DEAR JERRY: After 50 years of hearing “If You Wanna Be Happy” played on radio and TV, I just this week heard a dee jay say that song first came out in the 1940s.
Unfortunately, he didn't mention who recorded the original.
If this is true why has it never been mentioned before, especially in 1963 when it was a huge hit?
Jan Glasser, Las Vegas
DEAR JAN: As one who was glued to the radio in the 1950s and early '60s, then in 1964 began a lengthy radio career, I assure you I never heard or read anything about earlier versions of “If You Wanna Be Happy,” that is until 1994.
In November of '94, Ice Records issued “Roaring Lion - Sacred 78s” (Ice 780563414024), a 25-track CD of vintage calypso tunes by a Trinidad native who recorded and performed as “The Lion,” or “Roaring Lion.”
The jungle cat connection stems from one of his many names, Rafael de Leon (literally: Rafael of lion). He also worked as Hubert Raphael Charles, H.R. Charles, and Macbeth the Great.
In March 1934, this nonconforming calypsonian wrote and recorded “Marry an Ugly Woman,” (Melotone 12965), with both writing and singing credits listing Hubert R. Charles.
The Melotone 78 is the original version (2:32), and the only one titled “Marry an Ugly Woman.” This is the version on the “Roaring Lion - Sacred 78s” CD.
Next, the artist formerly known as Hubert R. Charles recorded a better and slightly slower version of the same basic song, a longer track (3:04) with a shorter title: “Ugly Woman.” Credit on this 1941 release (Decca 18143) is “The Lion Accompanied by Gerald Clark and His Caribbean Serenaders.”
Four years later, The Lion returned to the studio to make a newer version of “Ugly Woman.”
Inexplicably, this 1945 track ended up on the Guild label, and credited to “Gerald Clark and His Original Calypsos Featuring Macbeth the Great” (2:46).
Though Macbeth the Great is the same Trinidadian heard earlier on Melotone and Decca, the songwriting credit on the Guild label is simply “The Lion,” not Macbeth.
In 1946, the Guild “Ugly Woman” got picked up by Musicraft, and that label (M-433) credits “The Lion with Gerald Clark and His Original Calypsos.”
From 1934 to 1946, we know there are three very distinctive recordings, with dissimilar running times, issued by four different labels, and preaching essentially the same advice: “from a logical point of view, it's best to marry a woman uglier than you.”
Which brings us to “If You Wanna Be Happy,” a bouncy tune by Jimmy Soul that spent two weeks at No. 1 in the summer of '63.
His condensed revival of “Ugly Woman” (2:19) retains only a couple of the earlier calypso verses, partly to make room for some jive banter, clearly inspired by Bo Diddley's “Say Man”:
Man 1: Say man
Man 2: Hey baby
Man 1: I saw your wife the other day
Man 2: Yeah
Man 1: Yeah, and she's ug-leeeee
Man 2: Yeah she's ugly but she sure can cook, baby
From 1934 to 1963, this musical story begins here!
DEAR JERRY: One of the cases on the season premier of “The History Detectives” (April 2) pertained to a copy of the “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” sheet music, with an inscription and signature of Bob Nolan.
Of course they discussed the original version, by the Sons of the Pioneers, but what really struck me as odd is they said this western classic was recorded by many other artists, but they named only two: Elvis Presley and the Supremes, who seemingly have no connection to this tune.
Did they even record “Tumbling Tumbleweeds”? If so, it's news to me.
Marissa L. Ewing, Dover, Del.
DEAR MARISSA: You're right. Neither of these superstar performers is associated with “Tumbling Tumbleweeds.”
They should have said something along the lines of “Surprise! Recordings of “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” actually exist by Elvis Presley, and even by Diana Ross and the Supremes.”
Presley never recorded “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” professionally, as in a studio and planned for record release. He and some friends once sang it impromptu during a home jam session that was recorded on a small reel-to-reel tape machine. Much of that material came out in 1999 on the “Home Recordings” CD (RCA/BMG 67676-2).
His “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” is serious and true to the original ballad.
The Supremes' track, however, bears no resemblance to anyone else's “Tumbling Tumbleweeds.” Diana, Florence, and Mary give it an authentic Motown (think “You Can't Hurry Love”) treatment on their 1965 album, “The Supremes Sing Country, Western & Pop” (MT-625).
IZ ZAT SO? Since 1934, over 40 members of the Sons of the Pioneers have come and gone.
Leonard Slye (a.k.a. Roy Rogers), Tim Spencer, and Bob Nolan first worked as the Pioneer Trio in 1933, but switched to Sons of the Pioneers the following year.
Nolan's composition, “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” became the group's first hit (Decca 5047), and inspired a Gene Autry film of the same title, with the song as its theme. Of course Gene sings it in the movie, but he also issued it as a single (Melotone 13315) that became one of his biggest non-holiday hits of the '30s.
In 1940, Nolan's tune was again a best-seller, this time by that legendary cowboy from Tacoma, Wash., Bing Crosby (Decca 3024).