The warm, altruistic sentiment expressed in the verse from the Disney signature song “It’s A Small World” runs deep through all the music and lyrics of Richard and Robert Sherman.
“There is just one moon / and one golden sun
And a smile means friendship to everyone
Though the mountains divide / and the oceans are wide
It’s a small world after all.”
During the 60s and early 70s, the two brothers, working as top staffers at Disney studios, wrote classics such as “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” “A Spoonful Of Sugar,” “I Wan’na Be Like You,” “Let’s Get Together” and “The Age Of Not Believing” for much-loved family films like Mary Poppins, Jungle Book, The Parent Trap, Winnie The Pooh, The Absent Minded Professor, The Sword In The Stone, The Happiest Millionaire, Bedknobs And Broomsticks, The Aristocats, That Darn Cat, The Monkey’s Uncle and many more.
Encouraged by their dad Al Sherman, a composer who’d made his mark in the Tin Pan Alley days, Richard and Robert began collaborating in the early 1950s. Despite having a well-known father and some connections, the brothers toiled in obscurity, learning their craft and getting used to the sound of doors being shut in their faces. Then, in the early days of rock n’ roll, they scored with a flurry of hit singles, led by Johnny Burnette’s “You’re Sixteen,” Kitty Wells’ “Things I Might Have Been” and Fabian’s “Got The Feeling.”
In 1958, after the Shermans penned a ditty called “Tall Paul” for everybody’s favorite Mouseketeer, Annette Funicello, destiny stepped in courtesy of Mr. Family Entertainment himself, Walt Disney.
Pleased with the talents and upbeat attitudes of the siblings, Walt hired Richard and Robert to write music and lyrics for all things Disney over the next decade. This included not only the aforementioned films but music for Disneyland and Disneyworld attractions (“The Tiki, Tiki, Tiki Room” and “There’s A Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow”), as well as songs for Disney TV shows such as The Horsemasters and The Wonderful World Of Color. Their association with Disney continued into the ’80s, when they wrote two songs for the opening of Epcot Center.
Along the way, the Shermans also wrote songs for many successful non-Disney films, including Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Snoopy Come Home, Charlotte’s Web, Tom Sawyer and The Magic Of Lassie, as well as two stage musicals, Victory Canteen and Over Here featuring The Andrews Sisters.
This interview was held in 1996 when the two brothers—who prefer to be known as Dick and Bob—ed our writer Bill DeMain on a very pleasurable trip down memory lane.
What attracted you to music and songwriting initially?
Dick: I think it had to have been something in both the environment and the genes, because our dad was a wonderful songwriter, named Al Sherman and he wrote some great hits in the ’20s and ’30s like “Now’s The Time To Fall In Love,” “You’ve Got To Be A Football Hero” and many, many others. Music was in the family. My mother was an actress, but she played piano beautifully, classical piano. Dad was always playing his pop songs and beautiful melodies.
Bob: What happened was that Dick and I, after World War II, were sharing a loft in West L.A. and Dick was trying to write the great American musical and I was trying to write the great American novel. My dad said, “How come two bright young fellows, college graduates, can’t write a song that a kid would spend his lunch money on?” And we said, “Aw, c’mon dad, that’s too easy.” Six months later we were still trying (laughs).
Dick: He’d come over once in a while and listen to our attempts, then one day he heard a song that had some potential, and that’s where it all started for us.
Did you know early on that you would be a team?
Dick: No, we didn’t know it until Dad dropped the gauntlet and said, “You guys haven’t got the capability of writing a popular song,” and that started it.
Bob: When we finally wrote a song that we liked, he pointed northeast and said, “That way is Hollywood, that’s where the publishers are, take it and go there.
How would you describe those first songs?
Bob: Trite (laughs). Either they were trite or a little too esoteric, a little too clever with inner rhymes and things. Our dad had a secret for writing songs. He said, “You’ve got to have them Simple, Singable and Sincere. And they should have a special sound to them. That’s the only way it’ll work.” He called them the “Three S’s.
