Richard M. Sherman Interview: The Legendary Disney Songsmith's Extraordinary Life
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Two-time Oscar and two-time Grammy winner, Richard Morton Sherman (along with his brother Robert) is the composer/lyricist of songs from Mary Poppins, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Jungle Book, Winnie the Pooh, The Parent Trap, The AristoCats and many more. He and Robert Bernard Sherman also penned the Disney theme park song “It’s a Small World (After All).” Together, “the Sherman Brothers” formed one of the most prolific, lauded and long lasting songwriting partnerships of all time.
Sherman and longtime friend and collaborator Milt Larsen have written many songs and shows including their latest musical comedy Pazzazz! that tells the story of a very young George M. Cohan and the gay nineties comedy team of Joe Weber and Lew Fields. Larsen is a writer, actor, performer, lyricist, magician, speaker and the creator of The Magic Castle, a private club for magicians and enthusiasts.
“One day Walt handed us a book, and it was called Mary Poppins by Pamela Travers. He said, ‘Read it, and tell me what you think.’ We did and told him, ‘Walt, this potentially could be a terrific musical. It could be a gigantic musical if we could round up these stories and make one single story out of it.’ He liked our thinking and put us on staff. We became his staff songwriters, and for a year and a half we developed Mary Poppins as a movie with another fellow by the name of Don DaGradi who was one of Walt’s great writers.”
Magic Castle Records is pleased to announce the release of Smash Flops – a collection of songs that just missed being smash hits due to unfortunate timing. Words and music by the team of Sherman and Larsen. Included in this CD collection are the songs “Bon Voyage, Titanic,” “When the Hindenburg Lands Today,” “Congratulations, Tom Dewey” and “The Confederate Victory Song,” with two new tunes, “The Palin for President Polka” and “The Fracking Song.” These offbeat comedy songs are currently available at iTunes and Amazon.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Mr. Sherman, I understand that the songs written by you and Milt Larsen on the Smash Flops album have been re-mastered. Please tell me the story of how those songs were created.
Richard M. Sherman: Milt Larsen and I are very close friends. We’ve been best friends for over sixty years. He had a great collection of old records. That’s how I met him because I was looking for old records. My father was a songwriter, and I was trying to locate some of the songs he had written. Through our mutual love for nostalgic songs and things like that, Milt and I got to become buddies.
This is a funny story. Milt was playing an old recording of a song my father wrote called “Lindbergh (The Eagle of the U.S.A.).” It was written in 1927 when Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic Ocean solo. You remember that great flight? Anyway, this was the late 50s, and that record was playing. I said, “Milt, the publisher of that song didn’t want to publish it unless Lindy landed safely. If he had crashed into the ocean, he never would’ve published that song. Because he landed safely, my dad had a smash hit.” Milt thought for about a beat with that funny mind of his and then said, “Well, if Lindy had failed, it would’ve been a smash flop.” We both started to laugh.
They had a big happy song about the Hindenburg landing in New Jersey, and it blew up just as it landed. There were screams, and it was very frightening. We just have this weird sense of humor, so Milt and I started writing songs that could’ve been hits except for bad timing. That’s how it all started. We sang a cheery song about Custer riding out to put down the Indians only to be massacred by thousands and thousands of Indians against his 200 men (laughs). It’s preposterous.
We wrote “Bon Voyage, Titanic,” where everybody’s singing this happy song about this great ship that’s going across the ocean, and it hits an iceberg. Who knew it was going to hit an iceberg? We actually had a lot of fun writing these songs. We wrote them back in 1959, and it was a big cult success, but you’d have to have a crazy sense of humor to appreciate it. Subsequent to that, we did several other albums with smash flop concepts. We did a thing called Sing a Song of Sickness. We wrote an album called Yankee Doodle Flops with songs that could’ve been successes about the American Revolution when the Hessians were sure they were going to destroy George Washington.
We just had a great deal of laughs doing these things. In a sense we were having what they call a “busman’s holiday.” Milt was busy doing his Magic Castle, all kinds of comedy songs and his theaters that he created, and I was busy writing legitimate songs with my brother Bob. Robert and I were writing for Disney, but every time Milt and I got together, we just had a busman’s holiday and wrote crazy songs just for the fun of it. About a year ago we thought it was about time to take the recordings and digitally re-master them, put them in order and have another album of them. We also added a couple of songs.
We decided there were a couple of diehard supporters of Sarah Palin out there who would encourage her to run in 2016 for the presidency, so we created a song called “The Palin for President Polka.” Then there’s a lot of people who are blasting up the crest of the earth to try and find oil under the ground, and there are hundreds of groups that are very much against it because it’s poisoning the earth, but the fact remains that we wrote “The Franking Song,” and it’s very funny. The fracking and Sarah Palin songs are brand new smash flops. I hope we don’t offend anybody with these songs. We don’t want to do that.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What’s the quote by George Bernard Shaw? “The secret to success is to offend the greatest number of people.” (laughs)
Richard M. Sherman: Well, my whole thing is that you’ve got to have a sense of humor. When the Hindenburg exploded, it was terrible. But enough time has passed that the US is now all together again as opposed to having been separated, so I think we can laugh a little bit about the attitudes of that time. It’s just a matter of if you have a mature sense of humor and can laugh.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You mentioned that while you were working with Milt, you were also collaborating with Robert (Sherman)?
