Robert Sherman, songwriter and storyteller
By Philip Furia
Next to George and Ira Gershwin, the only major fraternal songwriting team in the history of American popular music has been Robert and Richard Sherman. Together, the Sherman brothers wrote songs for such film musicals as Mary Poppins, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Tom Sawyer, The Jungle Book, and The Aristocats. Richard Sherman was primarily composer of the music for their songs, and Robert primarily the lyricist, but both wrote music and lyrics.
Growing up in New York and then California, the boys were encouraged in their literary and artistic activities by their father, Al Sherman, a songwriter who had written such hits as “You Gotta Be a Football Hero.” The Sherman brothers had their first major success in 1960 with a rock ’n’ roll song, “You’re Sixteen (You’re Beautiful, and You’re Mine),” which Ringo Starr revived in 1974.
Walt Disney put them under contract to write songs for his studio’s films; the Sherman brothers were among the last songwriters in Hollywood to work exclusively for a single studio. Their most successful Disney film was Mary Poppins, which won an Oscar for best musical score and another for Best Song (“Chim Chim Cher—ee”). The most famous song from the film, however, is “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” which exhibited the brothers’ verbal inventiveness.
Walt Disney, a great storyteller himself, admired the Sherman brothers work because they wrote songs that were integrally tied to the story and characters of a musical. Their most famous song, however, was written as an independent number for the 1964 New York World’s Fair — “It’s a small world (after all).”
Robert Bernard Sherman was born in New York City on December 19, 1925. He spent his last years in London, where he died, at the age of eighty-six, on March 6, 2012.
Philip Furia is a professor in the Department of Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. He is the author of The Songs of Hollywood with Laurie Patterson, Ira Gershwin: The Art of the Lyricist, and The Poets of Tin Pan Alley: A History of America’s Great Lyricists.