Dick: You can add to that original and inventive. I think those are the things that make songs. The “Simple, Singable, Sincere” within the realm of creative, inventive and original. Those things have to be part of it.
Bob: Soon, we learned that a song has three parts. The music, the lyrics and the most important part, the idea. Everything revolves around the idea.
Dick: That’s the hinge upon which the door swings. Usually it’s either a great title or a concept, a reason for the song to be written. So many times our songs have novel ideas behind them. Sometimes there’s stuff that you don’t expect. One of our early pop songs, for example, was a little play on words called “Pineapple Princess.” It’s a nice little sound. It’s the first time a Hawaiian song was done to a samba beat. Nobody’d ever done that. Another thing, “You’re Sixteen,” was a 1935 shuffle beat, like “Shuffle Off To Buffalo.” We thought, nobody’s done this in 30 years (sings shuffle bass line). It hadn’t been done in rock songs.
When you were writing pop and rock n’ roll songs like “You’re Sixteen,” did you feel like you’d found your niche?
Dick: You know, in those days we were just trying to make a dollar. Write a good commercial song that “a kid would give up his lunch money to buy,” to quote our dad (laughs). We were doing the best we could and we got lucky with a wonderful little girl named Annette Funicello. She was 15 years old, she had five months to go on her Disney contract and they were looking around for some material she could sing for the pop market. And a little song we wrote called “Tall Paul” came across the eye of a fellow called Mo Preskell in New York City, who was working for Disney. Annette made this record and it was tremendously successful, and the guys who ran the record company were wonderful. They called us and asked for more material for Annette. Nobody had ever asked us for a song in our entire lives. It was 10 years of writing pop music and all we’d ever had was people say, “Oh no no, we don’t need that, we have too many ballads, thanks very much, but no.”
Bob: Anyway, to make a long story short, we started writing songs for Annette. In fact, over our career, we wrote 35 songs for her over seven years—from “Tall Paul” to “The Monkey’s Uncle.” Then Walt Disney said, “Who are these two brothers that are writing songs for Annette? She’s going to England to do The Horsemasters, a film, maybe we can get them to write a song for us.” So they told us on the telephone they wanted a song for a girl who was learning how to ride a horse (laughs).
Dick: And she was singing in a rec hall at the end of the day and they said, “Write a little song for kids who are coming together from all over the world to learn horsemanship.” So we wrote a song called “Strummin’ Song.” And we brought it into Walt’s office . . .
Bob: . . . and the first thing he said was, “Now these two sisters have never met. They’re twins and they meet in summer camp.” And we looked at each other kind of puzzled and said, “Look, Mr. Disney, we brought a song here for Annette Funicello.”
Dick: Boy, was he ticked. He said, “Okay let’s hear what you’ve got.” He was describing The Parent Trap, which we knew nothing about (laughs). All we knew was that he was one living legend that we’d met for the first time who was ticked as hell because we came in with the wrong song.
Bob: Anyway, after we demonstrated our song for him, he said, “Yeah, that’ll work.” Now we didn’t know at that time that that’s the nicest thing that Walt Disney ever said about anything (laughs). That was his way of complimenting you.
Dick: At one point he said, “That’ll work, and now that I’ve wasted a lot of time on these other things, I want you to take this script home and see if you can find some song spots.” He handed us a script called We Belong Together, which was the working title of The Parent Trap. We took it home and we wrote a ballad called “For Now, For Always.” We brought it in to him and he said, “Yeah, that’ll work, but that’s not the name of the picture. We can use that in a certain sequence, but we need a song where the kids are hinting to the parents . . .”
Bob: We had a great title called “Let’s Get Together.” He said, “That’ll work, but that’s not the name of my picture.”
Dick: We put that into the picture and Hayley Mills had a huge hit with it. By the way, the “yeah, yeah, yeah” was before The Beatles did “she loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah.” But we wound up writing four songs for The Parent Trap and we were off and running.
How did you get involved with Mary Poppins?
Bob: Walt said one day, “Do you know what a nanny is?” And we said, “Sure, a goat.” (laughs). He said, “You read this book and give me your ideas on it.”
