I was amazed how many people I talked to have such a distaste for “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”. They find it whiny, pitchy, repetitive and used far too often in films and television. Are they right?
For what will come as close to a scientific experiment as I can get, I decided to play that song five times in a row, and for five hours afterward I couldn’t get the high pitched “Oooheoooooaweeadumdumoway” out of my head. The day after I played it once and again it stuck there for another five hours. Now, while I don’t hate this song, I can totally understand those who do. This isn’t one of those number one easy listening number ones like Percy Faith’s “A Theme from a Summer Place”, which when it got significant airplay your mind can phase it into the background. You certainly can’t do that with “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”, a song that despite its bedtime friendly name you ironically can’t fall asleep to.
Now, we have had many African-American musicians and songwriters who have been featured in chart topping songs, but we have never had any that taken a “musical” trip to Africa or any song that had an actual African influence. “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” was not an interpretation of what the Tokens (who were from Brooklyn) thought African music would sound like, but this was actually adapted from a South African Zulu chant.
Depending on who you ask or what you read, the actual origin varies, but it is agreed that in 1920, South African Zulu singer, Solomon Yonda, came up with a contemporary version that had the chant in which the harmony was extracted from. Many years later, it would be released under the name “Mbute” (Zulu for Lion) and was a hit in that country amongst the black audience in South Africa and by the late 40’s copies of the record made its way to the United Kingdom, and if a song made it there, the United States was natural next stop.
The song came to the attention of 1950’s folk legend, Pete Seeger and his group, The Weavers who repackaged it as “Wimoweh” and would become a regular part of their live concerts. It would be an oft-covered song by folk artists in the United States, but RCA had a different idea for the tune, one in which the producers envisioned a doo wop version that would sound radically different than anyone had ever imagined before.
For those who were aware of the tradition of the song, or at the very least the folk versions, the new arrangement had to seem like sacrilege. Allegedly, the Tokens themselves wanted nothing to do it, but artists often lose to management, and in this case, the label turned out to be correct as nothing else the group ever released would ever be close to as successful.
The group would have three other Top Forty hits in the Hot 100, but the amount of people who can name any of them might only be relatives of the band, and though it is historically inaccurate, this is a one hit wonder band, and for many of you, an annoying one at that. As for myself, it reminds me a bit of my wife who only knows it as the “weemowah” song, as she remembers it from her childhood as a song that animatronic animals sang at her local zoo when she was a kid. It wasn’t all that long ago that I told her that this was a real song, and not just a chant that the zoo owners came up with and thought would be cute, and I can’t help but think is cute myself.
Now when I had a past girlfriend who thought that “Don’t Fear the Reaper” was a fake song created by Saturday Night Live for the famous “I Need More Cowbell sketch”, it was time to cut bait.
Other Notable Songs that charted but did not go to number one in this time period: December 18, 1961 – January 12, 1962.
12/25/61: Moon River by Henry Mancini went to #11 however reached the top of the Adult Contemporary Chart.
1/12/62: Rock-a-Hula Baby by Elvis Presley went to #23.
 That, and the fact she refused to let me climax, as male ejaculation was disgusting to her. Was that too much information for you?