Editor Jez Ford writes:
In the first 10 to 12 years of my life, I probably played more songs by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman than any other songwriter. I knew their names, and I knew they were special – they were a common thread between my LPs of The Jungle Book and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and while their songs could be clever and funny (The Bare Necessities, I Wanna Be Like You), they could also be downright beautiful (My Own Home, Hushabye Mountain).
So when Disney called up (I’m a big Disney fan, too) to offer an interview with Richard M. Sherman as part of a publicity campaign for the remastering of The Jungle Book (I think), I was more than a little thrilled.
The interview took place some time ago – late 2010, perhaps – and I never transcribed it; it didn’t quite fit into Sound+Image or Geare. Then this morning I heard that Robert B. Sherman, Richard's brother and songwriting partner – had died in London on Monday, and I felt the urge to fetch out the microcassette (no, really) and get it typed up – if not for the magazine, then at least to be set loose to roam in cyberspace.
I thank Disney for the interview, and the Sherman Brothers for the music, and the memories.
Sound+Image: Mr Sherman it’s a great honour to speak with you - I grew up in England listening to your songs and leafing through the books that came inside Disney’s vinyl soundtrack albums.
Richard Sherman: Well thank you! Hey first of all, don’t call me ‘Mister’, it makes me feel too old. Call me Richard.
Sound+Image: Thank you very much. So how are you, where are you? I imagine you seated at a piano ready to burst into song.
Richard Sherman: Always, I carry one with me just in case! No actually, I’m sitting comfortably in my house in Beverley Hills, California.
Sound+Image: So back to the very beginnings - Your father was a songwriter, was he always writing at home, so you knew how to do it? Was it inevitable?
Richard Sherman: We had a musical background; my father was a wonderful songwriter and a great piano player, and my mom was an actress and she also played beautiful classical piano, so we had quite a lot of music in the house, and records were playing all the time. There was an inevitability I’d wander into this - I guess it was in the gene pool, I had something going for me too, so we had all these influences and a great love, I think, for music. I loved popular musoc and I loved show music very much.
Sound+Image: Was it that, the show music, Tin Pan Alley songs or did you like the classical as well?
Richard Sherman: I liked it all - Dixieland music, contemporary jazz, I really went for it - I listened to early Bix Beidebeck, Louis Armstrong, the show music of Rodgers & Hart, Rodgers & Hammerstein, all the influences were there, I loved good country and western, cowboy music, I love everything.
Sound+Image: You and your brother had very different wars - you were writing music throughout, but Robert didn't start till he came back, presumably? Why did you start working as a team?
Richard Sherman: No actually Bob and I - I didn’t write music as a young man, I didn’t discover I could do it until I was 17. I was musical - I used to play piccolo and flute in the school band, and I played clarinet in a little swing band I had, but I was never writing music. But I discovered when I was abouty17 years old - my goodness, the things I can hear in my head, I can make something of it myself, and I sat down at a piano and start picking it out, and that’s when I decided to be a music major and I studied music intensely when I went to college, so I studied it very heavily.
And my brother wanted to be a writer, he wanted to be like a playwright, and a book writer - that was his dream, and my father, with his astute fatherly wisdom, decided - you two guys separately might never get anywhere but together you might pool your wits and come up with something, you know - two halfwits make a wit!
So between his guidance and inspiration we both learned from each other, and I became more of a storyteller with words and music and Bob became more of a musician from listening to me, and together we started writing lyrics and music as a team, and it started to pay off in our late twenties, ot wasn’t an overnight success - Walt really discovered us after about nine years in the field.
Sound+Image: Yes, how did you first encounter Walt Disney? This came from 'Tall Paul'?
Richard Sherman: Well yes, ‘Tall Paul’, Annette Funicello was really our lucky star, and we always called her that’s because that’s what she was, she was the girl who sung our first big hit.
Sound+Image: And she was a Mouseketeer?
Richard Sherman: She was, she had just graduated from the Mouseketeers, the last Mouseketeer to be discovered and put under contract, so she was the last one to be released when the season was over.
She had about six months to go on her contract, and the people at Disney said ‘Well, now that she’s so popular maybe she should sing some teenage songs, some teenybop songs’, and the next thing we knew, one of our songs was heard by Disney executives - we didn’t write it for Annette.
But the song was ‘Tall Paul’... “he’s my all!” [laughs]. They recorded it with her, and it was a tremendous hit for Annette, and they were so kind as to ask if we had any more songs for Annette and we said ‘Sure’, and started writing for her. And everyone liked everything we were writing, accepting them and putting them on recordings.
And we didn’t know this but the boss Walt was listening to all this stuff, and he was going to put her in to a film called 'The Horse Masters’ - about these kids from all over the world who come to learn how to become expert horse riders. And so he said ‘Now that she’s so popular why don’t we give her a song - and get those two brothers who write those cute songs’. And that’s how we started to do these things.
And everything we wrote, he liked. We kept bringing in songs for them to use in various films, and Walt kept enjoying what we were doing. So one day, we’d had about six songs accepted and a couple in the works, and he reached over and handed us this book. He said - ‘Read this and tell me what you think.” He didn’t say ‘I want a situation song here, a character song here, or a title song for this’... he just said ‘Tell me what you think’.
And of course the book - why should I be coy? - was ‘Mary Poppins’.
Sound+Image: So how were songs scripted into Disney movies? The animators often say they should always drive plot, so were you told - we need a song to introduce the vultures, we need a song for some dancing penguins?...
Richard Sherman: Well we worked very closely on that storyline, particular the Poppins thing, because there was no storyline. All we had was a series of wonderful adventures - Mary Poppins flies in and takes the children on these adventures.
And we wanted to give a plot, I mean a reason - a beginning, a middle and end, and a moment of truth to happen. So along with Don DaGrati, who was an artist writer, and Bill Walsh, who was a brilliant dialogue writer, the four of us collaborated along with Walt on making a storyline out of the Mary Poppins books, by taking six principal chapters and adding a couple of things, and making one storyline of a dysfunctional family that Mary Poppins straightens out. I mean this was the thing we sort of infused on top of it, and made a cohesive story. And basically we kept developing these sequences, and every once in a while we’d do a sequence and Walt would say ‘We don’t need this’, and so four songs would drop! But we wound up with 13 songs, I believe, or 14, and that’s the ones that are in the film.
Sound+Image: And how in God's name did you come up with a concept like Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious?
Richard Sherman: Slowly and carefully! That was completely our idea - actually Mrs Travis had written a story, it was a three-page chapter in which Mary Poppins has a day off and she goes for a walk and sees Bert the screever drawing a picture on the sidewalk, and she decides they should go in and have tea, so they jump in, just the two of them, have tea and come out again. And that’s the entire chapter.
And we said this is the most enchanting thing in the world! We can open this up and have something wonderful happen here - not only that, she’s the nanny, she’ll bring the children along and have an experience together.
So all these things were things we brought to the table, and on top of that, what with Don’s suggestions and Walt’s suggestions, we had everything from a ride on the merry-go-round horses to winning the Derby and all the other things that happened, and at a certain time Mary Poppins teaches them the biggest word in the world.
And so we decided we’re going to write a song which is really an obnoxious song, because when we were kids we used to make up these obnoxious words, like coba-floba-flobolous or something - it means absolutely nothing, and people would say ‘What? What does that mean?’ and we’d say ‘Ah, it’s a secret word...’ And people would be mystified.
So we said ‘We gotta do something obnoxious’. But ‘obnoxious’ is not a very nice word, and since it’s an English nanny it should be ‘atrocious’, there you go, so we wanted a super-collosal atrocious word - so there’s part of the song already - super-collosal-atrocious... What rhymes with atrocious? - ‘precocious’, you’re smart! So there we had precocious, atrocious, and ‘docious’ - why not? it rhymes... So then something really ridiculous - ‘califragilistic’ - it sounds like something great. So we finally put together the word. So I’ve summarised there in one sentence what took us two weeks (laughs).
Sound+Image: So then the songs get taken away and arranged?
Richard Sherman: We had a brilliant brilliant musical director called Irwin Kostal, the late Irwin Kostal, great man. He was responsible for the orchestrations of West Side Story and the film of The Sound of Music, and he did five films with us - Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Mary Poppins of course, Charlotte’s Web... he passed away some years ago , but his work is superb, we had a great musician to work with. And two of the greatest artists in the last 50 years, Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke.
