3 July 2004
Welcome to the jungle
In 1939, Solomon Linda wrote a song called "Mbube," about a lion sleeping outside a village. "Hush," says the lyric, translated from Zulu: "if we're all quiet, there'll be lion meat for dinner." What happens if the lion is awakened well, Linda didn't go there.
A copy of Linda's recording with the Evening Birds, a sizable African hit, wound up in the hands of American folksinger Pete Seeger, who worked up an arrangement based on Linda's chorus, which he misheard (78s being what they were in those days) as "Wimoweh." African singer Miriam Makeba released a version of "Mbube" herself, which got some notice, but what put the song on the American map was a recording by the Weavers, backed by Gordon Jenkins' orchestra interestingly, the original label bills Jenkins above the Weavers which, as "Wimoweh," made the Top 20 in 1952. The group's 1955 Carnegie Hall reunion album contained a live version of the song, which is where Jay Siegel heard it.
At the time, Siegel was the lead singer of a doo-wop group, the Tokens, which was coming off a small hit for RCA Victor called "Tonight I Fell In Love." The Tokens worked up a vocal arrangement of what they'd heard the Weavers sing; Hugo Peretti and Luigi Creatore, staff producers at RCA, were impressed, but noted that it was all chorus and no verse. To take care of this issue, George David Weiss, a songwriter who knew his way around places far beyond Tin Pan Alley his next project with Hugo & Luigi was the revamping of Giovanni Martini's "Plaisir d'amour" into an Elvis hit was brought in to gin up some English narrative.
The actual recording, with soprano Anita Darian added to the mix, was decidedly weird; RCA, after pleas from the group (other than Siegel) to shelve it, tossed it onto a B-side, where it might have died, but the A-side (a Portuguese folk song called "Tina") just wasn't as compelling as the Zulu number on the flip, and "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," a title from Weiss' English lyric, made it to Number One.
Purists, of course, were horrified, and the fact that Weiss' lyric wasn't so far off from Solomon Linda's original impressed them not in the least. The Tokens, of course, cried all the way to the bank.
Solomon Linda's bank account, alas, never saw much in the way of deposits from this song, and his estate Linda died in 1962 is now suing for royalties from the single biggest user of the song: the Walt Disney Company, where The Lion King has been a steady moneymaker for years. The suit asks $1.6 million. Others are also deemed to be owing, but for the moment, Disney's pockets are the deepest.
It's possible, I suppose, to grumble about the expropriation of African pop. Miriam Makeba recorded hundreds of songs from Africa, but on this side of the pond she is best remembered for the trifling (if exuberant) "Pata Pata." And Paul Simon's Graceland LP bent all sorts of South African sounds into the service of Simon's elliptical lyrics. Not being any sort of purist, I'm glad to have these sounds over here at all; it would be even nicer were their originators properly compensated.