Sunday, December 18, 2011

50 years ago: The Tokens hit #1 with “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”

The Lion Sleeps Tonight (Wimoweh)

The Tokens

Writer(s): Hugo Peretti, Albert Stanton, Luigi Creatore, Paul Campbell, George Weiss, Roy Ilene (see lyrics here)

Released: October 17, 1961

First Charted: November 13, 1961

Peak: 13 US, 14 CB, 14 HR, 7 RB, 11 UK, 13Click for codes to singles charts.)

Sales (in millions): 1.0 US, -- UK, 6.0 world (includes US + UK)

Airplay/Streaming (in millions): -- radio, 82.93 video, 117.21 streaming


Click on award for more details.

About the Song:

This African folk song dates back to the 1920s. WK South African singer Solomon Linda wrote it in Zulu as “Mbube,” which means lion. The idea came from having to chase lions away from the families’ cattle. SF His group, the Evening Birds, recorded it in 1939. The song became a huge hit across South Africa. SF

Alan Lomax, who became famous for collecting field recordings of folk songs, brought the song to Pete Seeger in 1949. WK His group, the Weavers, adapted it with English lyrics and recorded it in November 1951. WK Seeger misunderstood the word “Uyimbube” (pronounced “oo-yim-bweh-beh” and meaning “you’re the lion”) as “Wimoweh” and retitled the song as such. SF They took the song to #6. The Kingston Trio recorded it in 1959 and Miriam Makeba recorded it with Zulu lyrics in 1960. WK

The Tokens signed with the Warwick label in 1960 and released the song “Tonight I Fell in Love,” which reached #15 on the Billboard Hot 100. This provided them the catalyst to pursue a major label contract with RCA Records. They auditioned with “Wimoweh.” FB

Producers Hugo Peretti and Luigi Creatore added new lyrics to the song and the Tokens recorded it as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” in May 1961 at their second RCA recording session. The group wasn’t sold on the song; their general sentiment being “Who is gonna buy a song about a lion sleeping?” SF Member Phil Margo said, “We were embarrassed by it and tried to convince Hugo and Luigi not to release it. They said it would be a big record and it was going out.” FB

Robert John also had a #3 hit in 1972 with the Tokens singing backup. In 1982, Tight Fit took the song to #1 in the UK. When the song was used in the 1994 Disney animated movie The Lion King, the Tokens’ version was rereleased and reached #51.


  • DMDB encyclopedia entry for The Tokens
  • FB Fred Bronson (2003). The Billboard Book of Number One Hits (5th edition). Billboard Books: New York, NY. Page 102.
  • SF Songfacts
  • WK Wikipedia

First posted 3/13/2021; last updated 10/22/2022.

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