Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Brian Sleeps Tonight

Based on Brian Williams's glowing obituary for songwriter George Weiss (which he read on Tuesday's Nightly News), it sounds as if Weiss could be a candidate for sainthood. According to Brian, "George Weiss gave us many [songs] including 'The Lion Sleeps Tonight'--inspired by a Zulu song--it became a huge hit for the Tokens." "Inspired by a Zulu song" is not quite accurate. Weiss took an existing tune, changed some lyrics (and added some others) and called the song his own. For all intents and purposes, Weiss stole the song.

The history of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" is long and complicated. It was originally written (as "Mbube", Zulu for "lion") by a South African songwriter named Solomon Linda in the 1920's and first recorded in 1939. Because blacks in South Africa were not entitled to songwriting royalties at that time, Linda received a small one-time payment for the song from his publishing company's executives, who kept the rights for themselves (and earned plenty of money when the song sold over 100,000 copies). In the early 1950's, the song (now called "Wimoweh") was a hit for the Weavers (featuring Pete Seeger), and in 1961 it was a bigger hit for the Tokens (singing Weiss's version). While Seeger donated his portion of publishing royalties to Linda, Weiss was not nearly so generous and fought vigorously throughout his life to deny royalties to Linda and his heirs. Solomon Linda died penniless of kidney disease in 1963, while Weiss earned millions from Linda's song (by some estimates, the song earned millions just for appearing in "The Lion King"). After Solomon Linda's death, Weiss continued to fight Linda's daughters' claim on their father's song. (In 2006, Linda's daughters were finally awarded some rights to the song.)

There was an excellent documentary by Francois Verster called "A Lion's Trail" made about this song. It aired several years ago on PBS as part of their Independent Lens series. Information about this film can be found at

In 2000, South African journalist Rian Malan (in collaboration with Verster) wrote an in-depth article for Rolling Stone about the origin of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight".

Brian Williams should see Verster's film and read Malan's article before he offers any more glowing tributes to George Weiss.

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