I haven’t searched the pages of this year’s Teachings of the Presidents manual, but I feel reasonably secure in supposing this story isn’t one that made it into that book:
George Albert Smith’s childhood home was one of financial struggle, in comparison to the homes of his neighbors and those we might consider his social equals. Their homes had lawns; his did not. Their homes had organs; his did not. “But I did have a Jew’s harp,” he recalled, “a harmonica, banjo and a guitar, and I learned to play them.”
He also learned to sing … not necessarily the finest classical tunes, or the romantic hits of the day, but comedy songs, with words that suited his somewhat comedic appearance. He was, after all, very tall, and very thin, with long arms and legs, which he could work to his comedic advantage by exaggerating their disjointed, floppy, gangliness. He also could work his face into a living caricature of himself. His mouth, especially, could be stretched and opened to an exaggerated distance.
George also found a suit somewhere that he liked to wear when he performed, an ugly plaid suit with a bright, bold pattern, one that made his audience laugh at their first sight of him, before he even began to strum his guitar and sing his tunes at ward talent shows or neighborhood parties. A friend recalled his appearance at such events:
He would get up at these entertainments and sing [his] song, opening and closing his mouth real wide, which caused much merriment. All of the children just loved him.
And what did he sing? This:
I’m not very handsome, I know that I’m not.
I’m as ugly as sin, and I ought to be shot.
My mouth is a feature that can’t be forgot
If you travel east, west, north or south.
Shut it! Shut it! Don’t open it quite so wide,
Shut it! Shut it! I don’t want to get inside.
He was still singing that song when as a young man touring the Territory of Utah to promote the MIA. After preaching to the people in Beaver who demanded that he sing to them, he sang “Shut It.” He recorded in his journal that night that the applause was “quite enough to take the roof off if it hadn’t been fastened.” Underscoring the fact that it was his manner more than the words of his song that drew the applause, he records another evening during that same 1891 MIA mission: “After supper at Brother Paxman’s I got a funny streak and the folks nearly died laughing at me. Sister Paxman nearly fainted, and I had to stop.”
Preach it, Brother George!
UPDATE: As report by L.F. Olsen in a comment, here’s a picture of the young George Albert Smith in what can only be described as an ugly plaid suit. Surely he couldn’t have had the unfortunate taste to own two such notoriously ugly plaid suits? This must surely be the one!