Victory for family of writer of 'The Lion Sleeps Tonight'

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The Independent Culture

It's one of the catchiest tunes ever written. It's been hummed or sung everywhere from the high veldt of South Africa to the bright lights of Broadway. And now, nearly 70 years after it was first recorded, "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" has finally made a fortune for the family of its composer.

An American company has agreed to settle out of court in a dispute with the family of Solomon Linda, an itinerant Zulu musician who worked in the beer halls of 1930s Johannesburg, playing with his band.

The undisclosed payment, thought to be more than half a million pounds, was said to be "an amount suitable for the family's needs and includes back payments for royalties as well as future payments".

The payments have a long way to go back. Linda and the Evening Birds, were a regular on the black music scene of Johannesburg and are credited with popularising a Zulu call-and-response musical style called Isicathamiya.

Spotted by a talent scout, they were invited to record some of their songs at the Gallo studios - the only label willing to record black music. Their stand-out hit was "Mbube" - the Zulu word for lion - and was based on Linda's memories of chasing the big cats that stalked his father's cattle on the plains of Ladysmith, in KwaZulu-Natal. Blacks were not allowed to receive royalties then, so Linda and his band were given some petty cash in return for the rights to "Mbube". The song was a red-hot hit and sold more than 100,000 copies across the region.

A copy of "Mbube" was included in a box of records optimistically sent to a US label by Gallo in the hope of getting them released in America. The studio threw them into the rubbish where they were retrieved by a curious employee, Alan Lomax, who passed them on to a young folk singer he was friends with. Pete Seeger became fascinated with "Mbube", so much so that he transcribed the record into English - replacing the Zulu chant "Uyimbube" with what would become the famous non-word "Wimoweh".

Together with his band the Weavers, Seeger recorded the song which soon proved a hit with 1950s American audiences as well.

The newly Anglicised song, now copyrighted to the Weavers, inspired a burst of cover versions, from the jazz great Jimmy Dorsey to the folk act the Kingston Trio.

A young quartet of Brooklyn boys, the Tokens, looking for a record deal at RCA victor in 1961, performed a rehashed version of the song with Linda's main melody added to the new lyrics: "In the jungle, the mighty jungle ..."

They got the deal, released the single, now retitled "The Lion Sleeps Tonight", and it shot to number one in the US before becoming an international hit.

Less than a year later, the unheralded and broke Linda died of kidney disease at the age of 53. His family continued to live in poverty in the shantytown of Soweto near Johannesburg.

Seeger continues to receive the publisher royalties which he ordered his record company to pass on to Linda whom he acknowledged as the true author. However, the company never made a payment.

The song hit number three in the UK in 1972, and number one for Tight Fit in 1982, before returning in an even bigger way with Disney's film The Lion King.

Linda's melody in its various forms is estimated to have earned up to £10m since being written in 1939. The family launched a £1m claim against Disney in 2004 but failed to win compensation. Seeger's publisher's admitted in the same year that they had never made any payments to Linda and offered £2,000 a year to his family and some money to build a memorial. The family rejected the offer and continued with their legal suit which conclued on Friday.

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