PLEDGE WEEK: “If You Wanna Be Happy” by Jimmy Soul

A History of Rock Music in 500 Songs
A History of Rock Music in 500 Songs
PLEDGE WEEK: "If You Wanna Be Happy" by Jimmy Soul

This is a bonus episode, part of Pledge Week 2021. Patreon backers get one of these with every episode of the main podcast. If you want to get those, and to support the podcast, please visit to sign up for a dollar a month or more. 

Click below for the transcript.

In this week’s main episode, we’re taking our first trip to Jamaica, and having our first look at ska music. But of course, ska wasn’t the only music to come out of the Caribbean, and calypso music had already had a great impact on the wider music world. Today we’re going to look at a major R&B hit from 1963 that had its roots in a calypso song from decades earlier. We’re going to look at the career of the great Trinidadian Calypsonian Roaring Lion, and the tragic story of Jimmy Soul, and “If You Wanna Be Happy”:

[Excerpt: Jimmy Soul, “If You Wanna Be Happy”]

Jimmy Soul started his career as a gospel singer, but was signed to SPQR Records with a specific mandate — sometimes Frank Guida, the producer for Gary “US” Bonds’ hits, would come up with something that Bonds didn’t want to record. When that happened, Soul got to sing them instead. This meant that Soul would often get saddled with novelty songs, like his first hit, “Twistin’ Matilda”, which managed to make number twenty-two in the charts:

[Excerpt: Jimmy Soul, “Twistin’ Matilda”]

That was originally a Calypso song from the 1930s, and had been a hit for Harry Belafonte a few years earlier, in a non-Twist version. Soul recorded a follow-up, “When Matilda Comes Back”, but that had no success:

[Excerpt: Jimmy Soul, “When Matilda Comes Back”]

So they tried to repeat the formula, with was another 1930s calypso song that Bonds had rejected, this time a remake of a song from 1933, originally written and performed by the great Calypsonian Roaring Lion. 

Roaring Lion was one of the most important Calypsonians of the pre-war era, and wrote many classics of the genre, including his paeans to other singers like “The Four Mills Brothers”:

[Excerpt: Roaring Lion, “The Four Mills Brothers”]

and “Bing Crosby”:

[Excerpt: Roaring Lion, “Bing Crosby”]

Those of you who know Van Dyke Parks’ album of calypso covers, Discover America, will probably recognise both those songs. 

“Ugly Woman” was another song by Roaring Lion, and it advised men to marry ugly women rather than beautiful ones, because an ugly woman was more likely to stay with her husband:

[Excerpt: Roaring Lion, “Ugly Woman”]

History does not relate what Mrs. Lion thought of that advice. 

Jimmy Soul’s version, retitled “If You Wanna Be Happy”, credited three writers along with Roaring Lion — Frank Guida, Carmella Guida, and Joseph Royster — though the song has very little difference from the original:

[Excerpt: Jimmy Soul, “If You Wanna Be Happy”]

The main difference between Soul’s record and the original was a brief dialogue at the end, presumably included to give the other writers some reason for their credit:

[Excerpt: Jimmy Soul, “If You Wanna Be Happy”]

That dialogue was largely inspired by Bo Diddley’s earlier “Say Man”:

[Excerpt: Bo Diddley, “Say Man”]

“If You Wanna Be Happy” made number one on the Billboard charts, and made the top forty in the UK, where it was also covered by an instrumental group, Peter B’s Looners:

[Excerpt: Peter B’s Looners, “If You Wanna Be Happy”]

That group, with the addition of vocalists Beryl Marsden and Rod Stewart, would later morph into Shotgun Express, before the guitarist and drummer went on to form a blues band, and we’ll be hearing more about Peter Green and Mick Fleetwood in a year or so.

While “If You Wanna Be Happy” made number one, the follow-up was less successful, and I’m not going to excerpt it here. I did excerpt Wynonie Harris’ “Bloodshot Eyes” in the main podcast, and had to think long and hard about including a song that trivialised domestic abuse the way that song does, but Jimmy Soul’s next single, “Treat ‘Em Tough”, goes much further. It is essentially the same tune as “If You Wanna Be Happy”, but rather than the dated but arguably humorous misogyny of advocating marrying an ugly woman, which is pretty much par for the course for 1930s humour, it just flat-out advocates beating up women to keep them in line. I won’t excerpt that, and I don’t suggest you seek it out. It’s a quite vile record.

That only went to number one hundred and eight, and Soul never had another hit, and joined the army. He became a drug addict, and died in prison in 1988, aged forty-seven. Roaring Lion had a rather happier ending, dying in 1999, aged ninety-one, after sixty-five successful years in the music business.

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