Every so often a project comes along that gives a creative team the opportunity to have some fun and produce something everyone can feel good about. The experience is even more rewarding when the work resonates with its intended audience, which is exactly what happened with a jingle I wrote for The New Jersey State Aquarium back in the spring of 1998.
The project began with a phone call from director Ron Cohen, who explained that he had been hired by New Jersey-based communications firm Winning Strategies to produce radio and TV spots promoting a new penguin exhibit the Aquarium was planning to debut. A few days later I joined him at a meeting with agency creatives where he laid out his vision for the campaign. Ron's idea was to put together a band made up of kids--later dubbed "The Inguzas"--who would appear in a music video designed to generate excitement about the exhibit. When I asked what he had in mind for the music, his only direction was that the piece should be in the style of Smash Mouth's breakthrough hit "Walkin' on the Sun."
I began experimenting with ideas as soon as I got back to the studio. I quickly came up with a simple backing track of drums, bass, and Wurlitzer electric piano that had the appropriate retro vibe, and then began thinking about melody and lyric. At some point it occurred to me that the funny way penguins walk might make a cute dance, and before long I was waddling around the control room singing "can you walk like a penguin?" Most of the lyric came easily as I imagined how the dance might look; the hardest part was finding a word to pair with "aquarium," and while I never found a perfect rhyme my solution had the virtue of connecting the dance to the advertiser.
Can you walk like a penguin?
Put your heels together and rock from side to side
When you walk like a penguin
Don't be in a hurry 'cause the groove's gotta feel just right
And if you can't remember how it's done
Check it out at the Aquarium!
Ron had envisioned the kids singing and playing the instruments on the recording, but I convinced him that we would get a better result by following the example of the (early) Monkees and letting studio musicians handle the backing tracks. My next step was to bring in Jeff Kay, who borrowed a Danelectro 6-string in order to get an authentic surf-guitar sound. I then asked Denise NeJame cut a guide vocal so that Ron and the agency could hear what I had written and the kids would have a reference to learn the song. Everyone loved the demo, so we headed over to Sam and Susan Gish's Philadelphia Casting Company to audition performers. By the end of the day we had chosen our featured group as well as some additional background singers for the session. The kids we recorded included Cory Austin, John Gallagher, Devonne Kingcade, Ashley Watson, and Alyse Wojciechowski (who later appeared on American Idol and went on to a successful career on Broadway), but it was Lindsay Cummings who emerged as the the group's on- and off-camera lead singer. Although only twelve or thirteen years old at the time, Lindsay was a natural and from the moment she stepped behind the mic it was obvious that her voice would carry the track. We recorded a full-length song, which was then edited into the :60 and :30 versions that aired on radio and TV.
The result was so well received that Ron and Steve Wheelock at Shooters (now Alkemy X) were asked to create a music video of the complete song. I had completely forgotten about this until I stumbled across it on YouTube as I was preparing this post; it's a fun piece that shows how much energy and effort everyone involved brought to the project.
So how do I know that the music resonated with listeners? Well, that fall I participated in Career Day at my son's elementary school, and when I played the spot all of the kids started singing along! I also heard that one of the Mummers bands performed an arrangement of the jingle as part of their routine the following New Year's Day, and when I began teaching at University of the Arts a few years later many of my students told me that they had loved the jingle as kids and still remembered the words. That kind of feedback is music to my ears.
Chuck Butler is celebrating his 30th anniversary as Baker Sound's in-house composer. For more information about Baker's music division, visit our dedicated MONSTER TRACKS website.