In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
Postwar American culture was so weird about folk music. These ancient songs, recorded cheaply and muddily, were being reinterpreted as goofy novelty songs, and then those novelty songs were becoming enormously popular. It could happen with an Appalachian murder ballad like “Tom Dooley.” It could happen with a South African Zulu song like “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” And it could happen with calypso, too.
I have to believe that “Ugly Woman” was, more or less, already a novelty song when the Trinidadian singer Mighty Lion recorded it in 1934. Over jaunty guitars and tootling clarinets, Mighty Lion sang about how the smart thing to do was always to “marry a woman uglier than you.” So the North Carolina-born R&B journeyman Jimmy Soul wasn’t exactly violating the spirit of the song when he turned it into a goofy, fired-up extended sitcom joke.
Jimmy Soul, who’d grown up singing gospel, was, like Gary U.S. Bonds before him, a discovery of the songwriter and producer Frank Guida. And like Gary U.S. Bonds’ “Quarter To Three” before it, “If You Wanna Be Happy” is a boisterous, fun song with muddy, lo-fi production that somehow enhances its sense of abandon. It’s a riot of competing noises and effects: chanting backing vocalists, crowd noises, whistles, a hyperactive xylophone, a bouncy sax solo, a few Frankie Valli-esque falsetto yips, a mid-song comedy skit where someone calls someone else’s wife ugly. In a weird way, it’s more fun to picture the scene in the recording studio than it is to actually hear the song.
If you think about the song for long enough, though, it gets pretty bleak. It conveys an image of love and marriage as a constant power struggle where the only way to win is to be the better-looking half of the equation: “A pretty woman makes her husband feel small / And very often causes his downfall.” To even think about this song’s politics for a few seconds is to violate its intentionally goofy spirit, but that grim logic, combined with the repetitive-to-the-point-of-insanity hook, keep me from getting a whole lot out of this one.
BONUS BEATS: Before he joined the Nation Of Islam, and eventually became its leader, Louis Farrakhan made his living as a calypso singer. Here’s his early-’50s recording of “Ugly Woman”: