Dancers brandished towering platters of fake rib racks; handlers struggled to control squealing pigs on leashes; and guests dipped ribs into a quadruple-decker fountain of barbecue sauce. And then, the pièce de résistance: a smoker-shaped casket, borne along by pallbearers crooning Chili’s “Baby Back Ribs” jingle.
The kitschy affair makes more sense with proper context. First off, it was conceived and executed for the pilot episode of TLC’s short-lived reality show Best Funeral Ever. And the bass baritone featured in Chili’s original recording belonged to soul singer “Wolf Johnson”—a.k.a. Willie McCoy.
With a send-off ceremony like that, you’d be forgiven for assuming McCoy wrote the ubiquitous ditty himself. But that honor belongs to Guy Bommarito, a former advertising executive with much more ambivalent feelings toward his creation.
“When the song first started taking off, my biggest concern was, ‘I hope that’s not the only thing in my obituary,’” he told Great Big Story in 2015. “Because I really don’t want to be known as the guy that did the ‘Baby Back Ribs’ song.”
“Bite and Smile”
By the 1990s, the American advertising landscape had evolved to better fit the celebrity-centered nature of pop culture. Stars were selling out left and right, and the licensing of preexisting hits had displaced jingles as the industry’s main musical component. Advertisers looked upon the newly obsolete art form with undisguised scorn.
“This was a time when really good agencies would send out Christmas cards that would have a blank before the word 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,” Bommarito told VICE in 2017.
So when Chili’s Grill & Bar asked him to come up with a ribs-focused jingle circa 1995, he wasn’t exactly jazzed at the prospect. But he couldn’t really say no: At the time, Bommarito was the executive creative director of Austin-based ad agency GSD&M, which had just bungled a Chili’s campaign so badly that it left Bommarito and company “[begging] for a second chance” lest they lose the account. The restaurant gave them roughly six weeks to come up with a catchy tune that could play in a commercial while pretend patrons enjoyed an order of baby back ribs—the type of “bite and smile” gimmick that restaurateurs loved as much as creatives loathed it.
“I was too embarrassed to go back to my department and give them the assignment, because it was really an awful assignment,” Bommarito told VICE. Instead, he opted to just write it himself—a task that lasted all of about five minutes—and also shoulder the burden of auditioning it for Chili’s representatives. After getting a rather lackluster green light, Bommarito enlisted his production-savvy pal Tom Faulkner to record his vocals and gussy them up a bit, which is presumably when McCoy came on board to sing the bassier bits.
“So it ran, and we thought that it would go away,” Bommarito recalled. Oh, how very wrong they were.
An Earworm Is Born
It wasn’t actually the first time Chili’s had gone the jingle route to promote its slow-braised pork ribs, a menu mainstay since the mid-’80s. Back then, the franchise aired a TV ad showcasing the requisite cheerful diners chowing down on the dish, soundtracked by a sax-heavy blues pastiche that features the lyric “I love my baby, baby, baby back ribs.” The vocals slowly devolve into spoken word (“We smoke ’em, char-broil ’em in our own sauce, and you’re gonna love ’em right down to the bone”) that you couldn’t get stuck in your head if you tried.
Bommarito’s flash of genius, on the other hand, had birthed a bona fide earworm, and Chili’s didn’t squander the opportunity. Consumers were introduced to the track around 1997 (though sources vary slightly on the start date) by way of a commercial that involved restaurant employees spontaneously performing it for a packed house. A couple of anthropomorphic chili peppers–cum–DJs played it on their radio show in another ad spot shortly thereafter.
By the end of the decade, Chili’s had replaced the original recording with a fresh one sung by Alvin Chea (who also voiced an iteration of Goldfish’s “The snack that smiles back” tagline), Dorian Holley, Louis Price, and Oren Waters. As The A.V. Club reports, three of the four musicians once provided back-up vocals for various Michael Jackson projects, and Price was The Temptations’ lead singer during the late ’70s. In other words, quite a talented lineup.
But don’t be too quick to commend Chili’s for eschewing pop star participation in order to preserve the sanctity of the unfairly maligned institution of the jingle. In 2002, the company married the two marketing strategies: NSYNC harmonized about baby back ribs in a goofy advert that debuted during the Golden Globes. In return, the restaurant sponsored the boy band’s upcoming tour.
It was the first celebrity collab in Chili’s history, but it wasn’t the jingle’s first foray into mainstream entertainment—and it wouldn’t be the last. The song had made its way into 1999’s Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me; Steve Carell and Tim Meadows then covered it with gusto in a 2005 episode of The Office (“The Client,” season 2, episode 7). It was also featured in an episode of Scrubs and the 2012 Eddie Murphy–starring dramedy A Thousand Words.
In short, casual dining’s most iconic canticle had transcended its mother company and lodged itself directly into the fabric of pop culture.
A Song for Everyone
Though it’s been reported that Chili’s then-president Todd Diener retired the jingle in 2006 in order to “give things a rest,” it doesn’t seem like the plan really ever came to fruition. That year, Chili’s celebrated the song’s 10th birthday by soliciting fan renditions as part of a “Rock Star for a Day” contest. Pennsylvania-based musician Cliff Hillis won the grand prize, which included a trip to Los Angeles to meet with a record label. Another competition in 2009 asked people to post their versions on Facebook.
In 2017, Chili’s updated the lyrics to reflect its pared-down menu that focused on three main courses: fajitas, burgers, and, of course, ribs. Baby back became back, baby to convey that “Chili’s is back, baby (back, baby, back).” A lexically clever homage to its source material? Sure—but hardly enough to supplant two decades’ worth of the rib-heavy original in our collective consciousness.
And if society can’t seem to shake the song, it’s safe to assume its creator can’t, either—but unfortunately for Bommarito, the reminders don’t come in the form of royalty checks. Faulkner pretty much left him out of early licensing contracts, claiming credit for the music and citing Bommarito as lyricist only. When Faulkner eventually registered the song with music licenser BMI, he didn’t list Bommarito at all; and after a while, Faulkner sold those rights.
Although Bommarito’s name is missing from the official record, media coverage over the last several years has all but ensured that the inimitable jingle will forever be a part of his legacy. He’s probably not gunning for a barbecue sauce fountain at his funeral, though.