George Weiss is perceived by many as a white devil in that he used the idea of a man from the poverty stricken Africa as a money making venture. He took the original song by Solomon Linda, presented to him by The Tokens, and changed the sound and lyrics of it. The content of the original song was placed in the childhood of the singing group Linda was part of, Linda Solomon and the early birds. It was a narrative about them being boys chasing the lions away from their fathers’ cattle. Weiss changed it to a song about a lion sleeping in a mighty jungle. Linda did not see much of the benefits of the song that fell from his mind onto his lungs and was projected out in a seamless falsetto. This could be accredited to the uncertainty around the copyright issues of the song. Where Linda died in poverty not seeing the fruits of his song, Weiss rose from his metaphorical ashes and made the song a widespread hit.

While that is a good argument to go by, Weiss is painted with unpleasant colours because his actions are seen as an injustice to Linda and his family through the lens of morality. I agree that too the extent of his music career he lacks a soul, and on an ethical level should perhaps feel bad about his choices that wronged in Solomon in however many ways. I would like to suggest that the music business (business being the operative word here) isn’t about ensuring that your moral compass is always facing north. It is a money making business which seeks to do just while providing entertainment by any means possible.

Weiss took Linda’s song and gave it modern appeal. He took something that was generationally relevant and gave it a contemporary feel for it to be exposed to a broader audience. He adapted it and added an element of timelessness so that Linda’s song would be known to generations to come. This generation includes me. I remember gathering with my brother religiously once a week in my mom’s room to watch the ultimate Disney movie, The Lion King. I could quote every line and sing along to every song. I would cry each time I saw Mufasa lost grip of the branch falling to his death into the stampeding cattle and get excited when Nala and Simba ended up together regardless of the fact that I had seen it seven days prior. I would experience the same joy every time the warthog and meercat would talk in jest and sing in perfect unity. I distinctly remember the first time I heard the adaption of Linda’s song as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”. Timon and Pumbaa’s a cappella rendition still reverberates in my skull as I recall the scene where they are walking in the forest happily bobbing and singing away as with Timon getting carried away in wailing while Pumbaa goes off trail and gets lost. This sort of exposure of the song is not likely to have been possible had it not been adapted to encompass an audience of children and adults alike.

No obligation to Linda was required from Weiss in accrediting or acknowledging him for the use of the idea of his song. If Weiss was to do so it would be voluntary. People view it as an injustice based on morality and ethics, yet business is about churning out good music as well as making money. Which he did. A lot of it. A contract was not drawn up between Linda and Gallo records or with anyone else that whose version of Linda’s song was made which makes sense considering the context of the marginalized and oppressed position of black people, highlighted in this industry. The extent of the copyright was a Linda’s name and the song title on a 78-rmp record. Hardly anything legal. Weiss was therefore not legally bound by any agreement spoken or otherwise. He simply saw an opportunity and took initiative. He made use of the resources within his reach. It may be argued that it was at the expense of an innocent man who should have been given that same amount of exposure, but Weiss just did what he knew best.

As for Linda’s family: they did not do much except be related to him, and even that should be attributed to nature. His riches, or lack thereof, were passed onto them by virtue of the fact that they share a blood line and a surname, not because they earned it. One cannot but wonder that had the contestation around Linda and royalties owed unto him not occurred would they know any different and cared.

Linda did get some form of acknowledgment for his work which was not a requirement but was done out of moral code and courtesy. It could have also been done to add to a gimmick where American artists would be seen working with an authentic piece from Africa. This would add to the anticipation and growing of the song. Weiss was simply doing what he was getting paid for. As much as many regard George Weiss as unjust riddled with no morals, I argue that the consideration of that would lose his true intent: to be proactive in his decisions and make a success out of a song that would have possibly just been a passing fad (with its lifespan lasting as long as the Weavers success) or just remained a part of oral tradition in Africa.

The original “mbube” was adapted to a contemporary version for the benefit of the music sphere as well as George Weiss’ career. It also exposed the song to the American population, where the entertainment industry was and still is booming. That is where it ultimately became timeless. By including “the lion sleeps tonight” in movies such as The Lion King and Ace Ventura, both popular at different times and to different audiences, it defied time and is still a familiar tune amongst my generation. In an industry where songs have the tendency to be fads he was able to take a song, even birthed from another man’s mind, and adapted to one of the most used and most sung songs of the 20th century.

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