Written and originally recorded (as “Mbube”) by Solomon Linda’s Original Evening Birds (1939).
Hit versions by The Weavers (as ‘Wimoweh’ US #6 1951), The Tokens (US #1 1961), Tight Fit (UK #1 1982).
From the wiki: “‘Mbube’ (Zulu: lion) was written in the 1920s by Solomon Linda, a South African singer of Zulu origin, who worked for the Gallo Record Company as a cleaner and record packer, and who performed with a choir, The Evening Birds.
“Linda’s improvised melody was wordless; no English words occur in the recording. Issued by Gallo as a 78 recording in 1939 on their Gallotone label and marketed to African audiences, ‘Mbube’ became a hit and Linda a star throughout South Africa.
“In 1951, ‘Mbube’ was used in the first screen adaptation of the novel Cry, the Beloved Country.
“In 1949, Alan Lomax, then working as folk music director for Decca Records, brought Solomon Linda’s 78 recording to the attention of his friend Pete Seeger of the folk group The Weavers. In November 1951, after having performed the song for at least a year in their concerts, The Weavers recorded an adapted version with brass and string orchestra and chorus as a 78 single entitled ‘Wimoweh’, a mishearing of the original song’s chorus of ‘Uyimbube’. The Weavers credited the song as ‘Traditional’, with arrangement by ‘Paul Campbell’, later found to be a pseudonym used by the Weavers in order to claim royalties.
“Uyimbube’ was also covered extensively by other folk revival groups such as the Kingston Trio, and exotica singer Yma Sumac. However, Miriam Makeba, in 1960, recorded the same song as ‘Mbube’, with the writing credit given to ‘J. Linda’.
“In 1961, two RCA producers, Hugo Peretti and Luigi Creatore, engaged Juilliard-trained musician and lyricist George David Weiss to fashion an arrangement for a planned new pop music cover of ‘Wimoweh’, intended as the B-side of a 45-rpm single called ‘Tina’ by the teenage doo-wop group The Tokens.
“The Tokens, who loved The Weavers’ version of the song and had used it to audition for Hugo and Luigi at RCA, were appalled and were initially reluctant to sing the new arrangement. But ultimately, they allowed themselves to be persuaded. Issued by RCA in 1961, ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’ rocketed to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100.
“In 1982, the pop group Tight Fit had a #1 hit with the song in the UK.
“‘Mbube’/’Wimhoweh’/’The Lion Sleeps Tonight’ has a complicated copyright history. Although Linda was listed as a performer on the original South African recording itself, the Weavers thought they had recorded a traditional Zulu song. Their managers, publisher, and their attorneys knew otherwise because they had been contacted by – and had reached an agreement with – Eric Gallo of Gallo Records. The Americans maintained, however, that South African copyrights were not valid because South Africa was not a signatory to U.S. copyright law. In the 1950s, after Linda’s authorship was made clear, Pete Seeger of the Weavers sent Linda $1000. Seeger also said he instructed TRO/Folkways to henceforth pay his share of authors’ earnings to Linda. The folksinger apparently trusted his publisher’s word of honor and either saw no need, or was unable to make sure these instructions were carried out.
“In 2000, South African journalist Rian Malan wrote a feature article for Rolling Stone magazine in which he recounted Linda’s story and estimated that the song had earned $15 million for its use in the 1994 Disney movie The Lion King alone. The piece prompted filmmaker François Verster to create the Emmy-winning documentary A Lion’s Trail, that told Linda’s story while incidentally exposing the workings of the multi-million dollar corporate music publishing industry.
“In July 2004, as a result of the publicity generated by Malan’s article and the subsequent documentary, the song became the subject of a lawsuit between Linda’s estate and Disney, claiming that Disney owed $1.6 million in royalties for the use of ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’ in the film and musical stage productions of The Lion King. At the same time, the Richmond Organization began to pay $3,000 annually into Linda’s estate. In February 2006, Linda’s descendants reached a legal settlement with Abilene Music Publishers, who held the worldwide rights and had licensed the song to Disney, to place the earnings of the song in a trust.”
The Weavers with the Gordon Jenkins Orchestra, “Wimoweh” (1951):
The Tokens, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” (1961):
Tight Fit, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” (1982):