There is an outstanding chronology, written by Rian Malan, of the history of one of the world’s most beloved pop songs. It evolved from a Zulu chant, it went through a folk music iteration, and later topped the charts as a doo-wop classic. Its creator barely received any compensation during his lifetime, while the song itself has generated millions of dollars worldwide. Here’s a PDF of the original article by Malan, which originally appeared in Rolling Stone magazine in 2011.
That being said, on today’s K-Chuck Radio I want to bring you the evolution of what we know as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” – how it bounced from a 1939 South African recording to modern appreciation.
And it all began with …
SOLOMON LINDA’s ORIGINAL EVENING BIRDS
This is Mbube, the 1939 track that started it all. And if you go to 2:23 of this video clip, you can hear lead singer Solomon Linda go through a very distinctive note run that today sounds very familiar … very very familiar…
PETE SEEGER AND THE WEAVERS w/ GORDON JENKINS’ ORCHESTRA
It’s now 1952, and the popular folk group The Weavers did a reinterpretation of Mbube – Pete Seeger had misheard Solomon Linda’s chant as “Wimoweh” – and this became not only a national hit, it also inspired versions by other performers and artists.
YMA SUMAC with MARTIN DENNY AND HIS ORCHESTRA
Today, tracks like this are classified as “space age pop” or “exotica,” but even back in the mid-1950’s when this track was released, you could still hear those classic melodic runs, even if they were sung by a woman who possessed a five-octave range.
By 1961, “Wimoweh” had evolved into “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” and became a MONSTER hit for The Tokens … and, for all intents and purposes, it dwarfed every single track they ever recorded before or since.
THE LOVE MACHINE
This Australian studio group recorded their own version of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” and if you listen carefully you can hear the singer interpret “Wimoweh” as “I’m on my way.” Interesting…
THE NEW CHRISTY MINSTRELS
I’m trying to wrap my head around this version of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” I can only surmise that it was produced specifically as an audiophonic torture device.
If I recall correctly, this track actually had the Tokens producing and/or background vocalizing the track. Amazingly, this was at one time Robert John’s biggest hit … until he had that track “Sad Eyes” a few years later.
This trio was one of several UK clean-scrubbed pop groups that seemed destined for multiple appearances on Top of the Pops and The Old Grey Whistle Test and other UK shows of that ilk. I think they had a couple of other hits… maybe. I think. Nah, I don’t want to think.
LADYSMITH BLACK MAMBAZO with THE MINT JULEPS
And here is a beautiful version that encompasses the original “Mbube,” along with its evolution with “Wimoweh” and “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” Awesome.
I would recommend re-reading the PDF article by Rian Malan, in that throughout the evolution of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” there were still battles over who wrote the song – and whether royalties should be sent to Solomon Linda as the original performer of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight’s” earlier incarnation as “Mbube.” Fascinating read.
And here we are, full circle with another K-Chuck Radio!