'Lion Sleeps Tonight': Ongoing Saga of Pop's Most Contentious Song - Rolling Stone
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‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’: The Ongoing Saga of Pop’s Most Contentious Song

In 2006, late South African singer Solomon Linda finally got credit for his part in the smash hit. But with the release of a new ‘Lion King,’ questions still linger

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The release of a new 'Lion King' film has reignited the long and tangled royalty battle surrounding "The Lion Sleeps Tonight."

Public Domain; Walt Disney Pictures

Three years ago, when Disney announced a remake of its animated classic The Lion King, it was easy to be skeptical: With the original still so beloved, was an upgrade even necessary? But at least one family in South Africa was hopeful. In both the first movie and a later stage production, The Lion King features “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” a Sixties pop hit that has its roots in “Mbube,” a song written and recorded in the Thirties by South African singer and migrant worker Solomon Linda. For decades, Linda barely received any compensation for the incorporation of his song into “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” That situation ended in 2006. Six years earlier, a Rolling Stone story had tipped the world off to the situation and Linda’s family sued Disney, resulting in an out-of-court settlement. Linda, who died in 1962, would belatedly receive a co-writing credit on “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” and his family would be handed a lump sum for past royalties and a cut of future revenue.

Cut to early 2019, when the Linda family learned that a new version of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” sung by Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner, would be used in the remake of The Lion King. Again, this appeared to be good news: With a cast that already included Beyoncé and Donald Glover, the new Lion King had all the signs of a potential blockbuster. And despite mixed reviews, it has pulled in more than $500 million in the States (and over $1 billion outside the U.S.). The soundtrack album broke into the Top 20 on the Rolling Stone Top 200 album chart.

But once again, it seems as if the Linda family won’t be benefiting from the song. The family’s settlement arrangement with Disney ended on the last day of December 2017, a year and a half before the new movie opened, which means, as it stands now, that Linda’s heirs don’t stand to profit from the inclusion of the song in The Lion King. Nothing in the situation is unlawful: The contract between Disney and the Linda family was finalized, and the family has no legal right to continue receiving royalties. (Disney declined to comment on the record for this story.)

And when the paperwork for that deal was worked out over a decade ago, no one imagined that The Lion King would be remade with computer-generated animals. “Nobody knew in advance into the future,” sighs Hanro Friedrich, a South African lawyer who worked with the family at the time. “I’ve got more than a bit of melancholy in my head now.” (The new movie also includes a remake of “Mbube” by South African singer Lebo M., and according to a lawyer for Folkways, the publisher of “Mbube,” the family will be receiving songwriting royalties from its placement in the film.)

But the idea that the family is again missing out on a windfall for Solomon Linda’s contribution to pop music is the latest in a seemingly endless number of cruel twists in the saga of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” one that has reopened old wounds and exposed other financial issues that have emerged since the original deal with Disney. “The family would like to know the implications of [‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’] featured in The Lion King to the rights of Solomon Linda,” says Themba Dladla, a grandson of Solomon Linda who is currently working with the estate. “They want to know who still holds the international rights and how can we work toward having those rights. They still want to know. I would not say it’s a happy ending.”

As South African journalist Rian Malan laid out in his deeply reported RS exposé “In the Jungle: Inside the Long, Hidden Genealogy of ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’” in 2000, the song’s story is as tangled as just about any in pop history. After Linda and his group the Evening Birds released “Mbube” in 1939, a copy of the record — featuring Linda’s beguiling falsetto lilt — wound up with Pete Seeger. Mishearing the lyric and assuming it was a folk song, he changed the title to “Wimoweh,” recorded it with the Weavers in 1952, and mainlined Linda’s melody onto the pop charts. Nine years later, the next phase of the song’s history began when the New York group the Tokens wanted to morph “Wimoweh” into a pop song with fresh lyrics, and songwriters George David Weiss, Hugo Peretti, and Luigi Creatore were commissioned to write new words for what became “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” a Number One hit in 1961.

Director Sam Cullman’s movie The Lion’s Share — which premiered earlier this year on Netflix as part of the network’s ReMastered series — expertly laid out the song’s journey, the impact of Malan’s work, and the financial issues that continued after the family reached its settlement with Disney. The film revealed the expiration of the deal in 2017. Picking up where Malan’s story left off, The Lion’s Share detailed how the Linda estate, with the help of South African lawyer and copyright expert Owen Dean of the South African law firm Spoor and Fisher, sued Disney for copyright violation in 2004 — and how the story of a poor African family taking on a mega-corporation reverberated around the world.

“Disney couldn’t fight it,” Mark Spier, whose publishing company, Memory Lane, administered Abilene Music (the original publisher of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”) at the time, tells RS. “There was no way to win a case in South Africa based on the situation that was going on. You have to know when to fight your battles and when not to. This one wasn’t winnable. It just became less of a hassle to give [the estate] 10 or 15 percent than fight it. They had all the press on their side.”

According to a source who has seen the document, Disney agreed to pay a sizable lump sum to the Linda estate, representing past royalties. From then until 2017, the family would also receive a small percentage of all income derived from “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” (South African copyright law ends 50 years after death; since Linda died in 1962, the Linda estate would have stopped receiving royalties in 2012.  Disney and Abilene offered to add an additional five years of royalties, extending the period to 2017.) As Owen Dean tells RS, the terms of the settlement were “far beyond our wildest dreams. It was an amazing, generous settlement offer.” Although the deal deprived the Linda estate of extended royalties in certain countries (in the U.S., the copyright would have continued until 2032, 70 years after Linda’s death), Dean argues, “We were sitting on a South African copyright, and the fact that Disney and Abilene were prepared to pay five years beyond the copyright was a victory, as far as I was concerned.”

