Solomon Linda 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 Linda 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 Pete Seeger and The Weavers in 1948. With lyrics by George David Weiss, the song became a chart-topping pop hit as "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" for The Tokens in 1961. Subsequent hit versions were recorded by Robert John in 1972 and Tight Fit in 1982. Whether named "Mbube," "Wimoweh," or "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," the song has been recorded by more than 150 artists including Jimmy Dorsey, The Kingston Trio, The Spinners, The Tremeloes, Glen Campbell, Brian Eno, They Might Be Giants, Miriam Makeba, R.E.M., Chet Atkins, The Nylons, and Manu Dibango. Among the many films that have featured the song are Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and Disney's The Lion King. Linda -- 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, Linda's widow was left so poor that she was unable to purchase a headstone for his grave. It wasn't until recently that Linda's estate received substantial royalties from the song.
Linda's earliest musical inspiration came when he heard popular Black American vocalist Orpheus McAdoo 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, Linda 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 Linda'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 Eric Gallo'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 Pete Seeger through folklorist Alan Lomax. Seeger changed Linda's words, "Uyimbube, Uyimbube," to "Wimoweh" and recorded it with his group, The Weavers, in an uplifting interpretation arranged and orchestrated by Gordon Jenkins. Seeger, who sent a check for $1,000 to Linda, has continued to publicly credit Linda as the songwriter.
Although the song helped to make Linda a popular performer in South Africa, he received little compensation beyond Seeger's check. Collapsing on stage in 1959, Linda 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, Linda died on October 8, 1962. It took another 18 years before a tombstone was placed on his grave.