Composer Meredith Willson and President John F. Kennedy
Millennials probably find the commercials
quaint if not puzzling, but to those like me who started school in the 1960s, Apple’s “Chicken Fat” ads bring back memories of sweaty kids in shorts and sneakers doing sit-ups and jumping jacks in the school gym.
Ahead of the launch of its own health tracking software in iOS 8, Apple is plugging the iPhone’s capabilities as a fitness companion. In a new commercial, a variety of iPhone 5s owners make use of various wellness apps already available for the device, such as the Nike+ Running app, a golfing app that measures an athlete’s swing and a pedometer app. Apple’s own health software, called HealthKit, arrives as part of iOS 8 this fall.
The goofy-but-dead-earnest song featured in the spot is “Chicken Fat.” The song was written and recorded as part of President John F. Kennedy’s fitness program and sent to schools around the country to rouse kids into exercising, and if you think that anything like that attempted today by President Obama would be met with howls of scorn and fury as some kind of socialist mind-control plot I am sure you’d be right. Just consider the relentless criticism leveled at Michelle Obama for daring to suggest American kids might eat more sensibly.
Kennedy showed his commitment to improving the nation's fitness even before he took the oath of office. An article, “The Soft American”, by Kennedy, published in the December 26, 1960, issue of Sports Illustrated, established four points as the basis of his proposed program, including a White House Committee on Health and Fitness, direct oversight by the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, an annual Youth Fitness Congress to be attended by state governors, and the assertion that physical fitness was very much the business of the federal government. Chew on that a while, right-wing pundits.
Within a month of his inauguration, President Kennedy spoke at the Conference on Physical Fitness of Youth. Under Kennedy, the President's Council would not only spread the word to Americans about the importance of physical fitness for youth but would also conduct youth fitness surveys, publish fitness information, and offer technical advice to schools and communities about how to improve physical fitness not only for youth but for Americans of any age.
While the Council did not have the authority to impose a national physical fitness program, state and local leaders indicated to the Council that they would welcome guidance. President Kennedy selected Charles "Bud" Wilkinson, athletic director and football coach at the University of Oklahoma, as the first Physical Fitness Consultant to the President.
Initiating a national publicity campaign on physical fitness, the administration produced material for print, radio, television, and display advertising. For broadcast alone, 650 television kits and 3,500 radio kits were sent out. The physical fitness theme even appeared in the comics pages, as major syndicated cartoonists, including Charles Schulz, took up the subject in support of the campaign.
The most memorable contribution to the effort, though, surely has to be the "Chicken Fat" song. Upon hearing about Kennedy’s initiative, legendary Broadway composer Meredith Willson (“The Music Man”, “The Unsinkable Molly Brown”) contacted Fitness Council administrator Dick Snider with an offer to write, free of charge, a song that could be used to promote exercise for children. The offer accepted, Willson consulted with Physical Fitness Council director Ted Forbes, to ensure that the song would provide a good workout. Willson tapped “Music Man” star Robert Preston, to sing the number. Preston likewise waived any payment for his performance. Capitol Records agreed to provide musicians, chorus and recording studio time at their expense, as well as picking up the tab for handling the pressing and distribution of the record.
“At a White House reception,” Dick Snyder once revealed, “Kennedy told us he liked the song, but every time he heard it he thought of ‘chicken shit,’ and he wondered if maybe we shouldn’t change the title. We said we’d talk to Willson about it, but we never did.”
Recorded in early 1962 during sessions for the soundtrack of the movie version of “The Music Man,” "Chicken Fat" was produced in a 2:12 “Disc Jockey Version” version and a six-and-a-half-minute “School Version” to accompany schoolchildren during calisthenics. Accompanied by an orchestral marching band and full chorus, Preston delivers a knockout vocal performance.
Capitol Records shipped three million copies of the 7-inch, 33 1/3 RPM record (CF-1000, for collectors) to public schools across the United States and also serviced the song to radio stations.
The song didn't get much airplay, but if you went to school through the 1960s and into the 1970s the chorus of "Go, you chicken fat, go!" has been deeply etched into your subconscious.
Unless you lived in Detroit. Delia Hussey, Superintendent of Health and Physical Education for the Detroit Public Schools decreed that "Chicken Fat" sounded “tinny and jazzy”, and “the words are not exactly in good taste for school children.” Citing offensive lyrics such as “nuts to the flabby guys,” Hussey banned the recording from being played in the Detroit public school system. “The record doesn’t fit in with my philosophy of education or with our fine physical education program. No voice recording with a fixed pattern of exercises can leave room for individual growth and day-by-day progression. We like to use a teacher. That’s what they’re for.”
"Tinny and jazzy"? Whatever. That song has been haunting my brain for 50 years now. Thanks, Apple, for reviving old memories, and for reminding me I’ve got a little chicken fat of my own to attend to. Nuts to the flabby guys, let’s cue up that record!
Now and then.
Give that chicken fat
Back to the chicken,
And don't be chicken again.
No, don't be chicken again.
Once more on the rise.
Nuts to the flabby guys!
Go, you chicken fat, go away!
Go, you chicken fat, go!
9:15 AM PT: Unable to secure the rights to use Robert Preston’s original "Chicken Fat" recording in their commercial, Apple uses a version recorded in 2000 by commercial jingle singer Bernie Knee.