On March 5th, Robert Sherman, one half of the Sherman Brothers songwriting team (with his brother Richard) who did much to shape and define the “Disney sound,” died at the age of 86. Chances are, even if you have no idea who Robert Sherman is, you can sing one of his songs with minimal mental strain, or can call a moment from your childhood that was structured exclusively around one of his songs. Sherman was a brilliant and beautiful songwriter, crafting indelible tunes for movies like “Mary Poppins,” “The Jungle Book,” and “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” but he was also responsible for something deeper and more profound – he helped shape popular culture through songs that were sweet but never saccharine, optimistic but never too sunny, and meant for children but universal enough to make grown adults cry (and sing along). His impact cannot be overstated.
Robert Sherman served in World War II. He was part of the first squadron that entered the Dachau concentration camp after the Germans had fled, and was shot in the knee (an injury which required him to walk with a cane for much of his life). When he returned home, his chest full of valedictory pins (among them two Battle Stars and a World War II Victory metal), he ended up entering college at the same time as his younger brother, Richard. Richard didn’t know what he wanted to do but Robert wanted to become a serious novelist. After completing two novels at Bard, the brothers embarked on a songwriting career, after a challenge from their father Al (a popular “Tin Pan Alley” songwriter). This eventually led to them being hired by Walt Disney as staff songwriters.
It was in these early days that they composed some of their most memorable tunes – for the 1964 World’s Fair they created songs that are still heard, hundreds of times a day, the world over. The first was “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” for the Carousel of Progress, an kind of performance narrative (using sophisticated audio-animatronic figures) about the changing face of American technology, that is still on display in Tomorrowland at the Magic Kingdom in Florida. The other, even more recognizable song, was “It’s A Small World,” a song that, despite its frivolity, is a “call for world peace,” according to Richard.
For the remainder of the 1960s the pair would come up with some truly remarkable songs – everything from the “Let’s Get Together” number in “The Parent Trap” to the theme song to “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color” to the music for the Echanted Tiki Room at Disneyland and Walt Disney World. On Friday afternoons, Walt would call The Boys (as they were known around the studio) and ask them to play his favorite song, “Feed the Birds,” a bittersweet ditty from one of their most beloved productions, “Mary Poppins.” After Walt’s death, the Sherman brothers were swayed temporarily from the studio, providing the songs for “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” (the primary reason, along with its cast, for it being commonly misidentified as a Disney film) before returning to the studio for several more unforgettable projects – “The Aristocats,” “Bedknobs and Broomsticks,” the “One Little Spark” song for the Imagination Pavilion at EPCOT Center, and a number of “Winnie the Pooh“-related projects. Non-Disney projects included stage musicals “Tom Sawyer” and “Huckleberry Finn,” the Hanna-Barbera “Charlotte’s Web” animated film, several animated “Peanuts” projects, and the musical “The Slipper and the Rose.”
Robert’s relationship with Richard was always a difficult one. Many make out Robert to be the brooding intellect, while Richard was the more affable, spirited member of the team. (Richard handled most of the music while Robert was the lyrical mastermind.) They’ve been likened to Lennon and McCartney, with Robert assuming the tortured Lennon role. Eventually the friction between the two brothers that created so much magic would end up driving them apart – for years they lived seven blocks away from each other, but rarely (if ever) spoke. Their children grew up not knowing their cousins. In 2002, after the death of his wife, he moved to London and focused primarily on painting (he also completed an undoubtedly fascinating autobiography, called “Moose,” which has yet to be published).
In 2009 a documentary called “The Boys,” produced by their sons Gregory Sherman and Jeff Sherman, premiered. The film, a charming and at times wrenching portrayal of creative genius and emotional shortcomings, was made, in part, as an effort by their sons to get their fathers to start talking once again. In that sense, the film failed, and their fathers remained distant (in a statement following his death, Richard said “My brother was a poetic soul with limitless imagination”). While Robert receded from the spotlight to work on his personal projects, Richard would routinely come back to the world he once knew, doing things like creating the EPCOT-y theme song to the Stark Expo for Marvel’s “Iron Man 2.”
The Sherman Brothers music has had a profound effect on anyone old enough to have watched Disney films or have gone to Disney theme parks. Filmmakers like Jon Favreau and John Landis (who hired the brothers to write a song for his regrettable “Beverly Hills Cop III” – and gave them cameo roles in the film) are open about their place in the canon of popular culture, and Ben Stiller was so impressed with their story that he produced “The Boys” documentary with an intent on turning it into a dramatic narrative film. When we interviewed the filmmakers behind last summer’s “Winnie the Pooh” movie, the only thing they strived for when it came to the new songs, is that they sound like the Sherman Brothers.
Robert Sherman may be gone, but his songs will live on for decades to come. The songs he helped conceive are simple and sing-song-y but unmistakably poignant, universal and personal, whimsical and true. Once they get lodged in your head, it’s hard to remove them. It’s interesting to think how songs that are so beautiful and tiny could have affected so much (and so many people). Their songs were the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine of life go down. This is Robert Sherman’s legacy. And nothing will ever change that.