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is best remembered as the writer of "Mbube" (translated as "The Lion"), one of the most successful songs to come out of South Africa. Although
recorded the first version with his group, The Evening Birds, in 1939, the song became an internationally-recognized classic when it was renamed "Wimoweh" and recorded by
in 1948. With lyrics by
George David Weiss
, the song became a chart-topping pop hit as "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" for
in 1961. Subsequent hit versions were recorded by
in 1972 and
in 1982. Whether named "Mbube," "Wimoweh," or "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," the song has been recorded by more than 150 artists including
The Kingston Trio
They Might Be Giants
. Among the many films that have featured the song are Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and Disney's The Lion King.
-- who was recorded one pound cash for the song -- never benefited from the song's success. According to a major article published in the May 25, 2000 issue of Rolling Stone,
's widow was left so poor that she was unable to purchase a headstone for his grave. It wasn't until recently that
's estate received substantial royalties from the song.
's earliest musical inspiration came when he heard popular Black American vocalist
performing with his group, The Virginia Jubilee Singers, at Gordon Memorial School in the South African village of Msinga. Shortly after moving to Johannesburg, in the mid-'30s,
began singing during weekends with an acapella group. Within two years, the singers had evolved into the more professional group, Solomon Linda And The Evening Birds. With
's soprano lead vocals setting the pace, the group became one of the pioneers of isicathamiya, an energetic style of vocalizing characterized by doubled bass voices and exciting choreography.
Discovered by a talent scout in 1938, the Evening Birds and producer Griffith Motsieloa recorded several songs in
's recording studio. During their second session, "Mbube" was recorded in four takes. Copies were shipped to England as 10" 78 rpm discs and became a word-of-mouth hit, selling more than 100,000 copies by 1948. The song reached the ears of
changed Linda's words, "Uyimbube, Uyimbube," to "Wimoweh" and recorded it with his group,
, in an uplifting interpretation arranged and orchestrated by
, who sent a check for $1,000 to
, has continued to publicly credit
as the songwriter.
Although the song helped to make
a popular performer in South Africa, he received little compensation beyond
's check. Collapsing on stage in 1959,
was diagnosed with kidney disease. His family has continued to blame witchcraft for his ailment. After a lengthy period spent in and out of the hospital,
died on October 8, 1962. It took another 18 years before a tombstone was placed on his grave.
Craig Harris, Rovi
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