Tuesday 6 March 2012


How strange that I should have just been remembering and writing about that Practically Perfect nanny, Mary Poppins, when the news comes of the passing of one-half of the song-writing partnership responsible for scoring Walt Disney's film of her exploits...

Robert B Sherman, who died yesterday aged 86, is pictured, above left, alongside his younger brother, Richard M Sherman, with whom he wrote hundreds of songs that were an integral part of the pop-culture of the 1960's and '70s, including movies, the scores for which provided the accompaniment to the formative years of so many of us post-war baby-boomers.

The words and music for Mary Poppins, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Winnie the Pooh, The Sword in the Stone, The Jungle Book, those non-Disney movies Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and The Slipper and the Rose, plus dozens of 60's teen-love songs (among them, "Tall Paul" covered by Mickey Mouse Club 'Mousketeer', Annette Funicello) and a raft of unforgettably catchy songs and tunes for the Disney TV shows and theme-park attractions are a part of the pop-culture heritage of several generations.

Among those who sung the hits of these tune-smiths (in addition to the couple on the left) were Hayley Mills (in The Parent Trap), Burl Ives (Summer Magic), Maurice Chevalier (In Search of the Castaways), Tommy Steele (The Happiest Millionaire), Angela Lansbury (Bedknobs) Sally Ann Howes (Chitty), Gemma Craven and Richard Chamberlain (Slipper) and Phil Harris and Louis Prima (with their scat-duet, "I Wanna Be Like You" in Jungle Book) not to mention a raft of cover artist recordings from Louis Armstrong to Michael Crawford and Barbara Cook via Ringo Starr's 1974 No 1 hit, "You're Sixteen".

Their years at the Disney Studio saw them write 150 songs for 27 movies, but their upbeat, optimistic compositions appeared in a wide range of film projects from live-action musical adaptations of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn (for which they also wrote the screenplays) to animated films such as Charlotte's Web and Snoopy Come Home.

Bob and Dick's two greatest film triumphs, Mary Poppins (which won the Academy Award for Best Score as well as Best Song) and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang were written within four years of one another and, despite being original movie musicals at a time when all the great Broadway shows were being lavishly filmed, excelled to a degree denied many of their stage-derived competitors.

In the 'seventies, the Shermans had enjoyed an original Broadway triumph with Over Here! Set during World War II it starred Patty and Maxene Andrews (of the Andrews Sisters) and launched the careers of, among others, John Travolta and Anne Reinking. Decades later, Poppins and Chitty – by that time treasured screen classics – made the successful transmigration from cinema to both the West End and Broadway stage.

The sons of the successful tin-pan-alley song-writer, Al Sherman, Robert and Richard were a remarkable partnership: despite sharply differing personalities and the ups and downs of various sibling rivalries, they suppressed whatever divided them and combined their talents to collaborate on an unashamedly sentimental songbook that sings the praises of love, hope, belief, aspiration and perseverance; a legacy of numbers that come from (and speak to) the heart and will live on for years.

Two decades after I first fell under the spell of their work for Mary Poppins (what a work of brilliance: an original film score with over a dozen numbers, more than half of which – like 'Let's Go Fly a Kite' and 'A Spoonful of Sugar' – are undisputed standards!) I had the great good fortune to meet Bob and Dick at the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank.

This was just the first of many meetings, separately and together, during which I had the opportunity to listen to their stories of the joys and delights of working for Walt and, equally, the trials and tribulations of having to cope with Mary Poppins' creator, P L Travers!

I greatly treasure the friendship I enjoyed with Bob and Dick and was honoured to contribute to the 2009 film profile of their lives, The Boys: The Sherman Brothers Story...

Bob was a private rather than a public man; a person of reflective moods, whose many talents included a gift for poetry, painting and sculpture.

He and his brother received many honours including being inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and receiving the National Medal for the Arts - the highest honour conferred on artists or patrons of the arts from the United States Government.

My condolences go to Dick and to Bob's family and I can think of no better tribute to their work than Dick Van Dyke (no jokes about the accent, please!) singing the song that won the Sherman Brothers the Oscar for Best Song back in 1964...

And my own favourite song from the film, "Feed the Birds" – as sung by Julie Andrews to Jane and Michael (Karen Dotice and Matthew Garber) – and then as used for a background score (evocatively arranged by Irwin Kostal) to the emotionally-charged scene where, following the run on the bank, the children's father (David Tomlinson) takes a solitary, late-night walk through the misty, wet, deserted parks and streets of London on the way to meet his employers and learn his fate...

Finally, here's the song that Bob and Dick wrote for the Disney designed UNICEF pavilion at the 1964/65 New York World's Fair and which is now featured at all the Disney theme parks and is, literally, playing somewhere in the world 24/7/365!

And if you're stuck with it in your head for the rest of the day, I apologise!

19 December 1925 – 5 March 2012


scb said...

Lovely tribute, Brian. I knew you'd have written something fitting.

I confess I hadn't realized they'd written all those well-known, even iconic songs. (Well, of course I knew about Poppins!)

Thank you.

Boll Weavil said...

A great loss Mr B and, as usual, you give us a fitting epitaph. If not the soundtrack of our lives, they certainly gave us the soundtrack of our childhood.The thing that comes across with their work is that it actually stands alone outside of the film it is showcased in. That's a great achievement really because the inspiration to write a good song normally comes from within, rather than being given to you as something needed to represent a particular moment in an existing plot. What then happens, as in 'Poppins' is an escape from the film into little musical vignettes - like 'Feed the Birds' which stand alone and independent as great sound and vision.My own favourite is Hushabye Mountain from 'Chitty'. Lyrically that is beautiful and poignant, musically its fantastic - just a great song whenever you here it in whatever context.
As you say,Brian, a great loss.

WendyLady@GoodBooks said...

Loved "The Boys" and your tribute. What a team - I had no idea of the magnitude of their writing. It's really amazing when you stop to think of all the wonderful human talent that makes up the world that we all refer to as DISNEY.