Mike Lyons meets Richard and Robert Sherman, one of the most popular and celebrated songwriting duos in animation history. Their songs for Disney have created enchanting moments in classics like Mary Poppins and The Jungle Book.
Richard and Robert Sherman still remember the day of "The Challenge." As one of Hollywood's most popular song writing teams, the brothers created many of Disney's classic film and theme park songs. But before accolades and awards, there was "The Challenge."
It was the early Fifties and the two had just graduated from Bard College in New York. "I wanted to write the great American novel," remembers Robert, "and Dick wanted to write the great American musical."
"We were both digging the great American hole in the ground," adds Richard with a laugh.
Then, their father, Al Sherman (who had a tremendously successful career as a composer himself, with such songs as "You Gotta Be a Football Hero" to his credit) made "The Challenge."
"He came to our apartment one day," says Robert, "and said, 'Look at you two college graduates. I'll bet you can't write a song that kids would be willing to spend their lunch money on.'"
To prove their father wrong, the siblings quickly got down to work. It was indeed a struggle for the then-novice songwriters, but they did manage to pen a hit tune for singer Kitty Wells. "If it wasn't for our father's gauntlet dropping, we would have never written together," notes Richard, while Robert adds, jokingly, "And we would have had a great big hole in the ground!"
The Big Breaks
Then, in 1958, the Sherman brothers met one of Disney's most famous Mousketeers, Annette Funicello, who recorded Robert and Richard's song, "Taul Paul," for Disney Records. Needless to say, it was the Britney Spears-teeney-bopper-hit of its day. "She's our lucky star," says Robert fondly of Funicello.
For their "star," the brothers would go on to write thirty-five songs, which eventually caught the ear of Walt Disney. Thus, in 1960, the Sherman brothers began a ten-year association with the Disney studio, as exclusive staff songwriters.
When Walt acquired the rights to a popular series of books by author P.L. Travers, he handed the brothers their most plum assignment. Mary Poppins (1964) was the studio's most ambitious film to date, featuring one of Broadway's biggest stars, Julie Andrews, numerous visual effects, impressive combinations of live-action and animation and, of course, music.
The Shermans wrote all fourteen songs for the score, which has become one of film's most enduring soundtracks. Mary Poppins also brought the brothers Academy Awards for Best Music Score and Best Song ("Chim-Chim-Cheree").
It was another of the film's songs, "Feed the Birds," however, that proved to be Walt's personal favorite. So enamored of the song was Walt, in fact, that he never tired of hearing it.
"On Friday afternoons, Walt would call us over to his office," recalls Richard. "We would talk about what we were working on. Then, he would look out the north window of his office and just say, 'Play it.' He didn't even have to say which song. We would then play the song and sing it for him. He felt very strongly about the song because it meant a lot more than just buying breadcrumbs and feeding birds. It was really about being kind to your fellow man and the fact that it doesn't take much to do that."
In all, the Shermans wrote over 150 songs for Disney. Many of these were featured in the studio's animated films, such as The Sword in the Stone (1963), the Winnie the Pooh featurettes, The Jungle Book (1967) and The Aristocats (1970), for which they cannily coaxed Maurice Chevalier out of retirement to sing the film's title song.
Richard, who for years loved to imitate the singer's throaty French accent, recalls, "When we wrote the song, Woolie Reitherman [Aristocats' director] said that he'd love to get Chavalier to sing it over the main titles, but he had retired. Woolie said, 'Why don't you do that imitation of him?' So, we made the demo that way and sent it to Chevalier and he loved it and agreed to do it. It's actually a real source of pride for us that that song turned out to be the last performance that the great Chevalier ever did."
The brothers' songs were also featured in many of Disney's live-action films and television productions. The Shermans even wrote for a different kind of animation - Audio Animatronics - a technology developed to simulate realistic movement for Disney's theme park attractions.
Tourists have the Shermans to thank for the songs that they find themselves humming as they exit The Enchanted Tiki Room and The Carousel of Progress. In addition, the brothers also created what must be one of the world's most recognizable songs - the theme for It's a Small World.
After their "Disney decade," the Shermans continued to write for film, including the animated features Snoopy Come Home (1972) and Hanna-Barbera's 1973 adaptation of E.B. White's Charlotte's Web. Through the years, the brothers have also acumulated enough honors to topple both of their mantles. In addition to their Oscars, these include: two Grammys, 23 gold and platinum albums and a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame.
Returning to the Fold
In 1990, the Shermans were also honored as "Disney Legends." Last year, they published their autobiography, a coffee table scrapbook entitled Walt's Time: From Before to Beyond and this year, they've returned to their Disney roots by writing the songs for The Tigger Movie, this winter's surprise hit.
The brothers Sherman were the perfect men for this job, as they know the denizens of the Hundred Acre Wood, almost as well as author A.A. Milne. Songs such as the "Winnie the Pooh" theme, "Heffalumps and Woozles" and "The Wonderful Thing About Tiggers," which was revived for the new film, are all their creations.
Also on The Tigger Movie soundtrack of is a collaboration between the Shermans and Kenny Loggins entitled, "Your Heart Will Lead You Home," a fitting title, as the brothers feel that, with this film, they too have come home again.
"Walt was on our shoulders while we were writing the score for this film," says Richard of The Tigger Movie. "We feel as if, in a sense, Walt produced this film, spiritually."
The Shermans enjoyed a close, personal relationship with their former boss, whose status, today, has risen to mythical proportions. "He was the most creative talent we have ever met," notes Richard. "He could steer you and inspire you like no one in the world. We've met many talented wonderful people in our career, but there's never been anyone who has been one tenth of who Walt Disney was."
It was through Disney's creative ignition that the startlingly prolific Shermans have been able to call upon everything that they are, in order to craft songs that live in hearts and memories forever.
"Your sensitivity is based on your experiences," states Robert. "When you're writing a song, your sensitivity and your experiences dictate how you think and how you write."
Adds Richard, "We're often asked 'How long did it take to write that song?' We always say, 'It took the sum total of both of our lives.'" It now seems safe to say that the Sherman brothers were up to "The Challenge."
Mike Lyons is a Long Island-based freelance writer who has written over 100 articles on film and animation. His work has appeared in Cinefantastique, Animato! and The Disney Magazine.