George David Weiss: A Songwriter With Thirty Years of No. 1 Records : The Record The man who wrote "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" and "What A Wonderful World" died on Monday at 89 years old.
NPR logo George David Weiss: A Songwriter With Thirty Years of No. 1 Records

George David Weiss: A Songwriter With Thirty Years of No. 1 Records

Like pop music?  Then you're indebted to George David Weiss. The composer and arranger died Monday, at 89 years old. His wife told The New York Times that he died of natural causes. Weiss wrote some of the most popular songs of the 20th century, including "Can't Help Falling in Love" and "What a Wonderful World."

Weiss reportedly wanted to be a musician ever since he was little. He got a degree in music theory from Julliard. When the Second World War dragged the U.S. in, even the draft couldn't stop him. Weiss was a bandleader in the Army until 1945, when his career took off as a composer and arranger.

Weiss penned three No. 1 hits in 1946, in partnership with lyricist Bennie Benjamin. They included Sinatra's "Oh What It Seemed To Be," which yielded an amusing story, as told to the Santa Fe New Mexican in a 1995 interview. Weiss' music publisher told the composer that when he auditioned the song for Sinatra, "No matter what happens ... keep playing to make sure the tune [gets] into their heads."  But before Weiss finished, Sinatra was on the phone to the record company making the deal. Weiss kept right on playing for half an hour, while everyone "sat down and discussed horses and women and gossip. . . Finally, the publisher comes over to me, lifts me up under the armpits and says, 'Say goodbye to Frank.' I said goodbye and they led me out like a zombie." It became the No. 6 song of 1946.

He composed such Broadway musicals as "Mr. Wonderful," (1956, with Sammy Davis Jr.); "First Impressions" (1959); and "Maggie Flynn" (1968.)

Weiss's songs from the sixties are legitimately timeless: they haven't left the radio to this day. Elvis recorded "Can't Help Falling in Love" for the movie "Blue Hawaii" in 1961 and it became his standard encore. That same year, Weiss flipped a South African chant -- which had already been re-purposed by Pete Seeger -- into "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," which became a No. 1 hit for the Tokens. In 1968, Weiss wrote "What A Wonderful World," and Louis Armstrong's rendition resurrected the song nearly two decades later when it was featured in the 1987 film, "Good Morning Vietnam." Though the rights to "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," were disputed in lawsuits filed by the estate of the original South African composer, Solomon Linda, Weiss became a fervent advocate for intellectual property rights of composers as president of the Songwriters Guild of America from 1982 to 2000.