Remembering the Words of Robert B. Sherman

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The passing this week of songwriter Robert B. Sherman at age 86 brings an end to one of the great creative teams of the twentieth century. Bob and his brother Richard were known as “Walt’s songwriters,” having composed not only the Oscar-winning song score for Mary Poppins, but songs for The Jungle Book, The Aristocats, Winnie the Pooh, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and the Disney theme parks. And yes, the latter category includes “It’s A Small World,” which even Bob acknowledged has driven Disneyland cast members nuts in every language.

Within the team, Bob concentrated on the lyrics. He was also the quieter brother, which I discovered in 1992 when I spent an afternoon with them in their West L.A. office. Dick offered most of the stories that day, with Bob providing contrapuntal commentary, though Bob got in a few of his own. In particular, he told me about a near disastrous-decision regarding “It’s a Small World,” which was originally created for was UNICEF pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair. “We spent three weeks working on [the song],” Bob said, adding:

“The first one we did was the one that they used, but we thought it was too simple. We kept working new ones. Finally, about three weeks later, Walt said, ‘Where’s my song?’ So we brought in the first one. [At Imagineering] they had a mock-up of the ride, fifty percent life size. We had to walk through, singing it. On the way back to the studio, Walt was driving along the freeway and I said: ‘Walt, Dick and I have been talking. Since this is for UNICEF, we’d like to donate all possible royalties to UNICEF.’ Walt stopped the car right on the freeway, and he turned around and said, ‘What? I don’t want to hear that again! This song is going to send your kids through college!’”

(from left) Robert Sherman, Walt Disney and Richard Sherman

(from left) Robert Sherman, Walt Disney and Richard Sherman

One of those kids, he went on to say, perhaps did not fully appreciate Walt’s prescience. “One of my sons, when he was about six, stopped on his bike with another kid under my window,” Bob told me. “He said, ‘You know, I think my father’s a little bit retarded because he writes songs for kids!’” Of course, both Shermans always said they wrote songs for the kid in everyone, a perspective that proved invaluable when Walt approached them for a new project, right after Mary Poppins:

“Walt said, ‘Since you’re Anglophiles now, how about doing a thing in Winnie the Pooh?’ We said, “You mean that kiddie thing?’ Tony Walton was Julie Andrews’ husband at the time, and we said, ‘Tony, what’s this Winnie the Pooh stuff all about?’ He came up to our office and spent an hour and a half raving about how Winnie the Pooh saved his life when he was a little boy, because he was a fat little kid, and it made him feel good.’”

If anybody knew about making the kid in all of us feel good, it was the Sherman Brothers.

(from left) Richard Sherman, Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke, Robert Sherman

(from left) Richard Sherman, Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke, Robert Sherman