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The annals of a curious lawsuit
It's November 1991, and we're in a bland conference room in the American Arbitration Association's New York headquarters. At the head of a long table sit three veteran copyright lawyers who will act as judges in these proceedings. Ranged before them are the warring parties: the entire cast of the 1961 "Lion Sleeps Tonight" plagiarism contretemps, either in person or legally represented.
Hugo Perretti died a few years back, but fortune has smiled hugely on the rest of the guys since last we saw them. Howie Richmond published the Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd for a while and is now rich beyond wild imaginings. His sidekick Al Brackman (who got ten percent of all Howie's deals) is rich, too, and putters around in boats on weekends and winters at his second home near San Diego. Luigi Creatore has retired to Florida on the proceeds of his many hit records, and George Weiss is a successful composer of movie scores and musicals.
In the fall of 1989, just as the initial copyright on "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" was about to expire, Howie and Al were notified by George Weiss that he and his fellow writers would dispense with TRO's services in the renewal term unless they were paid a handsome bonus. Failing this, they'd renew the "Lion" copyright in their own names and thereafter publish the song themselves, thus cutting Howie and Al out entirely and pocketing their fifty percent share. The publishers were incensed, pointing out that "Lion" would never have existed if they hadn't allowed Weiss and Co. to "plagiarize" the underlying music, "Mbube and "Wimoweh." To which the "Lion" team responded, in effect, how can you accuse us of stealing something you gave us in 1961? The fight went to court in 1990 and wound up in this arbitration months later - a band of rich white Americans squabbling over ownership of the most famous melody ever to emerge from Africa.
The music industry is riveted, because these men are pillars of the showbiz establishment. Al sits on the board of the Music Publisher's Association. Howie founded the Songwriters' Hall of Fame. George Weiss is president of the Songwriters Guild of America and a tireless champion of downtrodden tunesmiths. As such, he can't possibly say that "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" infringes on the work of a fellow composer, and he doesn't. Sure, he says at the hearing, the Tokens "threw the music together" using a "few themes they knew from this Weavers' record," but so what? Weiss said he'd been told that "Wimoweh" was just Pete Seeger's interpretation of "an old thing from Africa," so they hadn't really plagiarized anyone. To prove his point, Weiss produces the liner notes of an old Miriam Makeba record in which "Mbube" is described as "a familiar Zulu song about a lion hunt". TRO counters by playing the miracle take from Linda's 1939 session, backed up by a yellowing affidavit in which the Zulu swears that "Mbube" was wholly original. At this juncture Weiss backs down, saying, in essence, gee, sorry, all this is news to me, and the hearing moves on to the real issue, which is the validity of the 1961 contract between TRO and the "Lion" trio. Drawn up in a spirit of boundless mutual admiration, the contract allows the Weiss parties free use of "Wimoweh" and "Mbube" in "The Lion Sleeps Tonight", with no royalty provisions for the author of the underlying songs. Some observers find it a bit curious that TRO should now start shouting. "Hold on! Our own contract's inaccurate! The underlying music never belonged to them! They can't just take it!"
Apparently worried that they might not be taken seriously, a change comes over the men from TRO. After decades of slipping the Zulus a pittance, they suddenly develop a touching concern for Solomon's descendants. "The defendants seek to deprive Mr. Linda's family of royalties," says Larry Richmond, directing the brunt of his attack at George Weiss. The president of the Songwriters' Guild should be "protecting the poor families of songwriters", Larry declares, not robbing them. Stung by these accusations, the Weiss parties say that if they win the case they'll give a share to Solomon's estate. The publishers then raise the ante, declaring that the family is rightfully entitled to up to a half of the "Lion's" enormous spoils.
Amazing, no? If TRO had enforced such a distribution in 1961, Solomon's daughters might be millionaires, but nobody informed them that this dispute was taking place, so there was no one to laugh (or cry) on their behalf.
The arbitrators weren't very impressed, either they awarded "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" to Weiss and Co., with the proviso that they send "ten percent of writers' performance royalties" to Soweto. The order came into effect on January 1st, 1992, just as the song set forth on a new cycle of popularity. That very year, a new recording by name tk rose to the top of the Japanese hit parade. Pow Wow's version made Number One in France in 1993. Then someone at Disney wrote a cute little scene in which a cartoon warthog and meerkat prance hand-in-hand through a forest glade, singing, "In the jungle, the mighty jungle . . ." The song had been used in at least nine earlier movies, but Lion King turned into a supernova. Every kid on the planet had to have the video and the vast array of nursery CDs that went with it. The Tokens' recording bounced back into the U.S. charts, and Disney arranger Lebo M's version went platinum.
