A hunting song originally sung in Zulu in what is now Swaziland, the original title was "Mbube," which means lion.
This was popularized in the 1930s by South African singer Solomon Linda, who recorded it in 1939 with his group, The Evening Birds. Apparently they were a bold bunch, and got the idea from when they used to chase lions who were going after the cattle owned by their families.
Solomon Linda recorded the song in Johannesburg, South Africa after being discovered by a talent scout. The chanting was mostly improvised, but worked extraordinarily well. Released on the Gallo label, it became a huge hit across South Africa. Around 1948, Gallo sent a copy to Decca Records in the US, hoping to get it distributed there. Folk singer Pete Seeger got a hold of it and started working on an English version.
In the 1950s, Miriam Makeba recorded this with the Zulu lyrics, and Pete Seeger recorded it with his band, The Weavers (who dominated the charts with "Goodnight Irene"). The Weavers recorded the refrain of the song (no verses) and called it "Wimoweh." Their version hit #15 on the US Best Sellers charts in 1952. In 1957, it was included on, The Weavers At Carnegie Hall, a very popular album in the world of folk music.
Seeger thought they were saying "Wimoweh" on the original, and that's what he wrote down and how it was recorded in English. They were actually saying "Uyimbube," which means "You're a Lion." It was misheard for "Wimeoweh" because when pronounced, Uyimbube sounds like: oo-yim-bweh-beh.
Hank Medress, Jay Siegel, and Phil and Mitch Margo, who made up The Tokens, had a Top 15 hit "Tonight I Fell in Love" in 1960, but didn't have a record label in 1961. They auditioned for producers Hugo and Luigi (Peretti and Creatore) by singing "Wimoweh" to them. Hugh and Luigi were impressed by the performance but decided that the song needed new lyrics. With help from George Weiss, Hugo and Luigi rewrote the song, giving it the title "The Lion Sleeps Tonight." The Tokens thought this had been nothing more than an elaborate audition - "Who is gonna buy a song about a lion sleeping" was their general sentiment. They were so embarrassed with the new title and lyrics that they fought the release of the recording (it was scheduled to be the B-side of another "import," a Portuguese song that they recorded in the same May 1961 session, "Tina").
Influential disc jockey Murray the K pushed "Tina," but once a New England DJ started playing the B-side on the air, "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" started its climb to the #1 position, hitting the top of the charts in the Christmas holidays of 1961-62.
The run at #1 for "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" was interrupted by a unique event: the return to #1 by Chubby Checker's "The Twist" 17 months after it hit the top spot on the Hot 100 for the first time.
The Kingston Trio recorded this in 1959 on their Live From The Hungry i LP. When introducing the song, singer Dave Guard stated that "Mbube" was a song about a sleeping lion (he doesn't refer to the song by name: he gives the background of the song before the Trio sings it). Part of the translated lyrics, as given by Guard: "Hush! Hush! If we all be quiet, there will be lion meat for dinner."
The success of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" didn't ensure long-term recording security for The Tokens as a singing group. They didn't have a singing/recording contract, but they DID have a producing contract! After "Lion," members of the group had producing success with the Chiffons ("He's So Fine," "One Fine Day," "Sweet Talkin' Guy"), the Happenings ("See You in September," "My Mammy") and Dawn ("Knock Three Times," "Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree"). In 1971, they produced a note-for-note remake of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" by Robert John - with Jay, Hank, and Mitch singing backgrounds and Ellie Greenwich singing bass. The new version peaked at #3.
When Hank left the group in 1972, the Tokens renamed themselves Cross Country and recorded an album. Their version of the Wilson Pickett hit "In the Midnight Hour" hit the Top 30 in 1973; the group disbanded shortly afterwards.
A number of movies and TV series have used this song, often sung by the characters. The most popular (and obvious) is in Disney's 1994 movie The Lion King, where it is sung by Timon the meerkat (Nathan Lane) and Pumba the warthog (Ernie Sabella).