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Mark Steyn

Topical Take

The Lion Sleeps Tonight

This column comes by way of request from several readers, ever since the demise of Cecil the Lion hit the front pages. Here is the story of the biggest hit ever to come out of Africa - and why its author never reaped the benefits:

In the jungle, the mighty jungle
The Lion Sleeps Tonight...

A third of a century ago, "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" got to Number One in Britain for Tight Fit. Can't quite place Tight Fit? It sounds like a vaguely parodic name for a boy band, but in fact they were a coed combo - one boy, two girls, a male model and two female dancers, hired as a photogenic front after the record had already been made. The girls had failed to make the cut at an audition for the more successfully contrived group, Bucks Fizz, and were shortly booted out of Tight Fit, too. But for a few weeks in 1982 on the BBC's "Top Of The Pops" they did well enough moving about in synchronized "Wimowehs" while the male model mouthed to a vocal track actually sung by a guy from the band City Boy.

The bottom inevitably drops out of the Tight Fits of the music biz, but "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" roars on regardless. It's one of the biggest songs ever about a lion, apart from the Oscar-winning "Born Free" and the Eagles' "You can't hide those lion eyes". "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" has been a hit in every medium - on movie screens all over the world, in Disney's The Lion King, and then on Broadway, in the stage version. Before Tight Fit, it was a Billboard Number Three for Robert John in the Seventies, a Number One for the Tokens in the Sixties; under the title "Wimoweh", it was a hit for the Weavers in the Fifties, and in the Forties, as "Mbube"... Ah, but that's where the story gets murkier.

Who wrote those words about the mighty jungle? It was a guy called George Weiss, a reliable man about Manhattan in the Fifties and Sixties. He wrote the lyrics for Mister Wonderful on Broadway, and the title song did very nicely for Peggy Lee and "Too Close For Comfort" did very nicely for Sammy Davis Jr, Eartha Kitt, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Steve and Eydie, and pretty much everybody else. Later he did very nicely by Louis Armstrong with "What A Wonderful World". And with the hot music-biz producers Hugo Peretti and Luigi Creatore he adapted "Can't Help Falling In Love" from the old chanson "Plaisir d'Amour" and gave Elvis, Andy Williams and the Stylistics a boffo smash.

That was the brief for "The Lion Sleeps Tonight". In 1961, the Tokens, a group from Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, turned up to audition for Hugo and Luigi at RCA and sang "Wimoweh", a beloved staple of the Weavers, the Kingston Trio and other luminaries of the folk boom. And it was fine, but Hugo and Luigi were in the market for something a little less folkie and turned to their pal George Weiss to see if he'd be interested in turning it into a more or less regular pop song. Weiss didn't much care for the guys a-hootin' an' a-hollerin' "A-wimoweh a-wimoweh" bar after bar like a bunch of buttondown Brooklynite tribesmen, but an eight-bar instrumental phrase at the end of all the zeudo-Zulu chanting tickled his fancy. So he moved it up and made it the melodic center of the song and then figured out what the lyric ought to be about. The Tokens had mentioned to Huge and Luge (as they called their pop biz honchos) that the South African consulate had told them the the song was something to do with a lion. Okay, thought Weiss. So it's a song about a lion. What's the lion doing? Not much:

In the jungle, the mighty jungle
The Lion Sleeps Tonight...

The lyric's a masterful way of taking what's really little more than a wonderfully catchy hook and using it to hint at a whole world. After that first phrase, Weiss mulled it over and for the next couplet added one new adjective:

In the jungle, the quiet jungle
The Lion Sleeps Tonight...

Okay, now what? Well, who else is in the neighborhood?

Near the village, the peaceful village
The Lion Sleeps Tonight...

And how about we reprise the hit adjective from the previous verselet?

Near the village, the quiet village
The Lion Sleeps Tonight...

And then Weiss hints at just a wee bit of potential drama:

Hush, my darling, don't fear, my darling
The Lion Sleeps Tonight...

