Saturday 18 January 2020

Robert B Sherman

Oscar-winning songwriter who, with his brother, wrote classic Disney scores

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).

Robert Bernard Sherman was the son of a Russian-Jewish immigrant Al Sherman, also a songwriter. 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 fought in Europe where he was shot, forcing him 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 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 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 song brought the brothers to the attention of the Disney studio and the Shermans gave the studio a chart hit, Let's Get Together, sung by Hayley Mills in her role as twins in The Parent Trap (1961). It was followed in 1963 with a 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 Shermans' 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. The soundtrack album stayed in the 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), 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.

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 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.

Robert Bernard Sherman, songwriter: born New York December, 19 1925; (survived by two daughters, two sons); died London March 5, 2012.

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