Sound+Image: Tell me about the Jungle Book. It’s my favourite Disney film.
Richard Sherman: This is a whole different story. The Jungle Book was a book - it had a plot, it had story, Mowgli raised by wolves and taken to a man-village to live, to be safe. All these things were there, but the original story was developed by a different team of writers, and they had written it very much the way Rudyard Kipling had created it, which was dark and heavy and mysterious. And Walt didn’t want that, he said ‘I want to use that plot but I want to tell it with fun. I want to make a Disney fun picture out of it.’
So he brought in a whole new team of creatives, and including my brother and myself, and our instructions were to find the scariest spookiest stories and to come up with funny things to do with them. So we’d have a comedy snake instead of a scary snake... Kaa...
Sound+Image: It’s an extraordinary thing to attempt, really...
Richard Sherman: Well the story was there but the telling was different. And we had the greatest storyteller of the last century - Walt Disney - directing us! And he knew what he wanted, he knew he had a great gutsy story but he had to tell it a certain way.
And so one of the things we came up with was this terrifiying king of the apes with a marauding band of monkeys - they steal Mowgli, kidnap him, then this ferocious guy says ‘Give me the secret of fire! - he wants to have fire - and the little boy, he was raised by wolves, what does he know?
Sound+Image [in best Mowgli voice]: "But I don’t know how to make fire!"
Richard Sherman: Exactly! So basically here is this terrifying sequence where the kid doesn’t know what’s going to happen to him. OK let’s have fun with it. This king of the apes is really scary - we’ve got to make him not scary. So what does an ape do? So Bob and I are sitting in our room talking, just like I’m talking to you, and we say - ‘Well he swings in a tree... the ape swings in the tree, and he’s the king of the apes - he’s the king of the swingers!’ And we both started to laugh right away - we’ve got a jazz man, and the band of monkeys is his jazz band, and so right away we started laughing. Now, how does an ape sound? - he grunts - unh-unh-unh. So we said, every time we have a word, let’s do that - so it’s ‘I wanna be like you-ooh-ooh... I wanna walk like you-ooh-ooh...’ All of a sudden it started making itself happen.
And we finally we wrote the song and it was fun, and we played it for the guys, and for Walt, and Walt said ‘Who do you think we could have do this thing?’ And we said we gotta get a great swinger, a jazz man, not just an actor - we have to get a real legitimate jazz band. And someone in the room suggested ‘How about Louis Prima?’ and we said ‘My God he’s perfect - we had King Louis as the name of the guy!’ Made in heaven, right?
So we were sent to Las Vegas where he was playing, and he was the wildest band you’ve ever seen in your life up on stage, with Sam Butera and The Witnesses, that was his band.
They knew we were coming, and we went to a little room while they were taking a break between their acts, and I sang the song for everybody. And while I was playing it, they were all looking so serious and weren’t smiling. I was terrified - maybe they don’t like what I’m doing, and I’m breaking my neck singing ‘Ooh ooh ooh, I wanna be like you-ooh-ooh’. And when I’m all through, Louis Prima looked at me and said ‘Are you trying to make a monkey out of me?’ I said ‘No no, you’re the big ape, the other guys are the monkeys!’ And they all started to laugh, screaming with laughter. They all loved the song, they would love to do the sequence, it’s great.
So that’s how we got Louis Prima, and of course Phil Harris was brought in because he was Baloo, and he does a funny routine with the scat singing... That was a fun thing to do and it became the first of the contributions we made. So everything that was scary we made fun - the barbershop quartet of vultures, we gave them Liverpudlian accents like the Beatles.
Sound+Image: I gather the end of The Jungle Book took a bit of time to solidify?
Richard Sherman: Yeh, we were going from sequence to sequence on this thing and we didn’t really have a good ending - how do you make a convincing ending when the little boy he LOVES Baloo the bear and the bear LOVES him - how could he possibly leave him? What would make him leave?
