The tokens - the lion sleeps tonight

The tokens - the lion sleeps tonight
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The tokens - the lion sleeps tonight

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"The Lion Sleeps Tonight", also known as "Wimoweh" and originally as "Mbube" is a song recorded by Solomon Linda and his group The Evening Birds for the South African Gallo Record Company in 1939. It was covered internationally by many 1950s pop and folk revival artists, including The Weavers, Jimmy Dorsey, Yma Sumac, Miriam Makeba, and The Kingston Trio.

In 1961, it became a number one hit in the U.S. as adapted by the Doo-Wop group The Tokens. It went on to earn at least 15 million US dollars in royalties from covers and film licensing.
Then, in the mid-nineties, it became a pop "supernova" (in the words of South African writer Rian Malan) when licensed to Walt Disney for use in the film The Lion King, its spin-off TV series and live musical, prompting a lawsuit on behalf of the impoverished descendants of Solomon Linda.

"Mbube" (Zulu: lion) was written in the 1920s by Solomon Linda, South African singer of Zulu origin, who worked for the Gallo Record Company as a cleaner and record packer, and who performed with a choir, The Evening Birds. According to South African journalist Rian Malan:

"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.

Issued by Gallo as a 78 recording in 1939 and marketed to black audiences, "Mbube" became a hit and Linda a star throughout South Africa. By 1948 the song had sold about 100,000 copies in Africa and among black South African immigrants in Great Britain and had lent its name to a style of African a cappella music that evolved into isicathamiya (also called mbube), popularized by Ladysmith Black Mambazo.[2]

In 1949, Alan Lomax, then working as folk music director for Decca Records, brought Solomon Linda's 78 recording to the attention of his friend Pete Seeger of the folk group The Weavers.[3][4]

In November 1951, after having performed the song for at least a year in their concerts, The Weavers recorded an adapted version with brass and string orchestra and chorus as a 78 single entitled "Wimoweh", a mishearing of the original song's chorus of "Uyimbube", Zulu: You are a lion. Their version, which contained the chanting chorus "Wimoweh" and Linda's line, "In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight", reached Billboard's top ten and became a staple of The Weavers' live repertoire. It achieved mass exposure (without orchestra) in their best-selling The Weavers at Carnegie Hall LP album, recorded in 1955 and issued in 1957, and was covered extensively by other folk revival groups, such as The Kingston Trio.

In the liner notes to one of his recordings, Seeger explained his interpretation of the song, which he believed to be traditional, as an instance of a "sleeping-king" folk motif about Shaka, Warrior King of the Zulus, along the lines of the mythical European sleeping king in the mountain: Shaka the Lion, who heroically resisted the armies of the European colonizers, is supposed not to be dead but only sleeping and will one day awaken and return to lead his oppressed people to freedom. University of Texas folklorist, Veit Erlmann, however, argues that the song's meaning is more literal and refers to an incident in Linda's own youth when he actually killed a lion cub.[5]

In 1961 two RCA producers, Hugo Peretti and Luigi Creatore, nick-named "Huge" and "Luge" by some of their clients, engaged Juilliard-trained musician and lyricist George David Weiss,[6] to fashion an arrangement for a planned new pop music cover of "Wimoweh", intended as the B-side of a 45-rpm single called "Tina" by the teenage doo-wop group The Tokens. Weiss added additional new English lyrics:

Near the elephants, the quiet elephants
The hippo sleeps soundly...
and
Hush, my darling, don't fear, my darling, etc.

He also brought in the soprano voice of opera singer Anita Darian to vocalize (reprising Yma Sumac) during and after the saxophone solo, her eerie descant sounding almost like another instrument.[4] The Tokens, who loved The Weavers' version of the song and had used it to audition for Huge and Luge at RCA, were appalled and were initially reluctant to sing the new arrangement. But ultimately they allowed themselves to be persuaded. Issued by RCA in 1961, "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" rocketed to number one[4] on the Billboard Hot 100. The publishers of this recording, Abilene Music (owned by Weiss), listed one "Albert Stanton" (a pseudonymn for Al Brackman, the business partner of Pete Seeger's music publisher Howie Richmond), as one of the song's writers (or arrangers), thus permitting TRO/Folkways a share of the author's half of the royalty earnings.[7] A cover of the Weavers' version by Scots singer Karl Denver and his group likewise reached the charts in the United Kingdom in 1962. The song continued to be extremely popular and subsequent cover versions were more or less continuous.

For his performance of "Mbube", Solomon Linda was paid a small fee. Gallo Records of South Africa reaped all the royalties of the record sales in South Africa and Great Britain. The Weavers' music publisher was TRO/Folkways Publishing, one of the many subsidiaries and entities (and/or aliases) created by TRO/The Richmond Organization, founded in the late 1940s by former press agent, Howard S. ("Howie") Richmond, later the music publisher for Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones, and other big names.[8] Sharing in the ownership of World Wide Music (later, Folkways Publishing) were The Weavers' managers Harold Leventhal and Pete Kameron.[9] Authorship of the song on The Weavers' 1951 recording was credited exclusively to the pseudonymous "Paul Campbell", a fictitious entity used by Howie Richmond, Harold Leventhal, and Pete Kameron to claim authorship of songs whose copyright was in question.[10] Copyright law allows for and encourages the copyrighting of distinctive new interpretations of traditional songs as distinct from public domain songs by known authors whose copyright has expired.

