When you think of Chili's—or of a rack of sauce-smothered, glistening baby back ribs—it's very, very likely that your first mental association is not of a particular flavor, or even a particular dining experience, but of a song.
A song from our youths, a song from our televisions, a song that refuses to release our brains from its eternal clutches: I want my baby-back-baby-back-baby-back I-want-my-baby-back-baby-back-baby-back CHILIII'S BABY BACK RIBS... And then the bass: "BARBECUE SAAAUUUCE."
Named the number-one song "Most Likely to Get Stuck in Your Head" by Ad Age in 2004 (beating out such aggressive contenders as "Who Let the Dogs Out?" and the Macarena), the meaty jingle has crawled deep, deep within our collective brains and filled our minds with its smoky aroma—and refused to ever leave. Beyond its initial appearances in all of those smiley Chili's commercials for a significant stretch of the late 90s, you may also remember other iterations of this song being sung by the members of N*SYNC and appearing in Austin Powers 2: The Spy Who Shagged Me.
Chili's retired the jingle in 2006, with company president at-the-time Todd Diener remarking that the brand needed to "give things a rest," only to revive it in 2009 and again this year as the restaurant chain celebrated its 40th anniversary.
How did a ten-second song about pork ribs become so indispensable? Who came up with it, and how could they have known that we would still be mumbling it to ourselves 20 years later? (Willie McCoy, who sang the highly memorable "barbecue sauce" bit, unfortunately passed away in 2012.)
The answer lies in Guy Bommarito, who was Executive Creative Director at Austin-based ad agency GSD&M in the 90s, a sort of Don Draper for the Chili's and Southwest Airlines set. GSD&M's CEO Duff Stewart tells me, "Every time for years that they put that spot on the television, they could juice sales because ribs would be sought out so much ... I don't think we ever expected it to live on this long. If you were to recite it today, a lot of people still know it. I think we thought we would be helping them sell some ribs, reinforce a popular product on the menu."
When I called Bommarito up to hear about the conception of and story behind the jingle, there were quite a few surprises—not the least of which is that he has never even had the ribs at Chili's. But he truly offered some insight into why we all, forever, want our baby back.
MUNCHIES: Hi, Guy! Does it bother you that I'm asking about a project you worked on two decades ago? Are you sick of hearing about the Chili's song?
Guy Bommarito: I'm not sick of it—it's more just that I haven't written that much music in my career, probably less than five pieces. In each case, there was an exception. The same thing with the Chili's jingle. I only did it when we got into a situation where we had done a campaign that did so poorly they were going to fire us. We went up to Dallas and we begged them for a second chance. They said, "We need a spot for baby back ribs in about six weeks, and we want it to be music in the restaurant."
I was too embarrassed to go back to my department and give them the assignment, because it was really an awful assignment. This was a time when really good agencies would send out Christmas cards that would have a blank before the word "bells," like "___ bells, ___ bells," and when you'd open it up it would say "We don't do jingles." That was the feeling at the time, that jingles were the lowest form of advertising and the lowest common denominator. Our department didn't even do them, so I just did it myself so that no one would have to mess with it.
I wrote it in, like, five minutes. I presented it to the client, I just sang it to them, and they said, "Yeah, that sounds fine." I called a friend of mine in Dallas—Tom Faulkner—and I asked if he would put it together for me. He recorded me over the phone and made it sound like a professional had actually done it. So it ran, and we thought that it would go away. And then months later, it ran again, and then after a couple of years, I had left the agency, and I got a call saying, "You know, your song is going to be in the new Austin Powers movie in two weeks." And I said, "What song?" I've been totally blown away by the popularity of the song and all of the places it's appeared. It's not so much that I'm angry about it, I'm kind of just like, how did this happen, why did this happen?
That's the fascinating part. When people think of Chili's, they immediately think of that song. I think it did a lot for the brand, you know? And a lot for baby back ribs. I tell people: I've never had a Chili's baby back rib, so you don't necessarily have to try the product to write the song, I guess.
You've never eaten baby back ribs? I've had ribs before, and I guess I've had baby back ribs before. But I've never had them at Chili's. The whole thing was kind of this fluke that happened, because restaurants love having music over food, "bite and smile" kind of stuff, the way that Las Vegas loves slot machines. It's just part of who they are. It's a really tough category, casual dining. The clients were even tougher, constantly pushing towards "I want to see more shots of people biting and smiling."
So you'd only written a couple of other songs for campaigns before that? I was always amazed for years that songwriting was even possible. I had no idea how people did it. I started listening to songs and it kind of dawned on me that songwriting is what emotions sound like. The more interesting the words, the more interesting the sounds. For example, when Sheryl Crow sings about "my favorite mistake" and puts the words "favorite" and "mistake" together, that gives you a sound you don't normally hear. I just started thinking about words and wrote a bunch of goofy little songs, and found that the melodies came to me very quickly and very naturally.
Although you sang the jingle over the phone, that's not your voice in the recording, is it? No, that's Tom Faulkner. He ended up putting his voice on the spot, but I sang it over the phone to him and he recorded it over the phone so he could get the melody and see what I was trying to do, and he put it together from that.
Tom Faulkner is often credited with the song, and there's some conflicting information around the internet about who wrote it. What happened there? You know, I just let him have it because it doesn't matter to me. It wasn't something I was so proud of that I wanted it to be in my obituary. Tom's a really nice guy, this guy that would fret over everything. When I found out that the song ended up in Austin Powers, Tom was the first person I called up, and I said, "Did you hear?" He went on and on about how GSD&M had contacted him and asked if he had the original paperwork. So Tom put in his negotiations that they would pay him $4,000, and that both he and I would get a credit at the end of the movie. He said that he wrote the song and I wrote the lyrics. That was the first time I'd heard of it, and he said, "I'll tell you what, I'll split the $4,000 with you." But then the song kept appearing again and again, and every time the agency would have to negotiate with Tom, so Tom decided to cover his ass and registered the song with BMI in his name and left me out completely. Finally, he got a buy-out. A few years ago, I said, "It would really be nice if you corrected the record." But his life had been pretty tough lately, and he kind of freaked out. I decided to just let it be. If I wanted to, I could bring in the people who were there when I originally sang it, but it just doesn't matter to me.
After the campaign with the song became so successful, you left GSD&M? Right. I wrote the spot 20 years ago in May. I left the agency about two or three years later, and I think that they still continued to handle the account for a while. I ended up going back there and I did an animation campaign for Chili's. I introduced the pepper with the "s" behind it, and we did a whole bunch of animated peppers. We went to animation houses all over the country and even in London, and shot different spots where we would animate the pepper using techniques that would bring the food item to life.
What has your career been like since leaving that agency? I'm fortunate because I've had a lot of successes, and some of it's been campaigns. I taught advertising and creative campaigns at the University of Texas for a couple of years. Then, in 2003 or so, I moved to Chicago, where I worked for FCB. I ended up moving out to San Francisco in 2008, where I worked for several agencies. About a year and a half ago, I left the agency I was with and decided to write a book. I've got a book on Amazon called Creative Bones, about how creativity works. Now I'm freelancing, taking projects that come up, and I do speaking engagements and seminars about creativity. I've ended up doing a lot of radio.
Prior to being at GSD&M I was freelancing—this was in the 80s—and I did a lot of radio and voicework. It was common to turn on the radio and hear my voice, and I always figured that that would be the most notoriety, the most famous I would ever be. So when the song thing took off, I never saw it coming. My kids get a kick out of it, though.
Thanks for talking with us.