And that's pretty much it. Sixty-two words, or (excluding repetitions) 16 words. I can't improve on the brilliant analysis by Ilonka David-Biluska, who was briefly a Continental vedette in the Sixties and billed as "The Voice of South Africa", despite her Hungarian name. Invited by EMI in Amsterdam to sing the Dutch version of the song, Ilonka wasn't impressed:

I looked at the lyrics and my heart sank. Apart from a prodigious number of 'Wimowehs', there were only three lines. I shall paraphrase: a lion is sleeping in a mighty but quiet jungle, near a peaceful and quiet village and a darling, presumably somewhere in a hut in the village, is told to hush and not to fear because the lion is asleep tonight. The Dutch translation, according to the sheet music (which was later published with my photograph on the cover) left out the fearful darling and noted merely that the jungle was big, the village small and the night dark. Oh yes, the lion was still asleep.

I refused to sing it.

Back in New York, the Tokens did as they were told but didn't care for it. "We were embarrassed," said Phil Margo, "and tried to convince Hugo and Luigi not to release it. They said it would be a big record and it was going out." It had an orchestra, a trio of Tokens doing the wimoweh-ing, Jay Siegal's falsetto, an opera singer with a spare half-hour who came in and did a bit of contrapuntal ululating. The first time the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson heard it he had to pull off the road he was so overawed. Carole King declared the record a bona fide "motherf---er". It hit Number One at Christmas 1961. Ilonka David-Biluska's version, "De Leeuw Slaapt Vannacht", reached Number One in the Netherlands. Henri Salvador's "Le lion est mort ce soir" was Number One in France. Pace Phil Margo and Ilonka, it is, in fact, very hard not to make a ton of dough from "The Lion Sleeps Tonight".

Unless, that is, you're a fellow called Solomon Linda. Those words about "the jungle, the mighty jungle" sit so perfectly and indivisibly on those notes they sound like they've belonged to each other for all time. We know the lyric is George Weiss', but where did the tune come from?

Well, it's obvious, isn't it? It was a "Zulu chant" - ie, "traditional - ie, "anonymous" - ie, out of copyright. Which meant someone else could put it back in copyright. In the Fifties and early Sixties, public demand for "authentic" "traditional" music created a huge windfall for savvy Tin Pan Alleymen. You take some half-forgotten folk dirge, tweak it here and there, and then copyright your version as a full-blown composition in its own right. Everyone was doing it: in the Fifties, "Frankie And Johnny", "Auld Lang Syne", "Greensleeves" and a bunch of other things that had been around forever were being copyrighted as brand new songs. Huge and Luge had done it with "Can't Help Falling In Love", né "Plaisir d'Amour". So the first thing they wondered, when the Tokens showed up and began doing their Zulu impressions, was where did this "Wimoweh" thing come from anyway? They looked at the song credits: "Paul Campbell" and "Albert Stanton".

Bingo! There was no such "Paul" and no such "Albert". Mr "Campbell" was the name Pete Seeger and the Weavers put on the sheet music when they'd recorded a folk tune and decided they'd like to cut themselves a piece of the songwriting action. And Mr "Stanton" was the name Al Brackman at the Richmond publishing house put on the music when he wanted to do the same for his bank account. Messrs "Campbell" and "Stanton" thus became successful mid-20th century songwriters who apparently hadn't written anything since the mid-19th century. So the minute Huge and Luge saw those names on "Wimoweh" they knew it was a plum just ripe for a second picking. If it ever came to court, Huge, Luge and George Weiss' defense would be yes, they'd plagiarized it not from Campbell & Stanton but from the same 19th century Zulu natives Campbell & Stanton had plagiarized it from. And, because Pete Seeger, the Weavers and the Richmond organization well understood that, they never did bring it to court.