George Weiss could barely contain his glee. "The song leads a magical life," he told reporters. "It's been a hit eight or nine times but never like this. It's going wild!" The great composer came across as a diffident fellow, somewhat bemused by his enormous good fortune. "The way all this happened was destiny," he said. "It was mysterious, it was beautiful. I have to say God smiled at me."
On the other hand, he was visible in the New York Times' Sunday magazine, which had just run a six-page spread on his awesome retreat in rural New Jersey. I drove out to Oldwick and found the place an eighteenth-century farmhouse in a deer-filled glade, with a pool and a recording studio in the outbuildings, but Weiss wasn't there. Maybe he was in Santa Fe, where he maintains a hacienda of sorts. Maybe he was in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, where he and his wife were building a house on a bluff overlooking the sea. I gave up, returned to my hotel and wrote him a letter. Weiss faxed back almost immediately, saying he was "distressed" to hear that Solomon had been shabbily treated in the past. "As you can see", he continued, "none of that was our doing". While we had no legal obligation to Mr. Linda whatsoever, when we gained control of our song, we did what we thought was correct and equitable so that his family could share in the profits."
A nice gesture, to be sure, but what did "Lion" earn in the Nineties? A million dollars? Two? Three? Ten? And what trickled down to Soweto? Judging from xxx tattered scraps of paper in the daughters' possession, ten percent of writer's performance royalties amounted to about $12,000 over the decade. Handwritten and unsigned, the notes appeared to be royalty statements, but there was no detailed breakdown of the song's overall earnings, and Weiss' business people declined to provide one, despite several requests.
Twelve grand was nice money in Soweto terms, but split several ways it changed little or nothing. Solomon Linda's house still had no ceilings, and it was like an oven under the African summer sun. Plaster flaked off the walls outside; toddlers squalled underfoot; three radios blared simultaneously. Fourteen people were living there, sleeping on floors for the most part, washing at an outdoor tap. Only Elizabeth was working, and when she moved out, most of the furniture went with her. Last time I visited, in January, the kitchen was barren save for six pots and a lone formica table. Linda's youngest daughter, Adelaide, lay swooning under greasy bedclothes, gravely ill from an infection she was too poor to have properly treated. A distant relative wandered around in an alcoholic stupor, waving a pair of garden shears and singing snatches of "Mbube". Elizabeth put her hands to her temples and said, "Really, we are not coping."
All the sisters were there: Fildah, with her sangoma's headdress swathed in a bright red scarf; Elizabeth and Delphi in their best clothes; Adelaide, swaying back and forth on a chair, dazed, sweat pouring down her gaunt cheekbones. I'd come to report back to them on my adventures in the mysterious overseas, bringing a pile of legal papers that I did my best to explain. I told them about Paul Campbell, the fictitious entity who seemed to have collected big money that might otherwise have come their way, and about Larry Richmond, who wept crocodile tears on their behalf in a legal proceeding that might have changed their destiny if only they'd been aware of it. And, finally, I showed them the letter in which George Weiss assured me that his underlings were depositing a "correct and equitable" share into the bank account of their mother, "Mrs. Linda", who had been dead and buried for a decade.
The daughters had never heard of any of these foreigners, but they had a shrewd idea of why all this had happened. "It's because our father didn't attend school", Elizabeth said. "He was just signing everything they said he must sign. Maybe he was signing many papers". Everyone sighed, and that was that.
Part Four: in which a moral is considered Once upon a time, a long time ago, a Zulu man stepped up to a microphone and improvised a melody that earned in the region of $15 million. That Solomon Linda got almost none of it was probably inevitable. He was a black man in white-ruled South Africa, but his American peers fared little better. Robert Johnson's contribution to the blues went largely unrewarded. Leadbelly lost half of his publishing to his white "patrons." DJ Alan Freed refused to play Chuck Berry's "Maybellene" until he was given a songwriter's cut. Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love" was nicked off Willie Dixon. All musicians were minnows in the pop-music food chain, but blacks were most vulnerable, and Solomon Linda, an illiterate tribesman from a wild valley where lions roamed, was totally defenseless against sophisticated predators.
Which is not to say that he was cheated. On the contrary, all the deals were perfectly legal, drawn up by respectable men. No one forced him to sell "Mbube" to Eric Gallo for ten shillings, and if Gallo turned around and traded it at a profit, so what? It belonged to him. The good old boys of TRO were perfectly entitled to rename the song, adapt it as they pleased and allocate the royalties to nonexistent entities. After all, they were its sole and uncontested owners. Linda was legally entitled to nothing. The fact that he got anything at all seemed to show that the bosses were not without conscience or pity.
I sat back and waited for someone to make it. I waited in vain.
Where Does the Lion Sleep Tonight
Mbube - letters links & feedback - January 2004
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