Pop music has always been filled with stories of prematurely shortened careers — and lives — and we’ve featured our share of them on the GMC. Another good example would be Jimmy Soul, who was known as the ‘Wonder Boy’ during his childhood. (More later about that.) As an adult performer he hit the top of the charts with the bouncy “If You Wanna Be Happy” in 1963, but was unable to sustain a musical career and eventually died from natural causes at just age 45.
Born James McCleese in rural North Carolina, he was always deeply involved in his church, even taking to the pulpit as a child. As he grew into his teens he also blossomed into a much-appreciated gospel singer, and it all added up to him becoming known as the ‘Wonder Boy’.
By the time he reached adulthood in the early 1960s, he’d caught the attention of songwriter/producer Grank Guida, who was looking for someone to promote alongside his established star, Gary U.S. Bonds, and perform some calypso-style songs that didn’t quite fit Bonds’ persona. Young McCleese — now performing as Jimmy Soul — soon hit the recording studio and subsequently had a minor hit with “Twistin’ Matilda.” He followed up with “If You Wanna Be Happy,” which shot to the top of the charts in 1963.
But even though he continued to make records, often returning to the Caribbean sound that had worked for him before, Jimmy Soul was unable to maintain any momentum in his musical career. Within a few years he’d left the music business, joined the Army, and faded from public view. His death from a heart attack in 1988 brought a brief surge in sales of his old records, as is usually the case.