The trouble was, whether you call it "Wimoweh" or "The Lion Sleeps Tonight", the tune that sits under those words wasn't a traditional Zulu work chant. It was the melodic inspiration of one man - a man who, unlike "Paul Campbell" and "Albert Stanton", actually existed. And we can date the point of creation very precisely, to the third take on a recording session at Eric Gallo's studio in Johannesburg 75 years ago. As the South African writer Rian Malan described it:

Once upon a time, a long time ago, a small miracle took place in the brain of a man named Solomon Linda. It was 1939, and he was standing in front of a microphone in the only recording studio in black Africa when it happened. He hadn't composed the melody or written it down or anything. He just opened his mouth and out it came, a haunting skein of fifteen notes that flowed down the wires and into a trembling stylus that cut tiny grooves into a spinning block of bees wax, which was taken to England and turned into a record that became a very big hit in that part of Africa.

Indeed. They had to ship a lot of 78s from London to Jo'burg: it was the first African record to sell over 100,000 copies. "Mbube", as they called it, means "the lion", and Solomon Linda had been inspired by a childhood memory from his days herding cattle in the Zulu heartland. "The lion was going round and round, and the lion was happy," said his daughter Elisabeth. "But my father was not happy. He had been staying there since morning and he was hungry."

In the Thirties, many young men from the rural hinterland of Natal came to Johannesburg, and wound up washing dishes or working factory shifts and living in the black shanty towns. Some of them sang in a capella groups. But few made the splash Solomon Linda and the Evening Birds did: very snazzy in trilbies, pinstripes and two-tone shoes, with harmonies to match, and Solly's falsetto soaring above it all. Supervised by Eric Gallo and his sidekick Griffiths Motsieloa (South Africa's first black record producer), "Mbube" was a three-chord chant with minimal lyrics - "mbube" and "zimba", which boils down to "Lion! Stop!" As Rian Malan tells it:

The first take was a dud, as was the second. Exasperated, Motsieloa looked into the corridor, dragooned a pianist, guitarist and banjo player, and tried again.

The third take almost collapsed at the outset as the unrehearsed musicians dithered and fished for the key, but once they started cooking, the song was glory bound. 'Mbube' wasn't the most remarkable tune, but there was something terribly compelling about the underlying chant, a dense meshing of low male voices above which Solomon yodelled and howled for two exhilarating minutes, occasionally making it up as he went along. The third take was the great one, but it achieved immortality only in its dying seconds, when Solly took a deep breath, opened his mouth and improvised the melody that the world now associates with these words: 'In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight..'

In South Africa, it was huge. "Mbube" became not just the name of a hit record but of an entire vocal style - a high-voiced lead over four-part bass-heavy harmony. That, in turn, evolved into "isicathamiya", a smoother vocal style that descended to Ladysmith Black Mambazo and others, taking its cue from the injunction "Cothoza, bafana" - or "tread carefully, boys". That's to say, Zulu stomping is fine in the bush, but when you're singing in dancehalls and restaurants in you've got to be a little more choreographically restrained, if only for the sake of the floorboards.

"Tread carefully, boys" is good advice for anyone in the music business. A few years after Solomon Linda and the Evening Birds made their hit record, it came to the notice of Pete Seeger, on the prowl for yet more "authentic" "traditional" "vernacular" "folk music" for the Weavers to make a killing with. He misheard "Mbube" and transcribed it as "Wimoweh". That's a great insight into the "authenticity" of the folk boom: the most famous Zulu word on the planet was invented by a New York socialist in 1951. Still, Seeger was chanting all the way to the bank. "Wimoweh" is a tune that works in any form - as big band (Jimmy Dorsey), folk-rock (Nanci Griffith), country (Glen Campbell), Euro-easy listening (Bert Kaempfert), kiddie-pop (*NSync), reggae (Eek-A-Mouse) military march (the New Zealand Army Band), exotica (Yma Sumac), Yiddish (Lipa Schmeltzer), football singalong (the official theme of the 1986 England World Cup Squad). And that's before we get to REM and They Might Be Giants and Baha Men, and, of course, The Lion King. Solomon Linda's song has penetrated every corner of the globe. It's the most famous tune ever to have come out of Africa.