Richard M. Sherman: Oh yeah. My brother, Robert, and I became quite a team. We wrote some 50 movies and did a tremendous amount of things and won some Academy Awards. It was a legitimate songwriting career. It wasn’t about writing flops (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Your father sort of pushed the two of you into the business?
Richard M. Sherman: Our father was a very popular and successful songwriter named Al Sherman. I told you earlier that it was because of my father’s song (“Lindbergh: The Eagle of the U.S.A.”) that I got together with Milt. My father wrote big standards like “You Gotta Be a Football Hero.” You hear it all the time at football games. “You’ve got to be a football hero to get along with the beautiful girls.” (singing) That was my father’s song.
He wrote for the great comedian Eddie Cantor. “Potatoes are cheaper, tomatoes are cheaper. Now’s the time to fall in love!” (singing) That was one of the big depression songs to make everybody feel good. He wrote wonderful songs like that, romantic songs like “On the Beach at Bali-Bali.” My father was a very successful pop song writer. He decided that Bob and I would make a good team, so he teamed us up.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How did you meet Walt Disney?
Richard M. Sherman: Well, as we started writing our songs, a little girl named Annette Funicello came into our lives. She was a “Mouseketeer.” I’m sure you remember the kids that were on the Walt Disney Mickey Mouse Club on television.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Of course!
Richard M. Sherman: All the kids used to watch it, and the most popular of all the Mouseketeers was little Annette. She had a little time to go on her contract, and the people at the Disney Studios said, “It would be great if we got some pop songs for her to sing because she has a great following now, and it would be a good thing for her.” They found a song of ours that Bob and I had written called “Tall Paul,” and said they’d like to record it. We were very tickled that they wanted to do it, so they recorded Annette Funicello singing “Tall Paul,” and it became a Top Ten hit. It started her career as a singer.
Annette wanted to be a dancer. She said to me, “Why do they keep making me sing songs? I actually don’t sing very well.” But they told her that she was a star and to go sing it her way because everybody loved her. We had a lot of hits with Annette. Walt Disney discovered Annette when she was twelve years old. She was all of fifteen when we were working with her, and she was singing these hits of ours like “Pineapple Princess” and “Jo Jo the Dog Faced Boy,” all these funny little teenybopper songs. Walt Disney was hearing everything we wrote, and then we did a string of albums for her. We did Hawaiiannette, Italianannette and Dance Annette. She used to kid us and say, “When are you going to write a song called ‘Bassannette,’ when I have a baby?” We had a lot of laughs with her. Annette was a wonderful girl, a wonderful human being.
One day Walt Disney decided he wanted to put Annette into a film, and he said, “Why don’t we get those two brothers that are writing the cute songs for her?” He knew our work by now, and Walt said, “Maybe they’ll write a song for this film.” That’s how it started. We wrote a song for Annette. Walt liked it. He gave us an assignment to work on songs for a picture that Hayley Mills was doing called The Parent Trap (1961). That was a very big movie, and we wrote a couple of hits. We wrote “Let’s get together, yeah yeah yeah.” (singing) That was a big hit for Hayley. We wrote songs for TV shows Walt was doing. He really was very fond of our songs, and he liked us.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): And Mary Poppins?
Richard M. Sherman: One day Walt handed us a book, and it was called Mary Poppins by Pamela Travers. He said, “Read it, and tell me what you think.” We did and told him, “Walt, this potentially could be a terrific musical. It could be a gigantic musical if we could round up these stories and make one single story out of it.” He liked our thinking and put us on staff. We became his staff songwriters, and for a year and a half we developed Mary Poppins as a movie with another fellow by the name of Don DaGradi who was one of Walt’s great writers.
Bob, Don and I, under Walt’s supervision, developed the story of Mary Poppins as you know it today. Then if you saw the movie, Saving Mr. Banks, you know that Mrs. Travers was very difficult to work with. But Walt prevailed, and we did do our movie. It became a world classic. And that’s the story of how we started working with Walt Disney.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): All sorts of rumors of Walt Disney being anti-Semitic and racist have been floating around for years. Any truth to them?
Richard M. Sherman: Oh my God! That is complete bunk! It’s complete garbage. Every great man has his detractors. They want to find something to pick on. Walt Disney loved people. He was a very wonderful human being. He was a great story man. He loved to tell stories, but he didn’t like nonsense and garbage. Walt liked to tell good stories that had a wholesome, positive attitude. He was a very considerate, thoughtful man a man who cared very much about people. He was very loyal to his staff.
