By Suzy Kalter
May 08, 1978 12:00 PM

‘I was a small, miserable child,’ he recalls. ‘Even the girls could beat me up’

At 63, Jack LaLanne’s body is still rock solid. It owes, he glows, to “corrective exercise and proper nutrition,” and then Jack bursts into song. So, has LaLanne’s brain turned to muscle too? Nope. America’s No. 1 franchised exercise man has become a moonlight music man. “When I was a child,” he recalls, “I always wanted to be an opera singer. I used to go outdoors and sing my heart out to thousands of people and get standing ovations. But it was all make-believe.”

So much for make-believe. Teamed with the Rev. Connie Haines, the big band singer turned minister, LaLanne embarked on his second career seven months ago. Their first booking was a charity date at the Founder’s Church in L.A. “I was afraid those people were going to throw their Bibles at me,” laughs LaLanne. But the congregation gave him an ovation, and Jack and Connie were emboldened to book a professional tour that debuted in Sacramento April 30. With a repertoire that tends toward the inspirational (Climb Every Mountain and I Believe are on their first single release), they will cross the country before venturing Vegas’ Frontier Hotel in December. Jack will wear a jumpsuit tuxedo he designed himself. “This singing career is a shot in the arm,” he says. “My body—everybody’s body—needs challenge to keep it young.”

Challenges are nothing new to the bicepy baritone. In 1952 he did 1,033 pushups in 23 minutes on TV’s You Asked for It. On his 60th birthday he accomplished what no convict ever had—he swam from Alcatraz to Fisherman’s Wharf, handcuffed and shackled. And last year, off Long Beach, he swam one and a half miles towing 13 boats with 76 people in them.

Such feats of strength could not have been foreseen for the French immigrant’s son who grew up in San Francisco a “small, miserable kid. Even the girls could beat me up. I had pimples, boils, a back brace and poor elimination. I was the brunt of everyone’s jokes.” Then, at 14, Jack attended a lecture by nutritionist Paul Bragg that changed his life. “You’re a human garbage can,” scolded Bragg. “You eat death foods.” Jack was an instant convert. By the time he finished high school, the budding entrepreneur was selling a line of health and fiber products (baked by Mom) and charging local police and firemen $5 a month to use a home gymnasium he built in the backyard. In 1936 he opened the first modern U.S. health club in downtown Oakland. Doctors scoffed at the diet and regimen, he says, “but I’ve been 20 years ahead of my time all my life.” In any case, LaLanne conducted a syndicated TV exercise show from 1951 to 1977 and now has 110 health spas all over the country.

It’s not just lip service: Nonnatural foods never enter his mouth. His custom-made Stutz Black Hawk bears the license plate REDUCE, and LaLanne works out religiously in the red-carpeted gym (“my church”) in his Spanish ranch house in the Hollywood Hills. LaLanne teamed up with Connie when they broke into a dinner table duet of I Believe. “It gave me goose bumps,” reports LaLanne’s second wife of 18 years, Elaine. The two women had done charity together, and even Haines found LaLanne’s untrained, nearly three-octave range “just amazing.” Jack, also elated, now claims he’s only lived half his life. “When people get older they should take up new skills and do something else. It’s never too late.”