He and his family must be multi-multi-millionaires, right? Not exactly. Linda sold it to the Gallo record company for ten shillings: that would be about 87 cents. Tread carefully, boy. In 1962, just as "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" was reaching Number One around the world, he died of kidney disease in Soweto, on the edge of Johannesburg, in a concrete hovel with a couple of bedrooms with dirt floors covered in cow dung. He left his widow the equivalent of $22 in the bank and unable even to afford a headstone for his grave. For the last decade he'd swept floors and made the tea at the packing house of the Gallo company. His family lived on a diet of maize porridge - "pap" - and chicken feet.

After Rian Malan drew attention to the plight of Solomon Linda's heirs, a few music critics took the usual line on the subject. As Thomas R Gruning writes in Millennium Folk: American Folk Music Since The Sixties:

Beyond the economic implications of 'Mbube/Wimoweh', the musical development of the song in its different versions illustrates a highly charged symbolic field in which the violence done to Linda's original piece further reinscribes contested and inequitable power relations between the West and Africa. That is, the issue shifts from conventional notions of cultural imperialism to a more convoluted and complicated process in which 'plundering and counterfeiting of black culture' denies the racial authenticities claimed by...

Zzzzzzz. That argument works fine with the likes of Hugo and Luigi and George Weiss. They're Tin Pan Alley professionals, assignment men. Give Weiss a Broadway score, an Elvis movie theme, and a Zulu chant, and it's all the same: that week's job. Who knows what "authenticity" means to such a man? But the only reason the showbiz types were able to "reinscribe" the song in the first place is because of Pete Seeger and the other leftie folkies. The child of wealthy New York radicals, Seeger has always been avowedly anti-capitalist - supposedly. Yet his publisher had a deal with Gallo Music: they snaffled up the rights to "Mbube" cheap and in return sub-licensed to Gallo the South African and Rhodesian rights to "Wimoweh". And Seeger knew Solomon Linda was the composer. Years later he would plead that back in the Fifties he instructed his publishers to give his royalties from the song to Linda, and he was shocked, shocked to discover decades later that they hadn't in fact been doing so. But it never occurred to him, as an unworldly anti-capitalist, to check his royalty statements. It was, on his part, supposedly a sin of omission. Not everyone can plead the same accidental oversight. Having persuaded Linda to sign away his copyright four decades earlier, the relevant parties made sure to slide some forms in front of his illiterate widow in 1982 and his daughters some years later to make sure the appropriation paperwork was kept in order.

And for all Mr Gruning's huffing about "cultural imperialism" above, it was, in the end, a legacy of colonialism that ended the injustice. There are significant differences between US and British copyright law, and one of them is that the latter attempts to restrain the damage a foolish creator can do to himself. Under British Commonwealth law, the ownership in any intellectual property reverts to the author's heirs 25 years after his death regardless of what disadvantageous deals he may have signed. In the courtroom, the quiet courtroom, the lawsuit slept for decades, until Solomon Linda's daughters were apprised of this significant feature of Commonwealth copyright law, and took action. The sleeping lion also took on the Mouse - the Walt Disney corporation, whose film The Lion King had introduced the song to a new generation of children. In America, Linda's family really had no legal leg to stand on, but, faced with potentially catastrophic complications in Britain, South Africa, Australia, India and other key markets, Disney were only too keen to settle. In 2006, Solomon Linda finally received his due.

Fifteen improvised notes in 1939 powered Africa's biggest selling record, an entire genre of music, and two separate hit songs on five continents. And, even though those 15 notes and the man who wrote them were buried under all the other names that encrusted to the work, in the end they're what shine through. Listen to the Soweto Gospel Choir's recording from a couple of years ago, which somehow manages to capture all three versions of the song. Or go back to Solomon Linda and the Evening Birds' original, which still sounds pretty good. Listen to that inspiration late in take three and hear a global phenomenon being born. It took seven decades and a lawsuit, but in the village, the peaceful village, the lion sleeps tonight.

from Topical Take, August 4, 2015

 

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