Alan Lomax brought the song to the attention of Pete Seeger of the folk group The Weavers. It was on one of several records Lomax lent to Seeger. After having performed the song for at least a year in their concerts, in November, 1951, they recorded their version entitled "Wimoweh", a mishearing of the original song's chorus of 'uyimbube' (meaning "you're a lion"). Pete Seeger had made some of his own additions to the melody. The song was credited exclusively to Paul Campbell.
Pete Seeger explains in one recording, "it refers to an old legend down there, [about] their last king, who was known as Chaka The Lion. Legend says, Chaka The Lion didn't die when Europeans took over our country; he simply went to sleep, and he'll wake up some day." (See "Senzenina / Wimoweh" on Seeger's With Voices Together We Sing (Live).)
It was published by Folkways. Their 1952 version, arranged by Gordon Jenkins, became a top-twenty hit in the U.S., and their live 1957 recording turned it into a folk music staple. This version was covered in 1959 by The Kingston Trio.
New lyrics to the song were written by George Weiss, Luigi Creatore, and Hugo Peretti, based very loosely upon the meaning of the original song. The Tokens' 1961 cover of this version rose to number one on the Billboard Hot 100 and still receives fairly frequent replay on many American oldies radio stations. In the UK, an up-tempo rendering of this version was a top-ten hit for Karl Denver and his Trio. In 1971, Robert John also recorded this version, and it reached #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1972. Since then, "Wimoweh" / "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" has remained popular and frequently covered.
Pete Seeger later said in the book A Lion's Trail, "The big mistake I made was not making sure that my publisher signed a regular songwriters’ contract with Linda. My publisher simply sent Linda some money and copyrighted The Weavers’ arrangement here and sent The Weavers some money." Pete Seeger's publisher was The Richmond Organization (TRO, which also goes by a number of other names).
In 2000, South African journalist Rian Malan wrote a feature article for Rolling Stone magazine, highlighting Linda's story and estimating that the song had earned U.S. $15 million for its use in the movie The Lion King alone; this prompted the South African documentary "A Lion's Trail" by François Verster that documented the song's history. Screened by PBS, in September 2006, the documentary won an Emmy Award.
In July 2004, the song became the subject of a lawsuit between the family of its writer Solomon Linda and Disney. The suit claimed that Disney owed $1.6 million in royalties for the use of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" in the film and stage production of The Lion King. Meanwhile, publisher of The Weavers' "Wimoweh", TRO/Folkways, began to pay $3000 annually to Linda's heirs.
In February 2006, Linda's heirs reached a legal settlement for an undisclosed amount with Abilene Music, who held the worldwide rights and had licensed the song to Disney. This settlement applies to worldwide rights, not just South Africa, since 1987.
Heirs win royalty rights to 'Lion Sleeps Tonight': Case based on 1911 British law could aid musicians worldwide
Mar 23, 2006; JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Three poor South African women, whose father wrote "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," have won a six-year...