'If You Wanna Be Happy' By Jimmy Soul: The Offensive & Joyful Classic Song's Lyrics
Jimmy Soul Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images. Single sleeve source: discogs.com
The lyrics of Jimmy Soul’s “If You Wanna Be Happy” make it one of the more offensive, yet somehow totally fun songs from the 1960s. In the song Soul tosses comedic, albeit chauvinistic lyrics giving advice to the listener. Marry an “ugly girl” he says, because she’ll do everything she can to make you happy. She’ll cook well and be faithful just because you gave her the lifetime of happiness all for the kindness of putting a ring on her finger.
There’s no way that this song would fly today, and it definitely wouldn’t be a number one hit, but in 1963 it was easier for this kind of tasteless track to hit the charts. Even so, the song was banned on multiple radio stations. Jimmy Soul never matched the success of this single and if you’re a fan of kitschy culture it’s well worth checking out.
The Song Is Based On An Earlier Single
“If You Wanna Be Happy” wasn’t birthed from the head of Jimmy Soul like Athena from Zeus, instead it was written by producer Frank Guida and his wife Carmella. The song is based on a Trinidadian calypso single by an artist named Roaring Lion called “Ugly Woman” from 1934. Guida wrote the track with artist Gary U.S. Bonds in mind as a vocalist. Bonds was under a production contract with Guida, but if he didn’t feel like a song matched his voice of his sensibilities he passed.
Jimmy Soul, born James Louis McCleese, was contracted by Guida to record songs that Bond didn’t want to perform. The second song that Soul recorded for Guida was “If You Wanna Be Happy” and it was released on the S.P.Q.R. label and distributed by London Records.
Multiple Radio Stations Banned The Song
Released in 1963, Soul’s song was instantly polarizing. Many radio stations took offense at the lyrics about finding an ugly woman or an ugly girl to marry because of the dedication that she would surely offer up to anyone who dared love her in spite of her less-than-catwalk-ready looks. Even in the ‘60s the lyrics to this song were a drag. Saying that anyone is just a sum of their looks is awful and no one likes to be reminded that they don’t live up to the societal expectations of their looks. Even so, there were more people who enjoyed the song than were offended and plenty of stations spun the single upon its release.
Offensive Or Not, It Was A Hit
Even though the song had what some people believed to be offensive content the song still went to number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in May, 1963. It ended up selling more than a million copies, making it a huge hit for this young soul singer. Unfortunately it was the last high charting song he released. The success of “If You Wanna Be Happy” shows that people either aren’t interested in whether or not the lyrical content of a song is politically correct or that all listeners need is a good beat and a chorus they can remember.
Comparing this single to the other hits that were on the charts in ’63 it’s clear that “If You Wanna” is one of the more risqué songs at the time. It must have been shocking to hear this wild soul singer going off about his ugly wife to a boogie woogie beat after Bobby Vinton’s “Blue Velvet” or “My Boyfriend’s Back” by The Angels.
No Matter How Offensive, The Song Is Still Around
The furor around “If You Wanna” hasn’t really held up over the years. While doo-wop songs like this faded out of popularity in the tail end of the ‘60s and during the heady ‘70s, nostalgic filmmakers found ways to use the song and bands and musical artists from across the spectrum found ways to honor the cult Jimmy Soul hit.
Even if you weren’t around in the 1960s you’ve definitely heard the song in movies like Clean and Sober from 1988, as well as Chances Are and Mermaids. It’s even been used in the Rocky and Bullwinkle adaptation from 2014. Clearly no one finds the song as offensive as when it was initially released.
Artists that have brought the song to life are from all over the musical spectrum. Bill Wyman from the Rolling Stones recorded a version of the track on Stone Alone from 1976. Ska royalty The Skatalites recorded a cover, and even hunky b-movie actor Robert Mitchum put his own spin on the track on his album Calypso — Is Like So…!
Weirdly enough, the song is also the soundtrack to the trolling shock site Lemonparty, a page that featured an upsetting image (for some) set to “If You Wanna Be Happy.” It’s a very strange legacy to have and you’ll do yourself a favor by not googling it.
Remember To Sing Along
If you wanna be happy
For the rest of your life,
Never make a pretty woman your wife,
So from my personal point of view,
Get an ugly girl to marry you.
A pretty woman makes her husband look small
And very often causes his downfall.
As soon as he marries her
Then she starts to do
The things that will break his heart.
But if you make an ugly woman your wife,
You'll be happy for the rest of your life,
An ugly woman cooks her meals on time,
She'll always give you peace of mind.
Don't let your friends say
You have no taste,
Go ahead and marry anyway,
Though her face is ugly,
Her eyes don't match,
Take it from me she's a better catch.
Saw your wife the other day.
Yeah, she's ugly.
Yeah, she's ugly but she sure can cook.
The endurance of the song proves that tastes change over the years
Going from a hit single that was banned on multiple radio stations to a song that's covered by a Rolling Stone and featured in a children's movie (not to mention on a shock site that's better left ungoogled) in the span of just over 50 years shows that tastes change and what's offensive to one era of culture will be barely recognizable as upsetting content to the next. "If You Wanna Be Happy" may not be high art but it's a fascinating study of the mercurial nature of political correctness.
Like it? Share with your friends!