The surprising, hard-rock source behind D.C.’s ‘Nobody bothers me’ TV jingle

If you’re a Washingtonian who spent your Reagan-era Saturday mornings watching cartoons in a Cocoa Puffy narcosis, you remember it.

Taekwondo master Jhoon Rhee is kicking his way through a grainy video void while a mysteriously catchy 26-second jingle plays in the background, tough words set to a gentle melody.

Nobody bothers me . . .

Nobody bothers me . . .

Then the music stops, and Rhee’s 4-year-old daughter, Meme, repeats the commercial’s catchphrase: “Nobody bothers me!” Cut to big brother Chun, age 5: “Nobody bothers me, either!” He winks.

“A wonderful touch,” says Nils Lofgren, the guitarist for Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, who is playing a pair of solo gigs at the Birchmere this weekend.

The jingle remains forever chiseled into the memory of area youths, but Lofgren knows this tune better than most. He wrote it.

“It was a very simple, basic, homegrown thing,” the 60-year-old songwriter says of the ditty he recorded in 1978 for Jhoon Rhee Self Defense, a local chain of martial-arts studios. “I’m thrilled it had an effect on people.”

Quite an effect. Rhee says the jingle boosted business by 20 percent for the school, which, at its peak, taught more than 10,000 students at 11 locations. And Lofgren was one of them. He wrote the jingle in exchange for free lessons.

But even for kids who never signed up for a class, the song resonated at elementary school bus stops, on playgrounds and in stairwells. Anytime someone stood up to a bully, onlookers might break into song.

Nobody bothers me . . .

Nobody bothers me . . .

The commercial went off the air in 1986, but Rhee says he was pleased to see it reincarnated on YouTube in recent years. In addition to the original clip, there’s footage of the rock band OK Go covering Lofgren’s tune at a concert in Indiana. There are weird parody videos. And there’s an interview with Foo Fighters frontman and Springfield native Dave Grohl, singing along:

When you take Jhoon Rhee self-defense,

Then you too can say:

Nobody bothers me . . .

Nobody bothers me . . .

Call USA-1000.

Jhoon Rhee means might for right!

* * *

1-2-0-2-U-S-A-1-0-0-0.

Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring.

“You have reached the Sprint voice-mail box of 2-0-2-8-7-2-1-0-0-0.”

BLEEP!

USA-1000 is now Jhoon Rhee’s cellphone number. He will call you back. And when he does, you will learn that the taekwondo master is now 81 and living in McLean. He’s credited with popularizing taekwondo in America and said he came up with the “Nobody bothers me” slogan to promote his schools in 1968. In 1972, he made a television commercial featuring the catchphrase and included cameos of his kids at the end.

“The children saying ‘Nobody bothers me’ would make it cute,” he remembers.

About six years later after the commercial was filmed, Lofgren began taking lessons at Rhee’s Kensington location. His hard-rock band, Grin, had broken up a few years earlier, and he was enjoying a fruitful solo career, splitting time between California, his home town of Garrett Park and the road.

“I had always loved Bruce Lee and was fascinated by karate,” Lofgren says. “I took lessons not really to become a fighter but for exercise.”

Within Lofgren’s first year of classes, Rhee had learned that Lofgren was a musician and asked if he would be interested in recording a jingle. “They said, ‘If you can do this for us, we’ll give you a lifetime membership to the Jhoon Rhee karate school,’ ” says Lofgren, “which I still have, and I’m grateful for.”

The song went from an idea to the airwaves in less than a month. Lofgren recorded and mixed it in an eight-hour session at Bias Studios, then located in Falls Church. “It was very melodic to not alienate people,” he says of the song. “It wanted a backbeat, but nothing heavy. . . . [Vocally,] the goal was to be clear and enunciate.”

The music was quickly dubbed over the existing advertisement footage, and it was sent out to local stations — “4, 5, 7, 9 and 20, all of them,” says Rhee. He was stunned by the jingle’s popularity. “I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “Even now when I walk in the street — ‘Nobody bothers me!’ ”

Meme Rhee, now 43, says people still can’t believe she was the little girl on television. She’s just glad they never noticed the funny outfit. “That day, my brother and I got into an ice-cream fight, and I had to wear my shirt backwards,” she says over the phone from Beverly Hills, Calif., where she works as a psychoanalyst. “It had a big chocolate stain in the front.”

Chun Rhee, now 44, still lives in the area and teaches at the Jhoon Rhee Institute in Falls Church, one of the school’s three remaining local branches. He remembers growing up in Arlington County and seeing his 5-year-old face on local TV for nearly 15 years. “It was airing up until I was a freshman in college!” he says. But neither he nor his classmates ever made much fuss about it.

So, yeah. Nobody bothered him.

“I was a pretty nice guy growing up,” he says. “I never got in a fight.”

* * *

Lofgren continued his martial-arts studies, eventually earning a green belt, but his practice took a back seat once he linked up with Springsteen in 1984. Next month, he hits the road with the E Street Band — they’re at Verizon Center on April 1 — as he continues to push his new solo album, “Old School.”

Looking back at his discography, 1978 was a funny year for Lofgren. In addition to the Jhoon Rhee jingle, there’s “Bullets Fever,” a rah-rah anthem he recorded the day after the Washington Bullets beat the Philadelphia 76ers in a conference-finals overtime victory. With the team going on to win its only NBA championship that year, “Bullets Fever” became a local radio hit. Lofgren pressed up 1,000 vinyl singles, with the profits going to an Abe Pollin-sponsored charity. (Note to Ted Leonsis: Next time the Wizards make the playoffs, consider commissioning a Lofgren jingle.)

But “Bullets Fever” hasn’t enjoyed the same afterlife on YouTube, where Lofgren first spotted OK Go’s cover of the jingle last year. “In the comments section, people are busting them for not doing the wink,” says Lofgren. “Hilarious.”

OK Go frontman Damian Kulash, who grew up in the Washington area and attended Beauvoir National Cathedral Elementary, says the band first covered the song in a moment of desperation.

“Somebody broke a string onstage, and we needed to kill a few minutes,” he says. “Lo and behold, Jhoon Rhee was there to defend us from downtime.”

Today, the band plays the jingle whenever it’s having technical difficulties. It often transports bassist Tim Nordwind back to the childhood summers he spent visiting Kulash, watching Saturday night movies.

“I felt like if I called that number, I might know these kids and take karate with them,” Nordwind says. “It’s an oddly catchy song, and it’s something that definitely stuck with us. . . . Who did you say wrote it?”

Nils Lofgren.

“You’re kidding me!” he says. “That’s awesome! Well, no wonder it’s so good!”

Wink.

Chris Richards became the Post's pop music critic in 2009. He has covered D.I.Y. house shows, White House concerts, go-go and Gaga.
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