Walt Disney's supercalifragilisticexpialidocious songwriters


Los Angeles -- Songwriters Robert and Richard Sherman were having one of their traditional Friday afternoon scotch mists with Walt Disney in his office when the studio head turned to the younger brother at the piano and said, "Play it."

Without having to ask, Dick Sherman began playing "Feed the Birds," a touching song about the poor and homeless written by the brothers for the 1964 Disney hit, "Mary Poppins."

"Disney often got tears in his eyes when he heard that," Dick Sherman, 63, said. "It was his favorite song. I even played it in his office after he died."

The Sherman brothers also have a few favorites of their own. Among the hundreds of songs they wrote for Disney and other studios during their 40 years as a songwriting team are 26 songs released yesterday on Disney Records. The album's songs all were featured in Disney productions.

The brothers also have written music for an upcoming Tommy Tune musical, "Busker Alley," and an animated series, "The Timberwood Tales," based on an A.J. Carruthers book.

But it's the album they are currently excited about, a virtual Sherman Brothers Greatest Hits.

Some of the duo's album favorites include "It's a Small World," "A Spoonful of Sugar," "Chim-Chim-Cher-ee" and "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious."

Artists on the album include Louis Armstrong, Annette Funicello, the Beach Boys, Maurice Chevalier, Angela Lansbury, Burl Ives, Hayley Mills and even Disney himself singing "It's a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow" with the Shermans.

For seven of the 13 years the brothers were associated with Disney, they worked directly with Walt Disney. Before that, they were under contract with Disney -- after their 1958 hit "Tall Paul," written for then-Mousketeer Funicello.

They wrote a few other songs for Ms. Funicello and then made their first Disney movie, "The Parent Trap," with Ms. Mills.

Bob Sherman, 66, recalled the time the brothers became full-time Disney staff members.

"We had read the Pamela Travers book on 'Mary Poppins,'" he said. "We sketched out five songs in two weeks. And we underlined six chapters in the book that we thought would make the story for the movie. There was a little adventure in the book but no through plot.

"We met with him to present our songs. Walt Disney pulled out his copy of the book, and he had circled the same six chapters. That is the moment he put us on staff."

The brothers went on to win Academy awards for Best Original Score in "Mary Poppins" and Best Song, "Chim-Chim-Cher-ee."

They wrote "It's a Small World" to get Disney out of a bind.

"Walt said he had a little problem," Bob Sherman recalled. "In a few months, the New York World's Fair was opening and he had a mock-up of a song in which groups of kids sing their own national anthems.

"On paper, it didn't work," Mr. Sherman said. "So we lucked into getting this great assignment. We made it simple. We made it a two-part counterpoint instead of a round."

After working on the song for two weeks, the brothers arrived at two melodies. Then came word that Disney wanted to hear it. And he wanted to hear it now.

"We heard him coughing and walking down the hall," Bob Sherman said. "We just gave him the simplest one. And he said, "That'll work.'"

The brothers, who speak by finishing each other's sentences and stories, credited their father, Al Sherman, with inspiring them. Al Sherman composed such songs as "No, No, a Thousand Times No," "Potatoes are Cheaper," and "You Gotta be a Football Hero."

"Our father taught us three things about songwriting: sincerity, simplicity," Bob said. "And singability," Dick added.

But as far as coming up with the tongue-twisting "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," the brothers credit summer camp.

A summer camp game challenged the brothers, then ages 7 and 9, to create the longest nonsense words.

"So when we were writing for 'Mary Poppins,' we looked for a wonderful, crazy, obnoxious word," Dick Sherman said. "We wanted it to be atrocious, precocious. We wanted a super word. And it just sounds good. Most of our writing, like our Dad's, is a play on words."

But "A Spoonful of Sugar" was born out of a real-life incident with Bob's son.

After learning that Julie Andrews did not like a song because it was too sappy, the brothers brainstormed for about three weeks on a song that had to have more of a "slogan."

Bob's son came home from school one day and told his dad he was given a Salk vaccine. The nurse gave him a little cube of sugar to sweeten the medicine.

When Bob told Dick about the spoonful of sugar idea, his brother hated it.

"I thought it was the worst idea," Dick said. "I finally realized it was a damn good idea."

The brothers, who also wrote "You're Sixteen," first sung by Johnny Burnette and later made into a hit by Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney, have nothing but praise for Disney.

"He was our second Dad," Dick Sherman said.

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