“Go you chicken fat, go!”
If you attended grade school during the early 1960s, those
five words will either bring a smile to your face or conjure up painful memories
of elementary school gym class.
Chicken Fat (The Fitness Song) was written by Broadway
composer Meredith Willson for President Kennedy’s Council on Youth Fitness.
Three million records of the song were given gratis to schools across the
country, urging our nation’s youth to “Give that chicken fat back to the
chicken, and don’t be chicken again.”
In the mid 1950s an international study had found that American children
were far less fit than children in other countries. In response, President
Dwight D. Eisenhower created the President’s Council on Youth Fitness. Despite
widespread support, the council never quite found its footing.
When John F. Kennedy ran for the office of President in 1960, he made
physical fitness an integral part of his campaign platform. Shortly before his
inauguration, the president-elect wrote The Soft American for Sports
Illustrated magazine, which was the blueprint for his proposed fitness
Kennedy reorganized the
President’s Council on Youth Fitness
and chose University of Oklahoma football coach Bud Wilkinson as the first
Physical Fitness Consultant to the President. At first Wilkinson had doubts as
to Kennedy’s sincerity regarding the council. “Mr. President,” he said,
“tell me honestly and frankly, how important is this physical fitness program
to you?” The President responded, “We’re in a war with two great nations.
Not a shooting war, but we’re at war with China and Russia. If we cannot do
something to improve the physical fitness of Americans, then, as history has
proven, in fifty years we will not be able to compete with these societies. I am
really for it.”
Meredith Willson presented Fitness Council administrator Dick
Snider with an offer to write, for free, an exercise song for our nation’s
youth. With Music Man mania sweeping the nation, who better than the composer of
76 Trombones to write a rousing fitness anthem? And who better than
Robert Preston, Professor Harold Hill himself, to record said anthem.
In less than a week Willson wrote Chicken Fat with the
help of Physical Fitness Council director Ted Forbes, to ensure that the tune
provided a good workout. Robert Preston took time out from rehearsals for the
Broadway musical We Take The Town to record the vocals. Capitol Records
contributed the orchestra, chorus, recording studio and record manufacturing
facilities. The U.S. Junior Chamber of Commerce raised $30,000 to distribute the
recording for free to every public school in the country.
The 7-inch, 33 1/3 RPM record featured two different cuts of
the song. Side one, the “School Version”, was six and a half minutes long.
It highlighted eleven different exercises, including push-ups, sit-ups, jumping
jacks, toe touches and marching in place. The flip side, a two-minute “Disk
Jockey” version, was edited for radio and television use.
“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.”
The record was an immediate hit and was played over school
P.A. systems and in gymnasiums across the country, with one exception. 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 “once more on the rise, 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.”
When Willson heard of Hussey’s remarks he sent her a letter
defending his tune. “Please don’t fight us, dear Miss Hussey, because we are
obviously in the same business. I mean the business of loving our country and
our young people. Chicken Fat was not written for children. It was
written for older youngsters in whose vocabulary words like chicken, nuts and
flab are comparable drawing room conversation.” In response to Hussey’s
tinny and jazzy comments, Willson replied, “If you want to hear something
really tinny and jazzy and in bad taste, look into any one of your pupil’s
homes after school and dig that rock and roll garbage that has set us back not
20 years, but incalculably.”
In 1962 President Kennedy presented the National Big Brother
award to Willson “in recognition of his devotion to the cause of youth in
America.” Although he never had any children, Willson was a six-time president
of the Big Brothers of Greater Los Angeles.
On July 28, 1964, Willson directed 1,100 singing and dancing
Marine Corp volunteers from Camp Pendleton in a rousing, ultimate video version
of Chicken Fat for CBS-TV’s Texaco Star Parade.
By the end of the 20th century Robert Preston’s
version of Chicken Fat had been out of print for decades, so in 2000 a
newly recorded version was released, sung by commercial jingle singer and
part-time cantor Bernie Knee. Known as the “King of the Demos,” Knee also
recorded the theme for the movie The
CD and DVD versions of Bernie Knee’s Chicken Fat are
currently being used in elementary schools across the country. The DVD, released
by KIMBO Educational Music, is geared to children from two to ten years of age
and features the eleven exercise routines of the original. It’s a
popular title and a good seller for the company, but I’m quite sure that more
than a few schools are still playing their original vinyl
versions of the song while Robert Preston’s commanding voice reverberates off
the gym walls,
“Once more on the rise,
Nuts to the flabby guys.
Go, you chicken fat, go away.
Go you chicken fat, go!”