The Number Ones

December 18, 1961

The Number Ones: The Tokens’ “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”

Stayed at #1:

3 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.


The Tokens – “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”

HIT #1: December 18, 1961

STAYED AT #1: 3 weeks

Just about every song that makes it to #1 takes a long, strange journey to get there. But perhaps none of those journeys are longer or stranger than that of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” began its life in 1939 in Johannesburg, when a Zulu singer named Solomon Linda improvised a high-pitched, otherworldly melody in a recording studio. The resulting song, “Mbube,” became a hit around Africa, and it more or less started the à cappella African-music style known as isicathamiya.

A vinyl copy of “Mbube” ended up in the hands of the famous folklorist Alan Lomax, who played it for his friend, the folksinger Pete Seeger. Seeger loved the song, and he tried to sing it himself. He couldn’t understand the lyrics, so he sang them phonetically when he and his band the Weavers adapted the song, giving it the new title “Wimoweh.” “Wimoweh” was a part of the Weavers’ live show for years before they recorded it, with Seeger singing the living hell out of these words that he couldn’t understand. (It remains probably the strongest vocal I’ve ever heard from Seeger.) “Wimoweh” became a national hit in 1952, just before Seeger was blacklisted as a Communist, effectively killing the Weavers’ career.

Nearly a decade later, the Tokens, group of Jewish teenagers from Brooklyn who sang doo-wop, were figuring out what to record after scoring a top-20 hit with their single “Tonight I Fell In Love.” (Neil Sedaka, who’d get to #1 in 1962 with “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do,” was an original Token, but he’d left the group by this time.) Tokens leader Jay Siegel knew “Wimoweh” from the Weavers record, and he wanted to record it. But the song didn’t strike the Tokens’ producers as a pop song, so they hired songwriter George David Weiss to turn it into one. And that’s what he did, giving it near-gibberish lyrics about a lion sleeping in the jungle. And that’s what eventually got to #1, decades after the first version of the song had been improvised in the studio. (For a much better and longer version of the song’s story, read this great story that Rian Malan wrote for Rolling Stone in 2000.)

By the time it reached its final form, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” had gone through a few different layers of translation, and it had been thoroughly Americanized, but it remains a deeply weird song, a cascade of falsetto howls over a pulsating chant and a timpani roll. It sounds less like the doo-wop of its moment, more like a broadcast from some much older civilization — which, if you look at the song’s whole history, is basically what it is. Most of the people involved in putting together and selling “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” probably heard it as a weird little novelty — it started out as a B-side before radio DJs championed it — but it ended up resonating on some deeper level, and it’s been rattling around in the pop consciousness ever since.

The story of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” is, of course, a story of deep music-business fuckery. Nobody ever thought to pay Solomon Linda songwriting royalties for the song, and most of the people who sang versions of it assumed that it was a public-domain traditional. Linda should’ve become a millionaire for writing the song; instead, he died broke. Seeger once sent him a $1,000 check after realizing that he hadn’t been getting royalties, but that was it. In 2006, more than 40 years after his death, Linda’s family won a settlement from the publishers of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”

It’s a sad story, and a sadly predictable one. But it doesn’t take anything away from the liquid, incandescent weird-pop joy of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” which just might be the greatest novelty song ever to reach #1. Even divorced from its fascinating history, it’s a perfect song, a dive into some pop-music dreamworld.

GRADE: 10/10

BONUS BEATS: Here, of course, are Timon and Pumba covering “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” in The Lion King:

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