As part of the settlement, a trust was set up to administer those funds, but in The Lion’s Share, both sides — the trust on one hand, Linda’s three surviving daughters Delphi, Elizabeth, and Fildah on the other — accused the other of mismanaging the windfall. Both sides confirm that situation to RS. According to a source who worked on the family’s legal team at the time, “some of the substantial initial payments” made to the family amounted to about $120,000. But in The Lion’s Share, the sisters admit to being startled by the legal fees, which, the source says, were in the six figures. Former Spoor and Fisher general manager Glen Dean, no relation to Owen Dean, defends the fees to RS — “Those costs were needed to get to the agreement” — and says the sisters did not listen to the trust’s advice on how to manage the money.

“This narrative is incorrect,” counters Dladla. “My aunts have made very good use of moneys received. This includes extending their family houses and supporting educational needs of their children. All of them are each living in their refurbished individual homes and not at the original place of their birth. None of them are in debt. Having not accepted advice given by former Trustees does not mean they could not use funds received profitably as matured adults.”

According to that same family legal source, the family made roughly between $20,000 and $65,000 per year from “Lion Sleeps Tonight” royalties during the settlement years. (Friedrich says that, pre-settlement, the most the family received from “Mbube” and “Wimoweh” royalties was about $340 in one year.) As Spier tells RS, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” earned respectable income during the first roughly 15 years of this century. But since the royalties were divided equally between the publisher and the songwriters, that meant the Linda family would receive respectable if not huge amounts of cash (a fraction of the songwriters’ half). “It was one of those really popular songs that didn’t make a boatload of money toward the end,” Spier insists. “It made money from the Broadway show and an occasional [movie or TV] sync.” The song wasn’t included on the 1994 soundtrack, but was covered by artists like ‘NSync and R.E.M.

But in light of Malan’s estimate of how much “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” had earned over decades — upwards of $15 million— the settlement money seemed paltry to the Linda clan. According to Glen Dean, one income source didn’t forward any royalties to the Linda family for at least a year, and Spoor and Fisher hired an American lawyer to help retrieve the money (at least $50,000, according to Glen Dean). But that delay was also one of several instances that added to the family’s suspicions that something was amiss. “We said, ‘We’re struggling — the money has dried up and we want to get the money out of the people in New York,’” says Glen Dean. “There wasn’t sufficient amount in the accounts to pay the sisters their monthly stipend and that caused a lot of anxiety with the sisters.”

By 2013, the trustees, including Glen Dean and Friedrich, had resigned, and Dladla began overseeing the trust. “The family will not work with former Trustees that managed the proceeds of the settlement,” says Dladla, “as they decided to resign from the Solomon Linda Trust for reasons better known to them.” Once again, the situation was a mess.

Precisely how much the family would have earned from the remake of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” in the new Lion King is unclear. Generally, movie licenses of that sort rarely exceed $75,000, according to an industry lawyer who has negotiated such deals — although it’s possible that a Disney license could have been much higher. Given that the Linda estate would still only receive a fraction of what was owed to the songwriters, their payout for the use of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and “Mbube” in the movie could have only amounted to a few thousand dollars. (When the Disney deal ended, the publishing royalties reverted to Abilene Music and Luigi Creatore Music. In another interesting twist, both companies are now run by George David Weiss’ widow Claire, who married Creatore after Weiss’ death in 2010.)

Still, Linda’s heirs still feel stung by the way they claim Disney handled the situation. “The family feels aggrieved by this for two reasons,” says Dladla. “There was no courtesy of informing the family about inclusion of a new version of the song in the movie. And we are not convinced the family is not supposed to derive revenue from the use of a new version of ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’ and are currently in the process of procuring legal advice.” (Dladla also says the family has “not been informed” about an impending payment for the use of “Mbube” in The Lion King, even though the song’s publisher, Folkways, says it has negotiated a deal for that usage; when asked about the terms of the deal, Folkways cited a confidentiality agreement).

But other avenues of income may be in sight. Owen Dean, who stopped working for the family once the settlement the Disney was reached, admits in The Lion’s Share that he felt his contributions to the settlement deal were never fully acknowledged by the family. Yet he now says he would be willing to work with them again to help generate additional income from “Mbube” and “Wimoweh.” Dean says he is “in principle willing to act as the family’s attorney if they ask me to do so,” and Dladla says the Linda trust “would still consider” working with Dean on “other outstanding matters.”

The Linda family could also pursue an audit of Abilene (which has since been combined with another publisher, Creatore Music). Abilene moved its business to another handler, the Dutch company Imagem, in 2013, which in turn was bought by Concord Music two years ago. (Citing the confidentiality of the settlement of 2006, Concord declined comment on whether the company is paying royalties for “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” in the new Lion King, despite the settlement having ended nearly three years ago.) “If they audit, what are they fighting for?” says Spier, who could be on the receiving end of some of that audit. “Ten or 15 thousand dollars? That’s going to cost them a lot more. The song is not making millions of dollars, and they’re not missing out on millions of dollars.”

Others are simply holding out hope that the parties involved, like Disney and Abilene, would simply cut the family in on some of the “Lion Sleeps Tonight” income despite the lapsing of the deal. Those advocates include Bobby Weiss, one of George Weiss’ three children — none of whom receive any income from a song their father used to call “a novelty.” “You go back and listen to that recording from the Thirties, and the progression and melody are there,” says Weiss. “What the fuck, man? [Linda] wrote half that song! There’s copyright law and hiding behind all that bullshit, and there’s doing the right thing.”

Meanwhile, in a refrain that has become hauntingly familiar over decades, the Linda family awaits. “There has been nothing transferred yet,” says Dladla. “But, yes, there is some hope.”

Additional reporting by Jonathan Bernstein


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