“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 program.

 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 Blob.

 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!”