Dick: And that book was Mary Poppins. We read it and got very excited. We thought we could do a couple of things to make the book work a little better. First of all, there was no story line at all, so we took about six chapters that we thought were really the juicy ones, the ones with the most colorful stories and characters and we wove a little tentative story, and we changed the period. It was written in the mid-30s, a depressed time. We changed the period to 1910, which gave it a lot of color and sort of took away that veil of disbelief, so you could actually start believing that a nanny would fly in on a west wind. Those were a couple of our contributions—the period of time and the selection of chapters. How we got our actual invite to become staff members at Disney was the day we brought in our outline and six song sketches. Walt liked our songs and our idea for the story. He pulled out his copy of the book and he had underlined the same six chapters that we had. That’s when he said, “How’d you like to work here?” And we found ourselves under contract (laughs). We were there for a very happy eight-year period and we’ve had a connection with Disney for the past 30 years.
What’s the story behind “Supercalifragilistic”?
Dick: Well, we wanted a souvenir that Mary Poppins could give to the children that would come out of this wonderful make-believe experience they had by jumping into the chalk drawing picture. In the book, Mary Poppins didn’t go in with the kids, she went in on her own on her day off and had tea with Burt, then she left.
Bob: But nothing would remain the same. The starfish would become cardboard. Nothing would be as beautiful as it was in the land of imagination.
Dick: But a word would never change. And here, we drew from our childhood, our own experience. As kids, we were in summer camp in the Adirondack Mountains in New York state. And there was a contest in our camp about the biggest word in the world. Anybody who could say “antidisestablishmentarianism” was a super-genius. But if you could make a bigger word than that you were a super super-genius. We started working on one and it wasn’t very smooth, but it was something like the one we ended up using. Years and years later, when we were working on Poppins, we said, “Let’s get them a souvenir from the chalk drawing experience that they can take with them that will make them feel good.” We remembered the crazy word contest and we thought, “Let’s make a really atrocious word.” And then we thought, “Well we can be real precocious if we were atrocious and that rhymes with docious, so we can have a super word ending in docious. We put in the califraglistic in the middle and add the expiali- (laughs).
When you came up with the word did you think it would become such a popular phrase?
Bob: One never knows.
Dick: This was one of the very first ideas we had when we said we had six song sketches that we brought into Walt Disney. We had basically the chorus of “Supercalifragilistic . . .” but no verses, none of the little fun “um-diddle-diddles.” When we first wrote it we thought it was such a crazy nonsense thing that we wanted to call it “The Pearly Song.” We thought Mary Poppins would introduce the children to some pearlies, you know performers that put the beads on—so we called it “The Pearly Song.” We were afraid of the other title.
Bob: Walt said, “Don’t change it. You like the first title, go with it.”
Dick: He said, “You’ve got a good idea, toot it on your trumpet.” We said, “It won’t even fit on the title page.” (laughs)
From the same movie, what about “Chim Chim Cher-ee”?
Bob: Well, one day, Don Dagrati, this marvelous writer and artist, had a little 8 x 10 sketch in charcoal, a little chimney sweep with his brooms over his shoulder and he was whistling with his cheeks puffed out. And Dick and I looked at each other and said, “That’s a song.” But there was no chimney sweep in our treatment so far.
Dick: So we said, “We’ll write a song about chimney sweeps that Mary Poppins can sing to the kids.” Initially, that’s the way we were going, but Walt in his incredible showmanship—he had a genius for these things—he listened to the song in progress . . .
Bob: . . .Walt said, “You know, we have this guy that draws pictures on the pavement and we have a one-man band and we have a fellow who flies kites—why don’t we make them all one fellow and call him Burt, and he’ll be the chimney sweep too?”
Dick: So he’s everything, a jack-of-all-trades. That character didn’t exist in the Mary Poppins book. He evolved from all those story meetings we had.
It’s such a lovely melody. Almost like an ethnic folk song.