After all, what was a folk song? Who owned it? It was just out there, like a wild horse or a tract of virgin land on an unconquered continent. Fortune awaited the man bold enough to fill out the necessary forms and name himself as the composer of a new interpretation of some ancient tune like, say, "Greensleeves." A certain "Jessie Cavanaugh" did exactly that in the early Fifties, only it wasn't really Jessie at all – it was Howie Richmond under an alias. This was a common practice on Tin Pan Alley at the time, and it wasn't illegal or anything. The object was to claim writer's royalties on new versions of old songs that belonged to no one. The aliases may have been a way to avoid potential embarrassment, just in case word got out that Howard S. Richmond was presenting himself as the author of a madrigal from Shakespeare's day.

Much the same happened with "Frankie & Johnny", the hoary old murder ballad, or "Rovin' Kind", a ribald ditty from the clipper-ship era. There's no way [Richmond's partner] Al Brackman could really have written such songs, so when he filed royalty claims with the performing rights society BMI, he attributed the compositions to Albert Stanton, a fictitious tunesmith who often worked closely with the imaginary Mr. Cavanaugh, penning such standards as "John Henry" and "Michael Row the Boat Ashore". Cavanaugh even claimed credit for "Battle Hymn of the Republic", a feat eclipsed only by a certain Harold Leventhal, who copyrighted an obscure whatnot that turned out to be India's national anthem.[11]

Social historian Ronald D. Cohen writes, "Howie Richmond copyrighted many songs originally in the public domain [sic] but now slightly revised to satisfy Decca and also to reap the profits."[12] Canadian writer Mark Steyn, a conservative commentator hostile to the notorious leftist Seeger, on the other hand, attributes the invention of the pseudonym "Paul Campbell" to Pete Seeger, whom he refers to ironically as "an unworldly anti-capitalist".[13] At the same time, Steyn also acknowledges, however, that this was a longstanding Tin Pan Alley practice. Rian Malan contends that it was a practice Howie Richmond and his Tin Pan Alley associates, who included partner Al Brackman and Weavers' managers Pete Kameron (to whom Richmond had accorded half of TRO/Folkways' publishing rights) and former song plugger Harold Leventhal, were particularly adept in. Howie Richmond's claim of author's copyright could secure both the songwriter's royalties and his company's publishing share of the song's earnings.[14]

Pete Seeger expressed concerns about the copyright laws associated with the song. He, the other Weavers, and Folkways Records founder Moe Asch frequently voiced the belief that traditional songs could not and should not be copyrighted at all.[15] Seeger has since modified his position about copyrights.[16] Although Linda's name was listed as a performer on the record, The Weavers appear to have assumed that the song was traditional. The Weavers' managers and publisher and their attorneys, however, knew otherwise, because they were contacted by and reached an agreement with Eric Gallo of South Africa. They attempted to maintain, however, that South African copyrights were not valid because South Africa was not a signatory to U.S. copyright law and were hence "fair game."[17] As early as the 1950s, when Linda's authorship was made clear, Seeger sent him a donation of one thousand dollars and instructed TRO/Folkways to henceforth donate his (Seeger's) share of authors' earnings. The folksinger, however, who was not a businessman, trusted his publisher's word of honor and neglected or was unable to see to it that these instructions were carried out.[18] In fact, TRO/Folkways crafted an agreement with Gallo Records giving Gallo distribution rights to the song in South Africa and Rhodesia while TRO reserved the rights to royalties earned elsewhere.

In 2000, South African journalist Rian Malan wrote a feature article for Rolling Stone magazine in which he recounted Linda's story and estimated that the song had earned $15 million for its use in the movie The Lion King alone. The piece prompted filmmaker François Verster to create the Emmy-winning documentary A Lion's Trail (2002) that told Linda's story while incidentally exposing the workings of the multi-million dollar corporate music publishing industry.[19] Interviewed in the documentary, Pete Seeger publicly expressed regret at not having asked TRO/Folkways (The Richmond Organization) to persuade Linda to sign a contract, explaining: “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.”[20]

In July 2004, as a result of the publicity generated by Malan's Rolling Stone article and the subsequent filmed documentary, the song became the subject of a lawsuit between Solomon Linda's estate and Disney. Brought by the firm of noted South African copyright lawyer Owen Dean, the suit asserted that under the terms of the Imperial Copyright Act, in force in Britain, South Africa, and the Commonwealth Countries during the life of Solomon Linda, ownership of "Mbube" reverted to Linda's heirs 25 years after his death, thereby revoking all existing deals and requiring anyone using Linda's music in Commonwealth territories to negotiate new agreements with his estate. Dean stated that Linda's heirs had received less than one percent of the royalties due him from Abilene Music Publishers (and before them TRO/Folkways) and that Disney owed $1.6 million in royalties for the use of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" in the film and musical stage productions of The Lion King. [21] At the same time, The Richmond Organization began to pay $3,000 annually into Linda's estate. In February 2006, Linda's descendants reached a legal settlement with Abilene Music Publishers, who held the worldwide rights and had licensed the song to Disney, to place the earnings of the song in a trust


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oldies | 60s | doo wop | the tokens | pop