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The Lion Sleeps Tonight

by

The Tokens



Songfacts®:  You can leave comments about the song at the bottom of the page.

The original title was "Mbube," which means "lion." It was a hunting song originally sung in Zulu in what is now Swaziland.
This was popularized in the 1930s by South African singer Solomon Linda, who recorded it in 1939 with his group, The Evening Birds. Apparently they were a bold bunch, and got the idea for this from when they used to chase lions who were going after the cattle owned by their families.
This was recorded in South Africa, where it was a big hit. Around 1948, the South African record company sent a copy to Decca Records in the US, hoping to get it distributed there. Folk singer Pete Seeger got a hold of it and started working on an English version.
In the 1950s, Miriam Makeba recorded this with the Zulu lyrics, and Pete Seeger recorded it with his band, The Weavers (who dominated the charts with "Goodnight Irene"). The Weavers recorded the refrain of the song (no verses) and called it "Wimoweh." Their version hit #15 on the US Best Sellers charts in 1952. In 1957, it was included on, The Weavers At Carnegie Hall, a very popular album in the world of Folk music.
Seeger thought they were saying "Wimoweh" on the original, and that's what he wrote down and how it was recorded in English. They were actually saying "Uyimbube," which means "You're a Lion." It was misheard for "Wimeoweh" because when pronounced, Uyimbube sounds like: oo-yim-bweh-beh. (thanks to Stephanie Carruth, who performs this song and has studied the Zulu language)
Hank Medress, Jay Siegel, and Phil and Mitch Margo, who made up The Tokens, had a Top 15 hit "Tonight I Fell in Love" in 1960, but didn't have a record label in 1961. They auditioned for producers Hugo and Luigi (Peretti and Creatore) by singing "Wimoweh" to them. Hugh and Luigi were impressed by the performance but decided that the song needed new lyrics. With help from George Weiss, Hugo and Luigi rewrote the song, giving it the title "The Lion Sleeps Tonight." The Tokens thought this had been nothing more than an elaborate audition - "Who is gonna buy a song about a lion sleeping" was their general sentiment. They were so embarrassed with the new title and lyrics that they fought the release of the recording (it was scheduled to be the B-side of another "import," a Portuguese song that they recorded in the same May 1961 session, "Tina").
Influential disc jockey Murray the K pushed "Tina," but once a New England DJ started playing the B-side on the air, "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" started its climb to the #1 position, hitting the top of the charts in the Christmas holidays of 1961-62.
The run at #1 for "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" was interrupted by a unique event: the return to #1 by Chubby Checker's "The Twist" 17 months after it hit the top spot on the Hot 100 for the first time.
The Kingston Trio recorded this in 1959 on their Live From The Hungry i LP. When introducing the song, singer Dave Guard stated that "Mbube" was a song about a sleeping lion (he doesn't refer to the song by name: he gives the background of the song before the Trio sings it). Part of the translated lyrics, as given by Guard: "Hush! Hush! If we all be quiet, there will be lion meat for dinner."
The success of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" didn't ensure long-term recording security for The Tokens as a singing group. They didn't have a singing/recording contract, but they DID have a producing contract! After "Lion," members of the group had producing success with the Chiffons ("He's So Fine," "One Fine Day," "Sweet Talkin' Guy"), the Happenings ("See You in September," "My Mammy") and Dawn ("Knock Three Times," "Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree"). In 1971, they produced a note-for-note remake of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" by Robert John -- with Jay, Hank, and Mitch singing backgrounds and Ellie Greenwich singing bass. The new version peaked at #3.
When Hank left the group in 1972, the Tokens renamed themselves Cross Country and recorded an album. Their version of the Wilson Pickett hit "In the Midnight Hour" hit the Top 30 in 1973; the group disbanded shortly afterwards.
The original members of the group reunited in 1981 for a "farewell concert," although one incarnation or another has been performing off-and-on since then. (thanks, Brad Wind - Miami, FL, for all above)
Opera singer Anita Darien was brought in for the soprano during and after the sax solo. Her voice almost sounds like an instrument on the record.
The Tokens sang backup on another version of the song made popular by Robert John 10 years later.
In 1982 the group Tight Fit had a UK #1 hit with their cover version. None of Tight Fit actually sang on the record, but they looked good and promoted it well. Roy Ward of City Boy recorded the real vocals.
The original version by Solomon Linda and the Evening Birds can be found on the album Crocodiles, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Solomon Linda and The Evening Birds and Others: Mbube Roots--Zulu Choral Music from South Africa, 1930s-1960s.
The 3 surviving daughters of Solomon Linda sued for royalty rights to this song in 1999 and won a settlement in the case 6 years later. Solomon Linda died in poverty from kidney disease in 1962 at age 53. As part of the settlement with Abilene Music, who own the publishing rights, Linda's heirs receive 25% of past and future royalties from the song, which are considerable since it is used in so many movies and still receives airplay. In the 1950s Linda sold the rights to this song to Gallo Records of South Africa for 10 shillings (about $1.70), at a time when apartheid laws robbed blacks of negotiating rights. In the 1970s, Linda's widow signed over the rights to Abilene.
This song was also used in Disney's 1994 hit movie The Lion King. It was sung by Timon the meerkat (Nathan Lane) and Pumba the warthog (Ernie Sabella). (thanks, Caitlin - Upper Township, NJ)
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Comments (20):

