Soloman Linda and “Mbube”
I was reading up a little on the New York City composers (and cousins) Hugo Peretti and Luigi Creatore, wondering how these two came to having their very own logo to display during their time with RCA Victor Records, where they migrated to after their stint as part owners at Roulette Records, where they served as production men and composers.
And so naturally I came across notations of their musical endeavors, one being producing the smash hit record by RCA Victor group, The Tokens – “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” (#1 for three weeks in 1961/1962).
I was looking at the 45 – RCA catalog number 47-7954 – And there is that “A Hugo & Luigi Production” logo, and the composing credits of “Weiss, Peretti and Creatore”. All seemed fine and dandy. Next I looked up the song’s chart history in Joel Whitburn’s book “Top Pop Singles 1955 – 2002” (a little outdated but good enough for me).
That’s where things a bit of a turn. I noticed the notation in Whitburn’s book that song writing credits for “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” were given to a certain Soloman Linda” – not Weiss and company. So what the heck?
Soloman Linda was born in 1909 in South Africa near the village of Pomeroy. Soloman was of the Zulu tribe. He became musically involved at an early age and often performed with friends a local gatherings, weddings and the like. Skipping ahead, Soloman made his way to the city of Johannesburg at the age of 21 to seek employment.
He continued on with his music while in Johannesburg forming his own group called “The Evening Birds”. This was a short-lived project which dissolved in less that two years. Soloman put a new lineup – all friends which also had moved into Johannesburg from their home village of Pomeroy. In 1939, Soloman found employment with a South African record label, Gallo Record Company, working as a record packager.
Soloman managed to get some studio recording time at Gallo, doing several sessions. It was during one of these that Soloman and friends improvised a tune with minimal lyrics which they would title “Mbube” which translates to “Lion”.
On the first couple of takes, the Evening Birds rendered the song with chants and tonal harmonies – completely spontaneous – what would be termed “call and response”.
But then, on a third take, Soloman suddenly improvised a string of lyrics complete with melody – which would come to be known to us as the opening line to a song for the ages, which would be translated later to “In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight”.
The song took off in South Africa selling tens of thousands of copies over the next decade in that country as well as among the black population of Great Britain. The Evening Birds would go their separate ways in 1948. He continued to compose and invent and expand on vocal styles – one of which an impressionable falsetto which he would become associated with.
Pete and Company
Now we jump ahead to the year 1950 in another continent far away, the United States in North America. U.S. folk singer Alan Lomax came across a copy of “Mbube” and introduced the song to Pete Seeger – then a member of the folk group “The Weavers”. Seeger re titled the song calling it “Wimoweh” which is strictly a phonetic attempt at the original song’s repeated chant of “uyembube” – a Zulu language word which wasn’t clear to Seeger and so the substitute word.
The Weavers cut the song for Decca in early 1952 and experienced a hit – landing at number 14 on the Billboard pop charts of the time. The group later did a remake for a Carnegie Hall appearance and it was the arrangement and style of that production which would later influence another hit version “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” by “The Tokens.
Blind Blake and Roy Hene
Sheet Music published in 1952 cites “New English Lyric by Roy Hene” and although I haven’t found out much about who this is – he did get partial composer’s credits on a 1952 Don Cherry record titled “Pretty Girl” along with Blake Alphonso Higgs who was a performer out of the Bahamas during the 1930’s in to the 1960’s – a reggae musician.
Higgs has a tie to the Weavers – He wrote a song called “Foolish Frog” which Pete Seeger recorded as did Higgs as “Blind Blake and His Royal Victoria Calypsos”. (Blake also penned a little ditty called “The John B Sail” which would emerge by our own Beach Boys as “Sloop John B” in 1966. There is no mention of his co-partnering with a Roy Hene – Oh what a tangled web we weave. (also take note of the 1953 recording by Blake – A curious – probably original variation of the “Hey Up, Joe! On Your Way” subtitle on the Weaver rendition.
Even Soloman’s original cut on Gallo doesn’t cite him with composing credentials. And so Seeger figured that the song was probably an ancient tribal folk song working it’s way through the ages. But there is a citation on the Decca release giving “Paul Campbell” arranging credits. It turns out that “Paul Campbell” was simply an invention by The Weavers, which they used occasionally, to obtain additional royalties.
More Than a ‘Token’ Hit
That brings us to the Tokens’ version, which wasn’t lacking for lyrics – due to the efforts primarily of George David Weiss – a Brill Building composer (as were Hugo and Luigi early in their career). And so Weiss and partners are credited on the RCA Victor cut as composers. This time the song now moving ahead as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” would become a signature song of the early 1960’s – topping the charts at number 1 for three weeks.
For the lilting – soaring soprano backing – singer Anita Darian from the New York City Opera was employed by Weiss for magic touch.
The Lion Awakens! Belated Pay Day
In time, Pete Seeger would learn of the true origins, and in a effort to make things right (as any good socialist certainly should) sent a small amount of cash to Soloman for his efforts
The story doesn’t end there. The song was reintroduced in the 1994 motion picture “The Lion King”. Six years after the release of the movie, a South African journalist discovered and reported that the Disney song had earned over $15 million dollars. Public Television jumped on the story and produced a documentary titled “The Lion’s Tale”.
Court proceedings were initiated in 2006 but a settlement was reached setting matters straight. Soloman’s heirs, received a settlement not only from a South African publisher who had not adhered to South African copyright laws, but also a further settlement guaranteeing the Soloman family royalties for all world wide sales both past and future for all versions of the song.
Sadly, Soloman Linda never received a single cent beyond the token Seeger payment. He passed away from kidney disease in 1962 and was penniless at the time of his passing.