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I Want to Be Happy (1924)

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Origin and Chart Information
“For Youmans, especially, the secret lay in straightforward phrasing, limited vocal and melodic range, and simple variations of rhythms, which offset the deliberately underplayed lyrics of Irving Caesar.”

- Andrew Lamb

Rank 215
Music Vincent Youmans
Lyrics Irving Caesar

“I Want to Be Happy,” by composer Vincent Youmans and lyricist Irving Caesar is from the Broadway show No, No Nanette which was ultimately a big success but had a checkered beginning. Most sources date its opening to 1924, and one source claims that it was first presented in London. However, in Andrew Lamb’s book 150 Years of Popular Musical Theatre he says, “No, No, Nanette (1923) took almost two and a half years to move from its Detroit premiere to Broadway’s Globe Theatre, having undergone extensive rewriting and having enjoyed a twelve-month run in Chicago along the way. It had also begun a run of almost two years in London, which was now only too ready to lap up the latest American successes.”


More on Irving Caesar at JazzBiographies.com

More on Vincent Youmans at JazzBiographies.com

After revisions to the show were completed, it did, indeed, open on March 11, 1925, at London’s Palace Theatre, six months prior to its Broadway opening, and ran for 665 performances. The London cast starred Binnie Hale, Joseph Coyne, and George Grossmith, Jr. The show opened on September 16, 1925, at Broadway’s Globe Theatre and ran for 321 performances. The Broadway cast featured Louise Groody, Jack Barker, and Charles Winninger. Despite earlier versions of “I Want to Be Happy” it can be said that Groody and Barker introduced the song on Broadway.

The 1971 revival at the Forty-Sixth Street Theatre in New York ran for 861 performances and starred Susan Watson, Roger Rathburn, and Jack Gilford in the leading roles. It also brought Ruby Keeler out of retirement to perform an energetic tap dance to “I Want to Be Happy.” The revival won multiple Tony and Drama Desk awards.

Lamb says that the show illustrated the move from 19th century operetta to modern songwriting, and he calls No, No, Nanette “the paradigm of the 1920’s song-and-dance musical.” “For Youmans, especially, the secret lay in straightforward phrasing, limited vocal and melodic range, and simple variations of rhythms, which offset the deliberately underplayed lyrics of Irving Caesar. These were features of ‘I Want to Be Happy’...and ‘Tea for Two’....”

David Ewen in All the Years of American Popular Music similarly describes the economy of the two hit songs from the show, “I Want to Be Happy” and “Tea for Two.” “A disarming simplicity concealed the skill of their structure, the ease with which a melodic line moved, the natural way in which accents fell, the subtlety of the rhythmic pulse and syncopation.”

“I Want to Be Happy” charted several times over thirteen years:

  • Carl Fenton and His Orchestra (1924, Billy Jones, Ernest Hare, Wilfred Glenn, Elliot Shaw, vocal, peaking at #5 over three weeks)
  • Vincent Lopez and His Orchestra (1925, seven weeks, two of them at #2)
  • Jan Garber and His Orchestra (1925, 5 weeks, peaking at #5)
  • Shannon Four comprised of Charles Hart, Lewis James, Elliot Shaw, Wilfred Glenn (1925, one week, peaking at #13) In 1926 this group became the Revelers.
  • Red Nichols (cornet) and Adrian Rollini (baritone sax) (1930, one week, peaking at #19)
  • Benny Goodman and His Orchestra (1937, one week, peaking at #17)

Chart information used by permission from
Joel Whitburn's Pop Memories 1890-1954

Film versions of the show were brought out in 1930 (starring Bernice Claire, Alexander Gray, and Lucien Littlefield) and 1940 (starring Anna Neagle, Richard Carlson, and Roland Young). S.Z. Sakall played Jimmy in 1950’s Tea for Two which updated the plot for stars Doris Day and Gordon McRae, who sang “I Want to Be Happy.”

The frothy plot involves the young ward (Nanette) of a wealthy Bible publisher (Jimmy) whose innocent flirtations have gotten him into hot water with his wife. Nanette’s efforts to help him are entangled with her own romances, but all ends happily. “I Want to Be Happy” is sung, usually as a duet, by different characters in each of the productions: sometimes by Nanette and Jimmy, sometimes by Nanette and her boyfriend, and in the 1971 revival by Nanette, Jimmy, his wife (played by Keeler), and a group of boys and girls.

The optimistic lyric was written during a period of light-heartedness and prosperity in America. It links the singer’s happiness to the need to make his/her mate happy and makes the general observation: “Life’s really worth living, When you are mirth giving.”

Stan Getz recorded “I Want to Be Happy” with the Oscar Peterson Trio, and it has been covered by the Glenn Miller Orchestra, bassist Charles Mingus, vocalist Sarah Vaughan, violinist Joe Venuti, and pianist Thelonious Monk. Since 2000 it has been recorded by bassist Ray Brown, trombonist Bill Watrous, pianists Monty Alexander and Cedar Walton, vocalist Stephanie Nakasian, and saxophonist Scott Hamilton. Both vocalist Tierney Sutton and guitarist John Pisano recorded the song in 2007.

More information on this tune...

William Zinsser
Easy to Remember: The Great American Songwriters and Their Songs
David R. Godine Publisher
Hardcover: 279 pages

(Author/educator Zinsser analyzes the musical content of the song.)

- Sandra Burlingame

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