And we said there’s no plot that we can do, it has to be nature - it has to be something more. And nature’s this, the thing that makes life go on is the man’s attraction to woman, woman’s attraction to man, that’s what it’s all about, that’s what propagates life. And here’s this little boy who’s never seen a human girl, and all of a sudden he sees a human girl and something pulls him, he can’t explain it, and he HAS to go into the man village. And this is a marvellous truth, and we all agreed this is great, and we were assigned to come up with a little song that the little girl could sing as she goes to the well, and a fellow named Ken Anderson, a great great artist, was assigned to design the action that would take place as the the song was happening.
And independently we created our ends of the deal, then we had a meeting together. And his drawings were EXACTLY what our song was doing - even to the cutaways where Baloo is saying ‘Don’t go in there kid, they’ll ruin you’, and Bagheera is saying ‘No let him go, he’s meant to go in there’. All that stuff was in his drawings and in our song - these opening spaces where it would happen.
Sound+Image: That song, ‘My Own Home’ is possibly my favourite of your songs - along with ‘Hushabye Mountain’ from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Both such beautiful songs and they weave in and out of magnificent orchestrations.
Richard Sherman: Well we were very very fortunate, we had a great team, on both Hushabye Mountain whic was Irwin Kostal again working on our scores, and in the case of The Jungle Book it was George Bruns, a wonderful master who did a great job on the songs artistically. It’s just teamwork that made the whole thing happen. I mean Walt put together a great process.
Sound+Image: Were many songs lost in the cutting process?
Richard Sherman: Oh yes, many many times. Walt was very specific what he wanted, and many times you’d be writing something and you thought it was just exactly what was called for, and Walt would just say ‘Mmm, hah, it’s not my song...’ and then he would tell you what he wanted. He’d be very exacting - in certain films there were like 25 songs written for a picture and maybe five were used. For Poppins we did 35 songs.
Sound+Image: So have you been tempted to do a ‘lost Disney songs’ collection?
Richard Sherman: There are a couple of books out now [Russell Schroeder: Disney's Lost Chords - Volumes 1 and 2]... lovely songs written for sequences and projects that were shelved and not used. It’s just part of the business, you get used to that - if you’re a professional you don’t think about it. And many times Bob and I have used a melodic line or even an entire song in another situation.
Sound+Image: More recently you’ve been working on stage versions of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Mary Poppins - how has that changed things, had you been involved in stage musicals before?
Richard Sherman: We adored working on those things - for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang we did five-six new songs for it ourselves, and on Poppins the wonderful team of George Stiles and Anthony Drew did some beautiful additional songs for the score and added some material to our songs. So it’s a nice combination of these writers and the original scpre - nine of the original songs in there, and half a dozen new songs by the boys.
Sound+Image: My time’s nearly up, I think, so one last question... Does it annoy you that in The Aristocats when they do the ‘arpeggios’ song on the piano, the cats don't press the right notes on the piano?
Richard Sherman: No! it’s supposed to be! They’re just little kids, that’s the idea... it’s very cute, it’s one of my favourite sequences. That and the fact that Chevalier sang the theme - that’s a funny story, I’ll give you that and then we’ll go.
So when I finished the song [The Aristocats] with Bob and we played it for the guys, Willie [Wolfgang] Reitherman the director said ‘You know the perfect person for that is Chevalier..’. And everybody said ‘Yeh but Chevalier retired five years ago, he’s not performing any more.’ So he said ‘Dick, do your imitation of Chevalier’... I do a terrible imitation of Chevalier... but I did it... [sings] ‘Which pet's address / is the finest in Paris?...’ They made a record of that, and sent it to Chevalier...
Sound+Image: Gosh, you must have been a little nervous about that!
Richard Sherman: Well he came out of retirement, went into Paris and they recorded him - in Paris - and that’s the last recording he ever made! He was wonderful, did it in French and English. And you’ll get a kick out of this... my wife and I were in Paris about five months after this, and we were coming out of a hotel and there was Chevalier with a friend walking in. And I said ‘Maurice, Dick Sherman remember me?’ ‘Oh yes of course’, he said, ‘I loved the song’. I said ‘Well everyone loves what you did with it, but I want to apologise for that phoney thick French accent I did on the demo... they insisted that I do that.’ He looked me right in the face and said ‘Accent? I heard no accent...’
Our thanks to Disney for organising our telephone interview with Mr Sherman, which we are publishing today in memory of his brother Robert B Sherman, who died in London on March 5, 2012.