If you have watched TV at all recently, you have seen an Apple commercial touting the iPhone and its fitness apps, using an odd, martial song encouraging you to touch your toes 10 times every morning, and concluding with “go you chicken fat go.” As you might have guessed, this is an old bit of popular culture being repurposed ironically.
“Chicken Fat” was written by Meredith Willson, famed for The Music Man, and originally sung by Robert Preston, who originated the role of Professor Harold Hill, The Music Man‘s leading man, on Broadway in 1957 and in the 1962 film. (The Apple ad uses a new recording that sounds a lot like Preston’s original.) It grew out of President Kennedy’s 1961 push to improve physical education in American schools, and after it was recorded, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce bought thousands of copies and sent them to schools across the country. They were used in phys ed classes for years after that—I know, because I remember doing the exercise routines described in the song in my own grade-school days, sometime in the late 60s, probably.
By the time I was working out to “Chicken Fat,” I would have already been a fan of The Music Man, although I don’t think I connected the two back then. It was the era when absolutely everybody in small-town America went to the local high-school musical, and we saw The Music Man as a family. There was something about the songs and/or the character of Professor Harold Hill that grabbed me. My parents bought a copy of the soundtrack, which I listened to often, so it didn’t take long before I learned the words to every song—and I still know most of them. Lots of people do. One evening in college, The Music Man was on one of the movie channels we got because I lived with aspiring TV engineers who were able to hack into the cable, and I had it on while I was doing the dishes. One of my roommates came home, and before long we were duetting on all of the songs, me in the kitchen, him in the living room.
Preston had won a Tony for playing Harold Hill on Broadway, but he wasn’t the first choice for Hill on screen. Movie mogul Jack Warner wanted Frank Sinatra—even though it’s impossible to imagine him as a hammy Indiana con man (“Gary, Indiana, Conservatory of Music, gold medal class of ’05”). Cary Grant was also offered the part, but he maintained that only Preston could do it. The Music Man was the first opportunity boys of my generation had to fall in love with Shirley Jones, who played the female lead, Marian; we would have another when she became Shirley Partridge in 1970. And you can’t watch the movie without spotting then-child actor and future film director Ron Howard as Marian’s little brother. (It’s on TCM this coming Sunday afternoon, BTW.)
The Music Man is also notable for its unlikely connection to the Beatles. “Till There Was You” was a song Paul McCartney had picked up from an older cousin, and it became part of the band’s repertoire in Hamburg. It’s not the best song in the show, though: that would be “Goodnight My Someone,” which uses the same tune as the film’s famous theme, “Seventy-Six Trombones,” slowed to ballad tempo, and is as beautiful a thing as you’re going to hear today.
But we’ve gotten off the subject, as we frequently do around here: “Chicken Fat.” I’m listening to it as I write, and I’m transported back to Northside School, in the gym, where one of those indestructible school phonographs blasts the song, turned up to the ragged edge of distortion, struggling to fill the echoing space, as 25 or 30 grade-schoolers bounce up and down at Preston’s instruction. Mr. Hubbard stands at the front of the room, wearing that odd half-smile he always wore, watching—participating some days, but most days just watching. Even kids who are somewhat averse to physical activity—like me, for example—find “Chicken Fat” to be fun, and damn catchy. Catchy enough to be instantly recognized when it appears out of nowhere nearly 50 years later.