"The Lion Sleeps Tonight" began as a 1939 African popular music hit "Mbube" that, in modified versions, also became a hit in the US and UK.
for "lion") was first recorded by its writer, Solomon Linda
, and his group, The Evening Birds
, in 1939
. Gallo Record Company
paid Linda a single fee for the recording and no royalties. "Mbube" became a hit throughout South Africa
and sold about 100,000 copies during the 1940s. The song became so popular that Mbube lent its name to a style
of African a cappella
music, though the style has since been mostly replaced by isicathamiya
(a softer version).
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.
Selected list of recorded versions
The Lion Sleeps Tonight
References to the song in the media
- In early 2006, a clip of the digitally animated hippo & dog duo Pat & Stanley singing "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" circulated widely around the Internet.
- In 1981, German NDW band "Profil" did a mostly instrumental German version of "Wimoweh" called "Immer Mehr" (= "Ever More") as the B-side of their hit single "Berühren".
- In the sitcom Friends, Ross Geller's monkey, Marcel, is shown to have a particular liking for the song in the episode "The One with all the Poker". In fact, in a later episode, "The One After the Superbowl, Part Two", another character in the show, Joey Tribbiani, sings most of the song along with the rest of the gang to help the monkey remember Ross.
- In an early college film by Sam Raimi entitled Cleveland Smith: Waders of the Lost Park, Bruce Campbell plays a parody of Indiana Jones. Falling from the sky, he lands in a cannibal cookpot. As they boil him, the blackface "natives" dance around singing "Oweemboay-oweemboay-oweemboay" in an obvious send-up of the song.
- The Portuguese comedy show Gato Fedorento featured the song in one of his sketches, "El Chato", where El Chato (Spanish for The Annoying, played by Zé Diogo Quintela), a bull annoyer, sings the song very loud to annoy a bull.
- The song features on the soundtrack of the movie Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, right before he makes out with his girlfriend.
- The song was featured in the movie The Sandlot.
- Timon and Pumbaa briefly sang the Tokens' version of the song in the Disney film The Lion King. A year later they would sing the complete song in a musical sketch from their TV series, The Lion King's Timon and Pumbaa, with Simba making a cameo at the end.
- Dave Chappelle sang the song (while dressed as Nelson Mandela) during a talk show spoof in the second season of Chappelle's Show.
- The song has been referenced in three episodes of The Simpsons: "Insane Clown Poppy", "Treehouse of Horror XIII" and "My Big Fat Geek Wedding".
- In Rise of the Cybermen, an episode of Doctor Who, the song is played by a character to drown out the sound of people screaming.
- The song was featured in the movie No Reservations.
- A parody called "My Husband Sleeps Tonight" is featured in the Off-Broadway show Menopause the Musical.
- Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman sang the song in the movie The Bucket List when their characters were in the jungle.
- The Tracy Ullman Show featured a sketch in which a sad-looking woman (Ullman) encourages an entire crowded bus stop full of people to join her in singing "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" to distract them as she and an accomplice pick their pockets.