Family of 'Lion Sleeps Tonight' Writer to Get Millions

Millions of dollars in royalties from the song "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" will go to the heirs of the late South African composer Solomon Linda, who died in 1962. In 1950, when blacks had few negotiating rights under apartheid, Linda sold the song, written in 1939, for fewer than two dollars. His three surviving daughters live in South Africa.

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ROBERT SPIEGEL, host:

The family of an African singer and songwriter will finally be seeing millions of dollars in back royalties. It's a story that goes back to the 1930's, a story about a song with a familiar chorus and a storied background that came to be known as The Lion Sleeps Tonight. NPR's Felix Contreras has this report.

(Soundbite of Music)

FELIX CONTRERAS, reporting:

The song was originally called Mbube. This recording is by Ladysmith Black Mambazo with Taj Mahal. The original was written and recorded in 1939 by Solomon Linda, a South African songwriter. Family members say the melody was inspired by Linda's childhood chore of herding cattle and keeping predatory lions at bay.

(Soundbite of Music)

CONTRERAS: The pastoral setting of the song is at odds with its complicated legal legacy. Solomon Linda's recording eventually sold over 100,000 copies in Africa. In 1948, Linda sold the worldwide copyrights to the song to a South African recording company for less than $2.

Linda died in poverty in 1962. The song continued to live and became a repeated worldwide hit by musicians who thought it was an African folk song, including U.S. musicians The Weavers.

(Soundbite of The Lion Sleeps Tonight.)

THE WEAVERS: (Singing) Wimoweh, Wimoweh, wimoweh...

CONTRERAS: Linda's original version was altered by U.S. songwriters for a doo-wop group called the Tokens. Three songwriters who worked with Elvis Presley received songwriting credit, and it became a number one hit here and in England in the early 1960's.

(Soundbite of The Lion Sleeps Tonight)

CONTRERAS: A South African court cleared up all questions about who should get royalties for the song, which has been recorded over 100 times, used in commercials, movies, and at least one Broadway play. A South African copyright lawyer argued successfully that 25 percent of the song's past and future royalties should go to Linda's three remaining daughters who still live in South Africa.

The court recognized that Linda most likely sold his song away under less than fair circumstances. Music publishing can be complicated, says copyright attorney, Ross Cherub(ph), especially when a song is adapted again and again.

Mr. ROSS CHERUB (Copyright attorney): By the time Pete Seger and The Weavers adapted the song into their folk hit, I think that Mr. Linda's involvement was already receding, and as further adaptations were made, his name practically disappeared until recently.

CONTRERAS: Estimates vary, but industry experts say royalties from the song could be $15 million or more. Felix Contreras, NPR News, Washington.

(Soundbite of The Lion Sleeps Tonight)

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