On March 5th 1972, "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" by Robert John peaked at #3 (for 3 weeks) on Billboard's Hot Top 100 chart; it had entered the chart on December 26th, 1971 at position #89 and spent 17 weeks on the Top 100 (and for 7 of those 17 weeks it was on the Top 10)...
It reached #6 on Billboard's Adult Contemporary Tracks chart...
In 1958 he entered the Top 100 with "White Bucks and Saddle Shoes", the record was released under his birth name of Bobby Pedrick, Jr. and it peaked at #74...
And on December 18th, 1961 the Tokens version of "The Lions Sleeps Tonight" peaked at #1 (for 3 weeks) on the Top 100...
In 1994 when the Walt Disney's movie 'The Lion King' was released, the Tokens' version re-entered the Top 100 on August 14th for a one week stay at position #68.
- Barry, Sauquoit, NY
if the lion is sleeping near the village that seems like a reason to cry because he will wake up at some point
- Jack, Mesa, AZ
I know Anita Darian and she definitely sang the soprano. She is a wonderful singer and a great person. She was called in last minute, late at night to do it, and did the part 1,2,3...
- Lisa, Port Jefferson Sta., NY
That Song Was Sung On Muppets Tonight With Billy Crystal Where The Jungle Animals Attempted To
Perform The Tokens' Greatest Hit, Much To The Dismay Of The Lion, Who Is Trying To Get Some Sleep, And
Ends Up Chasing Them All Around The Set, Off The Stage, And Ran Over Clifford, Who Tried To Tell Them
Why Aren't They Finishing The Song They Were Singing!!!!!!
- Cory Stoczynski, Lancaster, NY
This is one of the most incredibly unique songs to ever hit the airwaves. It can give me chills when it comes on the car radio. I love it.
- Camille, Toronto, OH
The soprano singer who sang Anita Darian's part on "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" on the Doo Wop TV special was Donna Groom. I thought she did an outstanding job. Her husband was playing drums with the Tokens in that same TV special, She a member of the Skyliners and is not only a great singer, she is an accomplished keyboard/piano player as well. She and her husband also perform as "The Grooms".
- George, Vermilion, OH
I am curious about something. It is stated that Anita Darien sung the soprano solo in the song. On the doo wop special that they had on public tv a few months back, I do not remember her name being metioned but another womans name whom I cannot remember. I had the information saved but my computer got infected with viruses and I cannot find the clip nor the name. It wasn't the same woman. Does anyone know who or what I am asking about? Thanks for your help.
- Michael, Mebane, NC
This song brings back many happy memories of a
time when life was much simpler and choices
much easier.
- Craig, San Diego, CA
Folk tradition speaks loudly with the tapestry collection of Pete Seeger (the Weavers), "If I Had A Hammer", Jose Marti's "Guantanamera", the biblical "Turn! Turn! Turn! (To everything there is a season)" and Solomon Ka Linda's "Wimoweh" ("The Lion Sleeps Tonight"). The last of these has been hunted down, molested, raped, and stripped beyond all recognition. The anthemic "Wimoweh", first lauded by the Weavers, has its ethnic roots in an African sing-along entitled "Mbube". The legendary "Mbube" hailed as the first Zulu song to attain international acclaim, appeared under various guises as "The Lion Sleeps Tonight", "In The Jungle", and "Wimoweh".The song was written in 1934 by an un-acknowledged migrant labourer called Solomon Ka Linda in the form of an African chant which refers to King Chaka - The Lion who lies in sleep and will awake one day. (Without being too spiritual perhaps he did, in the form of 'Madiba' - Nelson Mandela). The shrilling "Mbube" exonerated the African call & response style that was joyfully chirped by his backup singers, the Evening Birds. This reasonably popular characteristic termed Isis catamiya flaunted its cries in the goldmine hostels and shebeens at a time when the shadow of the fascist vulture was hovering over South Africa. The honourable Seeger, a troubadour who exalted the "Wimoweh" anthem though his Weavers, first hunted down the lion in the roaring forties. The travelling Seeger initially heard it while roaming the Rhodesian countryside