Life was good for Frank Guida during the early 1960s. He was a songwriter/producer who also owned the Legrand label and its subsidiary SPQR Records. Gary U.S. Bonds and Tommy Facenda had just had big hits for Legrand. Enter, James McCleese, who was professionally known as Jimmy Soul. Frank Guida didn’t know it at the time but his life was about to get even better.
There was an old calypso song called “Ugly Woman” by Roaring Lion that came to the attention of Guida. He and two friends wrote a song based on the melody and so “If You Wanna Be Happy” was born. “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.” Not the most politically correct song but when combined with the catchy melody, it became one of the more memorable tunes of the 1960s pre-Beatles/British Invasion era.
Jimmy Soul had had a moderate hit during 1962 with a cover of the calypso song “Twistin’ Matilda,” which had been popularized by Harry Belafonte. Based on that performance, he was selected to sing “If You Wanna Be Happy.” It proved to be a good match as the release sold over a million copies and topped the Billboard magazine Hot 100 chart 50 years ago, beginning May 18, 1963, where it remained for two weeks. It reached number one on the Rhythm & Blues chart as well.
Jimmy was born in Harlem but grew up on a farm in North Carolina where he became immersed in the gospel music of the South. He toured the country with the popular gospel vocal group, The Nightingales, before turning to rock and roll. He became a fixture on the southern night club circuit until being signed by Guida.
None of his follow-up singles managed to chart and so he joined the U.S. Army, which effectively ended his music career. He passed away in 1988 at the age of 45.
While he only had two hits, 50 years ago this week (and next week), his “If You Wanna Be Happy” ruled the American music world.