If you’ve been watching the NBA playoffs, you have seen an Apple commercial in which various people do exercises, play sports, and monitor their fitness apps to the accompaniment of a rousing song that begins:
Now and then.
Once more on the rise.
Nuts to the flabby guys!
Go, you chicken fat, go away!
Go, you chicken fat, go!
Sound familiar? If so, you may be a Baby Boomer who knows it from gym class. “Chicken Fat” was a product of President Kennedy’s Council on Physical Fitness, a program that sprang from Kennedy’s sense that the nation’s youth was, collectively, getting flabby. In 1961, the president appointed Bud Wilkinson, football coach at the University of Oklahoma, to direct the Council and devise a series of exercises youngsters could do to improve their fitness and gauge their progress. Meredith Willson, the composer of The Music Man, which had recently ended its Broadway run, contacted Wilkinson and said he wanted to write a fitness theme. Within a week, “Chicken Fat” was complete.
At the time, the movie version of The Music Man was in production in California, and Willson got Robert Preston, the star, to record the song, which is accompanied by an orchestra and chorus. It has the insistent rhythm of “76 Trombones” and some of the stentorian patter of “Ya Got Trouble”—you can imagine Preston, in his Harold Hill getup, marching and waving his baton to the beat. Two versions were recorded, and they appeared on opposite sides of a disk released by Capitol Records. The first ran a little over two minutes and was designed for radio play. The second, six minutes long, exhorted listeners through a series of 11 exercises and was meant for gym-class use. The U. S. Junior Chamber of Commerce bought up thousands of copies of the record and distributed it for free to schools across the country.
There was at least one rocky moment at the outset. In May 1962, Variety reported that the song had been banned in Detroit schools by Delia Hussey, supervisor of health and physical education, and Homer G. LaGassey, director of music, because, first, they felt the lyrics were in poor taste, and, second, because the record represented an old-fashioned view of phys ed. “Use of the recordings would make things too regimented,” Hussey said. “It would remove the human touch that allows the children to proceed at a pace set by the teacher.”
Willson defended the song in a letter to Hussey. “ ‘Chicken Fat’ was not written for children,” he contended. “It was written for older youngsters in whose vocabulary words like ‘chicken,’ ‘nuts’ and ‘flab’ are comparative drawing room conversation.”
For whatever reason, the record wasn’t used in my elementary school in New Rochelle, N.Y., either, though I well remember trying to perform a sufficient number of sit-ups and squat thrusts to meet the president’s standards. And roughly half of the Baby Boomers I asked about the song in an informal survey did remember it—some reported that it was being used in gym classes as late as the 1980s. A Coloradan recalled that it was played during swim lessons at her pool, and a Pittsburgh native said it blared through the speakers at his summer camp.
“Chicken Fat” has an advantage over “Let’s Get Physical”—or whatever your preferred workout song is—because, in addition to stirring up the blood, it provides explicit instructions. Mrs. Rita Segerman, who in 1968 was a fourth-grade teacher at a Maryland elementary school, was well aware of that. One of her pupils, Mary Latane, described how, one day, that knowledge created a problem:
Mrs. Segerman put on a record, ‘Chicken Fat’; and she told us to follow the record. And we’d started doing, working, and we went through the first side of the record. And then when we were starting the second side, Mrs. Segerman, I think she told us that she’s going out of the room, I’m almost positive she did, and she left. And—and Bobby Glaser [another member of the class] was in the back of the room, and he moved up because he couldn’t hear the record player. And he was doing his push-ups, but he brought up his legs and was resting on his knees. And when he brought his feet down they went over the back of my head and they came down on the floor.
Q. What came down on the floor?
A. My head.
Q. Your head?
A. And hit, my teeth hit the floor and they came out.
Because of her injuries, Mary—whose teeth did not in fact come out but were merely chipped—and her family sued both Bobby and Mrs. Segerman; the above quotation is taken from her testimony. A lower court ruled in their favor, and ultimately the case came before the Maryland Court of Appeals, which reversed the decision. Writing for the majority, Judge J.J. Singley observed:
In our view the proximate cause of Mary’s injury was an intervening and wholly unforeseen force—the fact that Bobby Glaser left his assigned place and did not do his push-ups as he had been instructed to do them.
[Mrs. Segerman] had no reason to apprehend that any of the children would leave his assigned place or that any of the children would perform the exercises improperly, least of all Bobby Glaser, who, according to the testimony, was a good athlete. The intervening force which became a superseding cause was the fact that Bobby chose to move from the place which had been assigned to him, and once there elected to do the push-ups by resting his knees on the floor rather than by supporting himself with the tips of his toes. If he had not changed his position or if he had changed his position and kept his toes on the floor, Mary would never have been hurt.
Listening to the Apple ad, most contemporary ears, conditioned as they are to expect euphemism, are probably taken aback by Preston’s repeated voicing of the word fat (not to mention nuts and flab). Back when Meredith Willson had just written the song, there was some thought of coming up with a new name. But not for that reason. Not long ago, one of Wilkinson’s aides recalled a reception for the Council on Physical Fitness, held at the White House.
“Kennedy told us that he liked the song,” the aide, Dick Snyder, said, “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.”