Dick: We wanted to have a folky quality, but originally the harmonics in it were not quite as sophisticated. To be specific, it has a downward chromatic movement, a shifting major-minor sound.
Bob: I had said, “Why don’t we call it “One Chimney, Two Chimney, Three Chimney, Sweep”—that kind of rhythm.
Dick: And I said, “I think that’s dreadful,” and I left the room and I took a walk, and I came back and said, “Hey, wait a minute.” And we started playing with the word “chimney” —breaking it up.
Bob: It evolved slowly.
Dick: We had it and it was very heavy, almost with a Middle Eastern sound, and both of us started disliking it. It was a straight minor. We thought, “We’ve got to lighten this thing up. It’s English, it isn’t Russian.” So we were thinking and thinking and then we re-harmonized it, and that’s when the chromatic downward movement started in the harmony, all of a sudden the song came to life. Another thing happened. There’s only 16 bars of music. We had to have more than that—maybe a bridge, a different phrase. We were constantly tortured about that, but then we thought, “Maybe a folk song is about repetition.” So what we did was change the treatment, so sometimes it’s a recitative, sometimes it’s sung. The lyrics change every time around. It became a running theme in the movie, taking on different guises.
One of the wonderful things about your songs is that they reach both kids and adults without shortchanging either.
Dick: Bob and I have never written down to kids. We’ve always written up to kids. We want them to find out, if they’re curious like we were, what things mean. Or if there was a double meaning within a statement, let the parent get it on one level and the let the kid get it on a second level. We’ve always believed in that and we’ve never tried to compromise how we feel about this. We just write it the best way we can and hopefully it’ll be received on many levels.
Bob: Years ago, my young son Jeff was outside my bedroom window on his bike with another kid and he said, “Is that where your daddy lives?” and Jeff said, “Yeah, my daddy’s kind of retarded, he writes for kids (laughs).”
Dick: We write for family audiences, that’s our thing. We try to write with a broad spectrum of meaning. You can listen to “Feed The Birds, Tuppence A Bag” and one person will say, “Oh, it’s a guy that’s trying to make a pitch to buy breadcrumbs and feed pigeons with them.” And somebody else might say, “Oh maybe it’s more a song about being kind and giving a little love to people that need it.” There’s a double way of looking at it.
What was the most difficult assignment you ever had at Disney?
Dick: I think the pressure that we were put under at the time when Disney was doing the World’s Fair.
Bob: We were invited by Walt to go down to a factory in Glendale where they made all the rides and things, and we walked through a mock-up of a ride called Children Of The World, and they played music—kids from all over the world singing their national anthems. These were the animatronic dolls singing and it was one mess, one horrible cacophony. Walt said,”You see our problem, we have the World’s Fair pretty soon and we need a song that can be sung in every language.”
Dick: He said he wanted a little rondelet, and we thought a round would be awfully boring. So he said, “What do you have in mind?” We said, “How about a counterpoint?” He said, “Yeah, a rondelet.” (laughs) So we went away and wrote a little song that was too simple. It was very sweet, a nice little song, but we were writing it under terrible pressure because they kept calling to ask if we had anything written yet.
Bob: Then we wrote a song that was too sophisticated . . . .
Dick: Then we wrote a very pretty ballad that we thought would be nice . . .
Bob: Then Walt’s secretary said Walt was coming down to our office and he wants a song and he wants it now.
Dick: We heard him hacking and coughing down the corridor, coming towards us and we both looked at each other and said, “Let’s do the simple one.” It was “It’s A Small World.” And what did Walt say? “That’ll work.” (laughs) That was a tough assignment because it had to be simple and translatable, and yet it had to be repeated so often over a 14-minute ride that it couldn’t be boring—that was the counterpoint. It had to be malleable so it could be played with a Latin beat, it could be played with little Dutch shoes clicking to it, it could be played in a little French march.
Tell me about Jungle Book . . .
Bob: One day Walt asked us if we’d ever read the Jungle Book. We knew someone was working on it, but we said, “No we hadn’t.” He said, “That’s good, I don’t want you to.”
