Thursday, March 23, 2006

The legacy of one of my favorite songs

`Lion Sleeps Tonight' deal likely to boost poor musicians

By Michelle Faul
Associated Press
Published March 23, 2006

JOHANNESBURG -- Three impoverished South African women, whose father wrote "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," have won a six-year battle for royalties in a landmark case that could affect musicians worldwide.

Article continues...No one is saying how many millions will go to the daughters of the late composer Solomon Linda, who died in poverty from a curable kidney disease in 1962 at age 53.

But the family's settlement last month with New York-based Abilene Music gives Linda's heirs 25 percent of past and future royalties, has broad implications.

Linda composed his now-famous song in 1939 in one of the squalid hostels that housed black migrant workers in Johannesburg. According to family lore, he wrote the song in a matter of minutes and was inspired by his childhood tasks of chasing prowling lions from the cattle he herded.

It was sung, in true Zulu tradition, a cappella. Linda's innovation was to add his falsetto voice, an overlay of haunting "eeeeeees," to the baritone and bass main line. To this day, this style is called Mbube in South Africa. Mbube is the Zulu word for lion.

The song sold more than 100,000 copies over a decade, probably making it Africa's first big pop hit.

In the 1950s, at a time when apartheid laws robbed blacks of negotiating rights, Linda sold worldwide copyright to Gallo Records of South Africa for 10 shillings, or less than $1.70.

Gallo also tried to sell the work in the United States, but American folk singer Pete Seeger had adapted a version that he called "Wimoweh."

Then it became one of the best known songs in the world as "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," attributed to George Weiss, Hugo Peretti and Luigi Creatore.

Owen Dean, South Africa's leading copyright lawyer, argued successfully for Linda's family that under the British Imperial Copyright Act of 1911, which was in force in South Africa at the time Linda composed his song, all rights revert to the heirs, who are entitled to renegotiate royalties.

"Now the way has been shown," Dean said. "Others in similar circumstances can fight such injustice, and I have no doubt that there are other people in this position."

The 1911 act affects all countries that were part of the British Empire at that time--a third of the world.

It remains to be seen how the settlement with Abilene, which holds the copyright to the popular songs that grew from Linda's composition, will affect his family. Abilene Music couldn't immediately be reached for comment.

Of his three surviving daughters, only the youngest has a job, as a nurse, and she still lives in the family home in Soweto, a satellite suburb set up for black workers under apartheid. Her sisters never reached high school. One runs a home-based grocery. The other recently lost her job cleaning a doctor's office and supports a daughter who gets some work cleaning homes.

Linda's fourth daughter died of AIDS in her 30s in 2002 as the lawsuit dragged on, without money to buy drugs that could have saved her life.

Kevin Chang, a Jamaican reggae expert, said the case means that "musicians living in poverty, and other artists, may finally be rewarded for their work."

Chang believes the decision could be applied to a continuing British court case in which Carlton Barrett of Bob Marley and the Wailers is suing Marley's estate for royalties, arguing songs he co-authored are being credited only to Marley.

Web sites list hundreds of versions of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight." Folk, swing, minstrel, big band, reggae and R&B versions have been sung over the years. The American doo-wop group The Tokens reached No. 1 on the Billboard charts with the song in 1961.

In the 1970s, Linda's widow signed over the rights to Abilene.

The song was featured on the soundtrack in Disney's blockbuster musical "The Lion King," one of at least 15 movies in which it has featured.

"The musical was netting millions of dollars, and Solomon Linda's daughters were trying to survive as domestic servants, not earning enough to feed their families," said Dean, the copyright lawyer.

Dean's tactics included winning a court order last year freezing Disney's rights to income in South Africa from legendary trademarks including Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Winnie the Pooh pending resolution of the dispute. That appears to have been a turning point, though Disney never was sued in the court case.

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