Robert B Sherman: Songwriter best known for 'Mary Poppins' and 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang'


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The Independent Online

Robert B Sherman and his brother Richard wrote some of the best known film songs of the last 40 years, including the scores for such films as Mary Poppins, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and The Slipper and the Rose. They had a long association with the Disney studios, and the insistently catchy tune, It's a Small World (After All), which was written for the Unicef and world's children exhibit at Disneyworld, is cited as the most played song on Earth, since it can be heard daily at all of Disney's theme parks throughout the world.

Children in particular love such novelty numbers as "A Spoonful of Sugar", "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" and "Chim, Chim, Cher-ee", but the brothers also wrote some pretty ballads for such films as Charlotte's Web and Tom Sawyer (both 1973) and they wrote a hit Broadway musical, Over Here! (1974), starring the Andrews Sisters.

Robert Bernard Sherman was the son of a Russian-Jewish immigrant Al Sherman, who wrote popular songs such as Helen Kane's hit, "He's So Unusual". He was born in New York in 1925 (his brother was born three years later). In 1937 the family settled in Beverly Hills.

In 1943 he enlisted in the Army and fighting in Europe he was shot in the kneecap, having to use a walking stick for the rest of his life. Recuperating in the UK he developed a lifelong affection for British culture. After the war he studied painting and literature at Bard College in New York.

According to their sons, Robert and his brother were unalike temperamentally and never close, and collaborated only at the urging of their father – Robert had ambitions to be a novelist, and Richard wanted to compose serious music. Their first song was "Gold Can Buy Anything (But Love)", sung by Gene Autry in 1951, but their first hit was "Tall Paul" (1959), sung by Annette Funicello, and it was followed in 1960 by the even bigger "You're Sixteen", sung by teen favourite Johnny Burnette. Recorded by Ringo Starr 14 years later it reached No 1. The Funicello recording brought the brothers to the attention of the Disney studio and almost immediately the Shermans gave the studio a chart hit, "Let's Get Together", sung by Hayley Mills in her role as twins in the "live action" film The Parent Trap (1961). It was followed in 1963 with a ragtime hit for Burl Ives, "The Ugly Bug Ball", in the film Summer Magic.

Though the film version of Mary Poppins was not liked by its author, PL Travers, who objected to the removal of the story's darker aspects (the book was set during the Depression), the Sherman's lightening of mood proved wise. "If we were going to make this a musical," said Richard, "we wanted to go back to around 1910 when the world wasn't quite so unglued and people still believed that anything could happen."

The film was their most popular hit, winning them two Oscars, one for musical score, and another for best song, "Chim Chim Cher-ee". "Jolly Holiday", "Let's Go Fly a Kite" and the wistful "Feed the Birds" (Walt Disney's personal favourite) were other songs that helped Julie Andrews win an Oscar. The soundtrack album stayed in the UK and US charts for over a year.

Their first wholly animated film, and the last film to be personally produced by Walt Disney, was The Jungle Book (1967). The Shermans' seven songs included "I Wanna Be Like You", memorably voiced by Louis Prima and Phil Harris, though the film's most popular song, "The Bare Necessities", was written by Terry Gilkyson. The live action comedy, The Happiest Millionaire (1967), was too long (it was later cut by the studio), but included a hit for Tommy Steele, "Fortuosity".

The brothers began to freelance with the score for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968), which reunited them with Dick Van Dyke, who sang such numbers as the Oscar-nominated title song and "Me Old Bamboo". The plodding movie was a disappointment, though by the time it was produced as a stage musical in 2002 it was being recalled as a "classic". The Shermans also wrote songs for the animated movies The Aristocats (1970) and Charlotte's Web (1973). Disney's Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971) combined live action with animation for another tale of a nanny (Angela Lansbury), earning the brothers more Oscar nominations for score and song ("The Age of Not Believing"), while the all-live Tom Sawyer (1973) though flatly directed, had one of the team's most underrated scores. The brothers also wrote the screenplay, and the film won them first prize at the Moscow Film Festival (the only Americans to do so).

They next wrote a Broadway musical Over Here! for the Andrews Sisters. Two years earlier they had written a short-lived stage production Victory Canteen, in which Patty Andrews had appeared. A new libretto was written by Will Holt, and an entirely new score to support the starring roles played by Patty and the other surviving Andrews sister, Maxene. It potently evoked the "big band" era and the popular music of the Second World War. It ran for 10 months, closing only because the producers decided it would not work with replacements for Patty and Maxene.

The Shermans wrote screenplay and score for The Slipper and the Rose, Bryan Forbes' enjoyable interpretation of Cinderella, which won them two more Oscar nominations, for score and song ("The Slipper and the Rose Waltz").

Later films included The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977), The Magic of Lassie (1978), which included the Oscar-nominated "When You're Loved", and The Tigger Movie (2000). In 2002, the year that Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was triumphantly produced on stage at the London Palladium, Robert moved from Beverly Hills to London. His wife, a childhood sweetheart, had died in 2001. There had long been rumours that he did not get along with his brother, and in 2009 two of their sons made a documentary, The Boys: The Sherman Brothers' Story, that claimed that they had been known to throw typewriters at one another, and that their two families would sit on opposite sides of the theatre at premieres.

Tom Vallance

Robert Bernard Sherman, songwriter: born New York 19 December 1925; married 1953 Joyce Sasner (died 2001; two daughters, two sons); died London 5 March 2012.