Who wrote ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’? A Netflix film seeks answers, and closure
As a kid growing up in South Africa, Rian Malan vividly remembers his mother happily singing an infectious melody as she went about her day at home. That song had been popularized half a world away by New York folk group the Weavers in the early 1950s, and again a decade later in a reworking by doo-wop group the Tokens, which in 1961 turned it into the pop hit known around the world as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”
It wasn’t until adulthood, however, after Malan became a music journalist, that he discovered that the song had been born in his own backyard, created in 1939 by South African Zulu musician Solomon Linda, a name virtually unknown to Malan, his mother or the millions who’ve ever fallen under the spell of “Wimoweh” or “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”
For the record:
7:05 p.m. May 14, 2019An earlier edition of this post identified AbiIene Music as the publisher of both “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and “Wimoweh.” Abilene administers publishing only for “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”
“In retrospect,” Malan, 64, said last week, “it seems amazing that I, a self-styled leftist and hipster, should have been so totally ignorant about Linda and the story behind ‘Lion Sleeps Tonight.’
“You could blame apartheid, I guess. But then again, I read a New York Times story the other day describing ‘Irene Goodnight’ as a Weavers’ composition, and they learned that tune off [folk-blues musician] Lead Belly. So maybe Linda also deserves a shot at resurrection.”
Linda is given that shot in “The Lion’s Share,” premiering Friday as part of the new “ReMastered” series of music documentaries on Netflix. This episode explores the twisting, turning history of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and its legacy for its creator, who died in 1962, and his heirs, who’ve lived most of their lives in poverty.
The song has had a remarkable lifespan thanks to subsequent versions that have kept it in listeners’ ears for more than half a century. It’s been recorded by musicians as disparate as the Kingston Trio, Robert John, Tight Fit, Miriam Makeba, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, R.E.M., Chet Atkins, Jimmy Dorsey and Kool & the Gang.
It also grabbed the spotlight in the Walt Disney Co.’s 1994 animated mega hit “The Lion King,” and in turn the spin-off Broadway musical and, very soon, the new live-action reboot film, for which “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” pops up in the trailer.
The song, as the “Lion’s Share” documentary outlines, dates to 1939, and Linda, whose group the Evening Birds made the recording that found its way across the Atlantic and into the hands of folk music revivalists Pete Seeger and the Weavers, and then, with additional lyrics written by George David Weiss, to the Tokens.
That saga is the crux of the new film, directed by Sam Cullman and centering heavily on the back story unearthed by Malan, who, along with Linda and his daughters, are focal points of the documentary.
“I definitely experienced a bit of whiplash a number of times during production,” Cullman said by phone from Brooklyn. “As we were filming and uncovering the story, we had to follow the truth of what we were uncovering, and not where our hearts were.”
The simplistic version of the story would be that Linda was cheated out of his rightful songwriting royalties by scheming, heartless music business sharps. He originated the song “Mbube,” the Zulu word for “lion,” and during one of three attempts at the song in a South African recording studio, spontaneously spun out the soaring and bewitching falsetto melody that has defined every subsequent version of his song.
“The Lion Sleeps Tonight” wound up generating millions of dollars over the decades, little of which ever reached Linda’s family. It’s a classic theme repeated countless times in the U.S. for black blues, R&B and soul musicians who often unknowingly signed away lucrative rights to their music.
The story gets richer through the intervention of Malan, who explored its history in an extensive piece for Rolling Stone in 2000, writing: “This one’s for Solomon Linda….a Zulu who wrote a melody that earned untold millions for white men but died so poor that his widow couldn’t afford a stone for his grave.”
“I’ve been in the music publishing business for decades,” said Randy Poe, president of Leiber & Stoller Music Publishing, which at one point administered copyrights for more than 50,000 songs. “I’ve written two books on the subject. The saga of ‘Mbube’ and ’The Lion Sleeps Tonight’ is one of the most complicated and convoluted music publishing-songwriting stories ever.”
“Lion’s Share” opens with fascinating biographical background on Malan, whose granduncle, D.F. Malan, was the prime minister of South Africa who oversaw the creation of the government’s apartheid policies. In the film, Rian Malan says family history was a source of considerable guilt and shame for him growing up and a big part of his motivation to find a way to do something positive for the black community.
The trouble with Linda’s song begins with the fact that it initially was not copyrighted.
Only later, after the Weavers’ “Wimoweh” started up the charts in the U.S. in 1952, did an unwitting Linda sign publishing rights over to a South African company, Gallo Music, which subsequently negotiated licensing rights for “Wimoweh” and “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” because both were rooted in “Mbube.”
The Tokens’ version, which has been streamed more than 48 million times on Spotify, is still credited only to New York songwriter Weiss, who came up with the “In the jungle, the mighty jungle” lyrics, and RCA Records producers Luigi Creatore and Hugo Peretti, who hired Weiss to help craft the pop reworking of “Wimoweh.” (Weiss died in 2010.) The copyright for “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” belongs to Weiss’ publishing company Abilene Music, now part of the Concord Music Group.
In 2004, a decade after “The Lion King” movie came out, Linda’s family went to court against Disney, which initially tried to use its considerable muscle to quash the suit. With Malan’s help, family members found a copyright law expert who helped them win an early ruling, prompting the entertainment giant and Abilene Music to propose a settlement, terms of which were never publicized as part of the deal.
“I was pitched the story and the original context was, ‘Here’s this horrible thing that happened and here’s this happy ending,’” Cullman said, referring to the settlement. Something about that simplistic narrative didn’t feel right. “What really jumped out for me was that Rian was no longer in touch with the family and there had been this 10-year gap after the settlement.”
Indeed, the final third of the film reunites Malan with Linda’s three surviving children — Elizabeth, Delphi and Fildah Ntsele — in 2018. Viewers learn that although they did receive significant money in the decade after the Disney lawsuit — around $250,000 per daughter — that represented only a fraction of the money “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and “Wimoweh” have generated over more than half a century. (Malan’s Rolling Stone piece in 2000 estimated that “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” might have generated royalties of $15 million at that time from its multiple recorded versions, film, theater and TV uses, although such figures are extremely difficult to document.)
“A deal is a deal, and this one is done,” said Malan, who also is bound by nondisclosure terms of the Disney settlement. According to Malan, the settlement bars the Linda family from making further claims against Abilene and the three Americans credited as composers of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”
“It is entirely legal,” he added. “But it is not fair. I find myself hoping that [the Linda family’s story] catches the eye of certain Americans, who might just say, ‘God, that’s just not right — let’s give Linda’s family a piece of the action.’”
Regardless of the business side of the tale, Malan still marvels at the improbability of it all.
“A Zulu on the far side of the planet writes a 13-note melody that flies off and takes root in the brain of a radical American folksinger who turns it into ‘Wimoweh,’ which in turn gives birth to ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight,’ which goes through about 12 hit cycles over the next 60 years,” he said. “I love that part of the story, the improbable cultural transfers and misunderstandings, the strange musical mutations, the rich mix of characters…. But that’s a story about music. The parallel story about money has been less inspiring.
“I like to think that the various tellers of Linda’s story have at least slightly altered the verdict of history. Whenever ‘Lion Sleeps Tonight’ comes up on the radio here in South Africa, Solomon Linda’s name will be mentioned.
“It’s not great but it’s something.”
‘ReMastered: The Lion’s Share‘
When: Any time, starting Friday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)
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