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Are The Tokens Responsible For That Darn Sleeping Lion Song?

Music | February 21, 2018

The Tokens Portrait Session NEW YORK - CIRCA 1965: Doo-Wop group The Tokens (L-R top: Stephen Friedland aka Brute Forte, Mitch Margo, Hank Medress and Jay Siegel, seated Phil Margo) pose for a portrait circa 1965 in New York City, New York (Photo by James

The Tokens are an American doo-wop vocal group hailing from Brooklyn, New York. 

They are best known for performing, The Lion Sleeps Tonight. The Tokens, first known as The Linc-Tones, the group originally featured Neil Sedaka, Hank Medress, Eddie Rabkin and Cynthia Zolotin. By the time they became known as The Tokens, in 1960, they were an all-male vocal group including first tenor Mitch Margo and his baritone brother, Phil.

The Lion Sleeps Tonight, reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, three weeks in a row.  This gained The Tokens unmistakable notoriety. They were coming into their own and were very sought after by recording companies.  

This success also earned the doo-wop group an appearance on the hugely popular television show, American Bandstand. They had “arrived,” so to speak.

Although The Tokens made The Lion Sleeps Tonight world famous, they can’t take credit for the entire deal. The song actually went through quite an evolution. The actual story of the song lyrics is quite interesting.

Solomon Linda, a native of South Africa, is actually the original lyricist of the, now, hit doo-wop song. He was born in 1909 and grew up in Zulu country. He never learned to read or write but was well known for being a talented singer. 

As a young man, Linda relocated to Johannesburg and formed an a Cappella band, called the Evening Birds, which enjoyed a huge and popular following.

Solomon Linda’s band was inspired by their native Zulu roots. Their distinctive music style was reminiscent of their humble upbringings. The chanted chorus of this song, in particular, was inspired by the traditional call and response chants of birds native to that specific part of the world. Other parts of the song were inspired by their reminiscences of chasing the wild lions who would prey on their families’ livestock at night. They had to chase them away to keep them from eating their animals.

The group was known for their four-part harmonies and improvised lyrics which worked remarkably and surprisingly well! Linda’s improvised vocals were distinctive and soared over the top of the rest! The group was eventually discovered by a talent scout and the rest is history.

Unsung heroes are no stranger to the music industry. Countless songs have been written by one artist and made popular by another. Solomon Linda is one of those unsung heroes.

In 1939 Linda worked as a custodian at the Gallo Record Company. One night after his shift ended, he was given permission to use the studio to record a song he had written that he called, Mbube. Mbube is the Zulu word for lion. The original version of the song became a big hit and made Linda a star with primarily black audiences in his circle.  

At some point, Gallo Record Company approached Linda about purchasing the rights to his song, Mbube. Linda agreed to sell the song to them and reportedly received a whopping 10 shillings. At the time, 10 shillings was equivalent to about $1.70, American. After the sale was final, Linda never earned another penny from the song we now know as The Lion Sleeps Tonight.

Alan Lomax was another unsung hero in the music industry. He is the artist that rearranged the music and set the wheels in motion to the song becoming world famous. Lomax was a folk music director and arranger who worked for Decca records. He presented the song to folk musician Pete Seeger who renamed the song, Wemoweh. This after misunderstanding the chanted chorus. He thought they were saying, “Wimoweh,” but in reality, the lyrics were actually saying, “Uyimbube,” which means, “You’re a Lion.” As it is pronounced, “Uuimbube,” sounds like, “oo-yim-bweh-beh.” I for one, am happy to know that it isn’t just me… I always wondered exactly what they were saying!

Seeger adapted the song for his (then) band, The Weavers, but kept the chanted chorus that is so famously recognizable, and the rest is history! In 1952 the song reached the top ten on the Billboard Music charts.

Wimoweh went through many conversions through the early years, but the next development edged the song even further away from Linda’s original Zulu version. In 1961, after the successful doo-wop group, The Tokens used the song to audition for RCA Record Company.  Some producers from the label were impressed enough by the audition to try to arrange a pop version of the song.  

The doo-wop group, The Tokens, “employed” Anita Darian, a soprano for extra vocals. 

Along with a full band, the real master stroke was to adapt an especially inspired segment of Linda’s original version. His improvisation into a melody with the now-famous lines, “In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight.” Although The Tokens were initially not overly thrilled by this new arrangement of the song they loved, they were persuaded to release the new mix as a "B" side to another record. As it turned out, though, the record buying public saw something more in the song and it took on a life of its own.

The song was now named, The Lion Sleeps Tonight. It reached number one at the end of 1961 and inspired a seemingly endless string of covers. The only trouble was that as the song had gone through such an evolution that no provision was made for recognizing Linda’s original work. It seemed as if in the complicated process of licensing and publishing, either Linda’s ownership of the composition was ignored, or nobody quite followed the legal trail back to the original composer.

As Pete Seeger has put it: “The big mistake I made was not making sure my publisher signed a regular songwriters’ contract with Linda. He sent Linda some money & copyrighted The Weavers’ arrangement and sent The Weavers some money.” When Seeger realized the error, he arranged a donation of $1,000 and his share of ongoing royalties to Linda, but it seemed even this never found its way back.

The success of The Lion Sleeps Tonight didn’t necessarily lead to long term recording security for the Tokens as a vocal group. After the epic success of this song, members of the group went on to sing back up with other groups including the Chiffons.

Several movies have used this song including The Bucket List, Dark Shadows, Ace Ventura and (of course) Disney’s, The Lion King where it is sung by Timon and Pumba.

Well known television series known to have used the epic song includes Friends, The Office, The Simpsons and The Big Bang Theory.

In 1999 the three surviving daughters of Solomon Linda eventually sued for royalty rights to The Lion Sleeps Tonight. They won a settlement in the case six years later. As part of the settlement with Abilene Music, which owns the publishing rights, Linda's heirs receive 25% of past and future royalties from the song, which is considerable since it is used in so many movies and still receives airplay.

Unfortunately, Solomon Linda died in poverty from kidney disease in 1962 at age 53. What a sad story!


Below are the current lyrics to the famous song:

A-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh
A-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh
A-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh
A-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh
In the jungle, the mighty jungle
The lion sleeps tonight
In the jungle the quiet jungle
The lion sleeps tonight
A-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh
A-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh
A-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh
A-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh
Near the village the peaceful village
The lion sleeps tonight
Near the village the quiet village
The lion sleeps tonight
A-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh
A-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh
A-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh
A-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh
Hush my darling don't fear my darling
The lion sleeps tonight
Hush my darling don't fear my darling
The lion sleeps tonight
A-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh
A-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh
A-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh
A-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh, a-weema-weh

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Rebeka Knott

Writer

Rebeka grew up in the 1960’s & 1970’s and has always subscribed to the theory that a positive attitude will take you far! She is a wife and mother of 3 with a fun-loving spirit, believing that family and relationships are invaluable.