in hunt of that elusive traditional folklore that would only reveal itself by the light of the Southern Cross. They say in Africa the little man (Tokoloshe / African Goblin) blows the smoke in your face and no doubt Pete fell victim when he heard "Wimoweh", which was actually "Uyimbube". It was also during this time that Pete travelled on the chugging "Tshotsholosa", that blew its whistle at the historic 'Carnegie Hall' Concert in 1963. Somewhere in mid 1961 "Wimoweh" the Tokens scored #1 hit in the US and a UK # 11 with "The Lion Sleeps Tonight"without a cent of roylaties to the Ka linde family. (THe same Tokens - share holders of 'Bright Tunes'who later sued George Harrison for supposedly stealing the Chiffons' "He's So Fine" for "My Sweet Lord")The Lion Sleeps Tonight" springboarded further hits for Karl Denver (UK #4 1962), Robert John (#3 USA), and Bert Kaempfert (UK #20 1966) on his Swinging Safari. Dazed by the success of the African fever the Tokens again tried to stir the ethnic magic by releasing the African "B wa Nina" (Pretty Girl), but this time the Tokoloshe clamped the fever. (Tokens played on Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited.) Solomon died of kidney failure in 1963 having received almost nothing for his song. Although the royalties were not forthcoming from 'Gallo Africa', barring the sincere efforts of Seeger who travelled to South Africa to reward the author personally from his own pocket, recent cheque's have found their way to the bereaved family. The roar of "Mbube" returned to The Lion King soundtrack in the eighties. A concerned Capetonian journalist took up the poverty-stricken Linda family's quest for their share of the fruits of Solomon's efforts. Although he lacked the legal expertise to pursue the matter, his determination did attract enough support to put pressure on the record companies. Eventually they agreed to include the Linda family in royalties. (posted by Rock Journalist Shiloh Noone excerpt from 'Seekers Guide To The Rhythm Of Yesteryear'
- shiloh noone, Cape Town, South Africa
To Jim in Rocky River, OH, the comment about Loulie Jean Norman singing the soprano part on this song comes from another Songfacts member, Bill in Los Angeles, CA. Here's what he wrote. "On the original Tokens record in 1961, the female soprano part was sung by one of LA's very best session singers, Loulie Jean Norman. I know because I dated two of her three daughters."
- Annabelle, Eugene, OR
During the performance of the LION KING show at Disney World several times daily, the live cast and audience sing this song together.
- Leah, Brooklyn, NY
I just received an email from Jay Siegel-The Tokens
I asked him who sang the female high part in "Lion"
The original recording in N.Y. 1961. His reply---
Quote: "Anita Darian was the one & ONLY"
The mystery is where does Loulie Jean Norman fit in?
- Jim, Rocky River, OH
I read somewhere that it was actually Loulie Jean Norman who sang the soprano solos in this song. So, let's clear up this confusion. Was it Anita Darien? Or was it Loulie Jean Norman?
- Annabelle, Eugene, OR
i love this song... me and my friends are singing this song for our skool concert.. =)
- Betsy, Albertville, MN
I sang this song in my school's production of The Lion King.( BEST MOVIE EVER!!!!!!!!) I played Nala!
- Caitlin, Upper Township, NJ
Timon and Pumba sing this in if not one of than the greatest Disney film of all time, The Lion King.
- Jon, Oakridge, OR
The song was also used as the theme song for the sitcom The Mighty Jungle, a Canadian produced sitcom that aired on The Family Channel from 1993-94. The show was about Dan Winfield, a zookeeper and his family that were surrounded by four animals who would only talk to Dan. Among the voices were Tony Danza and Delta Burke.
- Howard, St. Louis Park, MN
On the original Tokens record in 1961, the female soprano part was sung by one of LA's very best session singers, Loulie Jean Norman. I know because I dated two of her three daughters.
- Bill, Los Angeles, CA
Inspired by Dion's "A Teenager in Love". Both songs inspired the Four Seasons' "Sherry".
- Brandon, Seattle, WA
English band Tight Fit released a version in the mid 80's
- pete, nowra, Australia
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