George David Weiss, who wrote 'The Lion Sleeps Tonight,' dies at 89

By T. Rees Shapiro
Wednesday, August 25, 2010; B06

George David Weiss, 89, a songsmith whose chart-topping hits in the 1960s included "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" and "What a Wonderful World" and endure as musical standards today, died Aug. 23 at his home near Oldwick, N.J. No cause of death was reported.

Many of Mr. Weiss's songs were performed by giants of the entertainment industry, including Nat King Cole, Perry Como, Ella Fitzgerald and Sammy Davis Jr., and some of his tunes have become memorably tied to their original singers.

His ballad "Can't Help Falling in Love," originally performed by Elvis Presley, peaked on the Billboard charts at No. 2 in 1962 and was featured on the soundtrack of the 1961 surfer film "Blue Hawaii," starring the singer.

Also in 1961, Mr. Weiss added the lyrics, "In the jungle, the mighty jungle," to a popular, infectious melody to create the No. 1 Billboard hit "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" for the Tokens.

Several years later, Mr. Weiss and Bob Thiele wrote "What a Wonderful World" and offered it to Louis Armstrong. But when a prominent record company president heard Armstrong sing "I see trees of green/red roses, too/I see 'em bloom/for me and you," the executive called the tune "a piece of [trash] that isn't going to sell at all."

The song sold 650,000 records in England and floated near the top of the U.S. Billboard charts in 1967 and 1968. The song garnered most of its popularity 20 years later after being featured in the Robin Williams comedy "Good Morning, Vietnam" (1987).

While pitching "Oh! What It Seemed to Be" (1946) to Frank Sinatra, Mr. Weiss nearly broke down at the piano, playing the song over and over.

"The publisher had told me that no matter what happens I should keep playing to make sure the tune got into their heads," Mr. Weiss told the Santa Fe New Mexican in 1995. "Finally, the publisher comes over to me, lifts me up under the armpits and says, 'Say goodbye to Frank.' I said goodbye and they led me out like a zombie."

George David Weiss was born April 9, 1921, in New York. He got his start in music playing saxophone with a traveling band headed for the Catskills and was promised his pick of adoring, young female fans. Instead, the group got locked into a gig playing at a retirement community in the Borscht Belt.

When it came time for Mr. Weiss to choose his career, he wanted to stick with music -- much to the disappointment of his mother, who believed her son should go to law school. He added the clarinet, piano and violin to his repertoire and graduated from the Juilliard School in New York before serving as a military bandleader in World War II.

Mr. Weiss was married and divorced twice before his marriage to Claire Nicholson Weiss in 1976. Calls to his family to confirm a list of survivors were not returned.

From 1982 to 2000, Mr. Weiss was president of the Songwriters Guild of America and testified on Capitol Hill on copyright issues.

The origin of his greatest success, "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," was mired in controversy. The tune was originally composed in 1939 by Solomon Linda, who lived in a shanty in Soweto, a suburb of Johannesburg.

But in 1952, Linda sold the copyrights to a recording of his song -- which he called "Mbube," Zulu for lion -- to a studio for 10 shillings, less than $1.

The song eventually captured the attention of Pete Seeger, who wrote out a rough transcription of the song's main lyrics, "uyimbube, uyimbube," as "wimoweh, wimoweh," and performed it with the Weavers.

Today, more than 150 variations of Linda's original song exist, and it has been featured in more than a dozen movies, including Disney's "The Lion King" (1994).

The song generated tens of millions of dollars in revenue, but when Linda died in 1962 at age 53, he was so poor his widow could not afford a headstone for his grave.

In 2004, Linda's family filed a suit against Abilene Music Inc., the publishing company that owned copyrights to "The Lion Sleeps Tonight." Two years later, Abilene agreed to pay the family the song's royalties retroactively from 1987 onward.

"This song has never died," Mr. Weiss once said of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight." "I never thought of it as a song but rather a series of gimmicks thrown together. It just shows you -- you can't second-guess the public."

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