan, published in Rolling Stone in 2000 and well worth a read if you’ve got an hour or so to spare.
My second track this week is for another descendant of Solomon Linda’s tune. Composed by German band leader Bert Kaempfert in 1962 (that year keeps coming up…) it’s titled A Swingin’ Safari and despite it’s campy 1950s-ness it has a place in my heart because my dad used to play it when I was a kid. So, enjoy!