Soul Serenade: Jimmy Soul, “If You Wanna Be Happy”

Jimmy SoulI chose this week’s song with some trepidation. It has been on my list of prospective features for a long time. The obvious reason is that on its surface, this song is a long way from politically correct and in the current climate that can generate more controversy than I’m interested in dealing with. But wait a minute. Let’s look a little below the surface. What is Jimmy Soul really saying in “If You Wanna Be Happy”?

First a little about the singer himself. Jimmy Soul was born in North Carolina and as you may have guessed, Soul was not his family name. James Louis McCleese was preaching by the time he was seven and singing gospel in his teenage years. It was his church congregation that gave him the “Soul” moniker.

Soul toured the south a variety of gospel groups and acquired some popularity in the Norfolk, Virginia area. It was there that he encountered Frank Guida who was a songwriter and producer ass well as being the manager of Gary U.S. Bonds among other artists. Guida thought that Soul would be a good substitute for Bonds on songs that Bonds had declined to record and when you listen to “If You Wanna Be Happy” you will notice a decided similarity to the sound of the Bonds hits. It’s a sound that has had a noticeable impact on producers and artists who came later.

Jimmy Soul“If You Wanna Be Happy” was written by Guida along with his wife Carmella and Joseph Royster. It was based on a song called “Ugly Woman” that had been recorded by the Trinidadian calypso singer Roaring Lion in 1934. The record was released on Guida’s own S.P.Q.R. label and distributed by London Records in the United States. Despite the fact that the “ugly woman” lyrics got the song banned by many radio stations “If You Wanna Be Happy” shot to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in May 1963. The single sold over a million copies and earned a gold record. It was the second hit for Soul who had scored with “Twistin’ Matilda” the previous year.

Jimmy Soul kept trying but he could never match the success of the two singles. He finally gave up his career as a musician and joined the Army. Sadly, drugs became a problem for Soul and landed him in prison in the 1980s. He died of a heart attack in 1988 at the age of 45.

Now about those lyrics. Yes, they’re hard to defend and yet the point of the lyrics is clearly that looks aren’t everything. It’s a positive message which is unfortunately delivered in a rather offensive way. And yet, in 1963, “If You Wanna Be Happy” captured hearts around the world with the unrestrained joy that leaped from the grooves of the record.

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