Dick: They were working on Jungle Book before we ever got involved and they were doing it very true to Kipling’s version—very serious, very heavy. Walt didn’t like it all. He said, “Look, I just want to take the essence of this book and go in another direction.”
Bob: He said he wanted to “Disnify” it, to have fun with it.
Dick: Basically our assignment was to find crazy ways of having fun with it. So we came up with Dixieland jazz and a barbershop quartet with Cockney accents for the vultures and a spooky snake with a sibilance problem (laughs)—all these things were our ideas. All these very heavy situations we made very light, so we wound up writing five songs and Terry Gilkyson had written one wonderful song in the original version called “Bare Necessities.” That stayed in the script. The other five were ours.
Did you know that you were writing “I Wan’na Be Like You” for Louis Prima?
Dick: No, we didn’t know that Louis was going to be the voice. We wanted to write a song for a swinger (laughs), make a comedy song about the king of the apes, the king of the swingers. The whole idea was to do a Dixieland jazz, scat-singing song, and we came up with “I Wan’na Be Like You.” At a certain point, after we were demonstrating this song in the story conferences, the idea of who will do it came up, and Louis Prima and Sam Butera and the Witnesses were holding court at that time down in Las Vegas, so we thought, “If he would go for this, it would be great.”
Bob: So we went down there and we played it for them, and they had very serious, professorial looks on their faces and when it was over with, Louis said, “You want to make a monkey out of me? Well then, you got me!” (laughs).
Dick: These guys were so marvelous. On stage, they were the wildest thing you’ve ever seen, jumping around. Louis Prima was magnificent, he was all over the place. In fact, when we recorded the song on the soundstage, the Disney animators came down and filmed them in black and white so they could get their movements, and they included a lot of the movements that the musicians were doing in the monkey sequence.
When you write for an animated picture, are you aware ahead of time what all the characters look like and sound like?
Bob: It’s the same as writing for live actors, there’s no difference . . .
Dick: Many times, they do give you sketches. The artists have already conceived the character personalities visually. We don’t know what their voices are but we do know the physical precepts. Like with Winnie the Pooh, we knew he was a little stuffed Teddy Bear and we knew that Tigger was a stuffed tiger that bounced around a lot. So you could sort of feel them . . .
Bob: But we don’t think of them as little stuffed Teddy Bears, we think of them as personalities. We write for them the same as we write for anybody.
Dick: Oh yeah, they have feelings, they have emotions, they have heart, they love, they’re afraid. They’re just as real to us as if we were writing for a live actor.
How about “The Aristocats”?
Dick: That’s fun. We had written three songs for the movie, one of them was the title song . . .
Bob: Dick said one day, “Gee Bob, wouldn’t it be great if Maurice Chevalier would come out of retirement and record this.”
Dick: Years and years before, Maurice Chevalier had recorded a song or our father’s for a film called Big Pond. The song was called “Living In The Sunlight, Loving In The Moonlight.” We sort of grew up with Maurice Chevalier.
Bob: And he was opening his nightclub act with “There’s A Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow”—our song—and closing his act with “It’s A Small World.”
Dick: So he was fond of our stuff, and we had written for two pictures that he was in. But this was at a point where he was retired. So the director of the picture said, “Dick, do an imitation of Chevalier, put it on a record and we’ll send it over with a lead sheet. Maybe we’ll entice him to come into Paris and record it.” Sure enough—and he was 87 years old at the time—he liked the song very much and he came out of retirement. One afternoon, Chevalier got together with a little music ensemble in the studio and did his very last recording, “The Aristocats.” We were so thrilled with that. He sounded as great as he ever did. It’s delightful. I ran into Chevalier in Paris after that by accident at the Georges Cinque Hotel and he was very funny. I said, “You know there’s one thing that really bothers me and I want to apologize for this. I took the liberty of doing a phony French accent on the demonstration record of “The Aristocats.” And he looked me right in the eye and said, (imitates Chevalier) “Accent? I heard no accent.” (laughs)
—By Bill DeMain