By Dennis McLellan, Los Angeles Times
August 26, 2010
George David Weiss, a prolific songwriter who co-wrote "Can't Help Falling in Love," "What a Wonderful World," "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" and many other pop hits, has died. He was 89.
Weiss, a former longtime president of the Songwriters Guild of America, died Monday of natural causes at his home in Oldwick, N.J., the Associated Press reported.
During his heyday in the 1940s, '50s and '60s, Weiss co-wrote songs that were recorded by singers such as Frank Sinatra ("Oh! What It Seemed to Be"), Perry Como ("Surrender"), Patti Page ("Confess"), Kay Starr ("Wheel of Fortune"), Ella Fitzgerald ("Lullaby of Birdland") and Nat "King" Cole ("That Sunday, That Summer").
"Can't Help Falling in Love," with words and music by Weiss, Hugo Peretti and Luigi Creatore, was written for the 1961 Elvis Presley movie "Blue Hawaii."
When new songs were being sought for the film, Weiss recalled in a 1992 interview with Daily Variety, Presley's publishers "passed out scripts to 15 to 20 songwriters and said, 'If you get into the picture, good; if you don't, too damn bad.'
"When the publishers heard 'Can't Help Falling in Love,' there was a 20-second silence before one of them said, slowly, 'That's nice, but we want another 'Hound Dog.' "
"Can't Help Falling in Love" became a big hit for Presley, who regularly sang the ballad in his later stage shows.
Weiss, Peretti and Creatore also shared credit on the 1961 song "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," which became a No. 1 hit for the Tokens.
The song was based on a 1939 South African hit called "Mbube" (Zulu for "lion") by Solomon Linda and performed by his group. In 1952, the American folk group the Weavers released an adapted version of the song titled "Wimoweh."
"I did some research and found out that the chant was connected to the lion," Weiss told the Santa Fe New Mexican in 1995. "So I began to think and I came up with the notion that the darn lion was sleeping tonight and nobody had to worry. And I incorporated the chant into the song and wrote some melodies and counter-melodies."
Weiss teamed with Bob Thiele to write "What a Wonderful World," which was recorded by Louis Armstrong in 1967 and later featured in the 1987 Robin Williams movie "Good Morning, Vietnam."
Weiss also collaborated on three Broadway musicals, including the 1956 hit "Mr. Wonderful" (with Jerry Bock and Larry Holofcener), which starred Sammy Davis Jr. and featured the title song and "Too Close for Comfort."
Weiss, who was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1984, served as president of the Songwriters Guild of America from 1982 to 2000.
"He was a very strong advocate for songwriters' rights," said Rick Carnes, the current president of the Songwriters Guild, adding that Weiss testified before Congress a number of times on copyright issues.
Of Weiss' 18 years in the voluntary position of president of the guild, Carnes said: "He gave a large portion of his career back to songwriters."
And, Carnes said, "he had a remarkable career."
"He put words to jazz standards and worked on several Broadway productions, as well as pop and even rock 'n' roll," Carnes said. "Who had the breadth that he did? And it's interesting that it spans so many genres, and he seemed to be able to adapt, fit in and then excel in each one of these things."
Weiss, who was born April 9, 1921, in New York City, played saxophone early on in a small band that performed in the Catskills. Although he later said he always loved music, his mother had other ideas.
In a 1995 interview with the Miami Herald, Weiss said that attempting to live out his mother's dream that he become a lawyer led him to suffer what the newspaper characterized as a "nervous collapse."
The matter was finally settled when his mother took him to a doctor, who said: "Mrs. Weiss, what would you rather have? A live bum of a musician or a dead lawyer?"
Weiss, who earned a degree in music theory from the Juilliard School, served as an Army bandleader during World War II. He wrote arrangements for Stan Kenton's band and others before launching his songwriting career, which included a long, early collaboration with Bennie Benjamin.
Weiss' survivors, according to the New York Times, include Claire, his third wife; two sons, Barry and Jeffrey, and a daughter, Peggy Self, from his first marriage; a son, Robert, from his second marriage; his sister, Harriet Harbus; and eight grandchildren.
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