We had people who worked for Disney for a lifetime, for thirty years or more. It was amazing how much he just was loyal to people and kind to them. Yes, he was a taskmaster. You had to sort of jump high to work with him, but you wanted to because it was a great joy when he loved stuff. I must say that it was the greatest nine or ten years of my life working for Walt Disney. He made my career.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I read that you and Robert were total opposites. Did that damage the songwriting process?
Richard M. Sherman: We had totally different personalities. Bob and I were totally different. He was yin, and I was yang, but we complimented each other because we came at things in difference ways. He was an introspective individual, and I’m very effervescent and jump up all over the place. Between the two of us, we had a wonderfully different look at things. We tempered each other’s statements and thinking, so that the end product was always a little special and a little different.
We’d always look for a new way of saying the same thing. In other words, in writing songs, we didn’t want to just come out and make the statement. We didn’t write “Whistle While You Work.” That was written for Snow White in 1937. When we were writing Mary Poppins in 1963/64, we said the same thought, but in a different way. It was, “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” We were saying that a happy attitude makes a difficult job easier, but we said it with a metaphor. That’s what Walt loved about the way we wrote.
We would dig for these metaphors. We were trying to say that you needed to pay attention to your children and to give them that little extra something like a little bit of love. It’s not just feeding and clothing them. You’ve got to give them love. “Feed the Birds.” It doesn’t take but two pennies to buy a bread crumb. We weren’t writing about bread crumbs. We were writing that it doesn’t take much to give love, and that’s why we wrote “Feed the Birds.” Walt loved the way we wrote, and that’s why he hired us to do these things.
The song we worked on for the World’s Fair became a world classic. It’s called “It’s a Small World.” We weren’t trying to write a happy little jingle. We were actually saying, “Let’s not kill each other. Let’s learn to respect each other. Let’s learn to give each other a little space.” It’s a small world, so learn to love and respect each other. “It’s a world of laughter, a world of tears. It’s a world of hopes and a world of fears. There’s so much that we share that it’s time we’re aware it’s a small world after all.” It was a prayer for peace. Walt loved the fact that it was a prayer for peace, and if you slow it down and listen to it, you’ll know what we’re talking about without actually saying, “Let’s love each other.”
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Certainly words to live by.
Richard M. Sherman: I wish people would. I do a lot of fundraisers, and I always play the song slowly as it was originally written as a prayer. People just go crazy. Then I play it fast, and everybody sings it with me. But then they understand the message of that song. “There is just one moon and one golden sun and a smile means friendship to everyone. Though the mountains divide and the oceans are wide, it’s a small world after all.”
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Beautifully written song of peace. On a lighter note, I read that you and Bob knew the word, “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” from childhood.
Richard M. Sherman: Very close to it. We didn’t have quite that word. We sort of made it work to our rhymes, but it was a word very similar to it. We heard it when we were kids. Then we recalled the word when we became grown and writing Mary Poppins. We wanted to have a word that sounded rather ridiculous. We wanted to say it was “obnoxious,” but obnoxious didn’t work, so we said “atrocious” because it’s an English subject and it sounded like an English word. We said that to be very smart was to be “precocious,” and that would be “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” We came up with “docious” to rhyme with “precocious” and also “atrocious.” It sounds wonderful to put crazy words together, and that’s the way we did it.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I always thought it was amazing that Julie Andrews could sing it backwards. Did that take much practice?
Richard M. Sherman: Oh, she did practice! “Suoicodilaipxecitsiligarfilacrepus” (singing) (laughs) Julie took it syllable by syllable and did it backwards.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): (laughs) What was the experience like working with Julie and Dick Van Dyke?
Richard M. Sherman: Julie is a genuine, one hundred percent pro. She was very sweet to everybody. She was determined to do a magnificent job, and she won the Academy Award for her performance. Julie was great and was a wonderful person to work with. We’re friends to this day. We’re very close. Whenever we get together, it’s like old home week. You have certain friends you don’t see all the time, but when you do see them it was like yesterday, you know? I’m sure you have the same type of friendships like that. Dick Van Dyke has remained my friend all these years. We forged a wonderful bond when we were working together on Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Is it more difficult to write songs for animated films or for children like in the film Tom Sawyer (1973) where the lead actors were young people? I believe Johnny Whitaker was about fourteen, and Jodie Foster eleven.
Richard M. Sherman: We don’t write to the children’s limitations or anything. We give them the songs and make them learn how to do it. I’m glad you brought up Tom Sawyer. It was our first screenplay as well. We wrote the screenplay and the adaptation of Twain’s classic. Of course, Twain created these wonderful characters, and we just had fun working with them. I must say that we don’t write anything except for the characters. We write the way they sound, the way they think and the way they speak.
With Charlotte’s Web (1973), we didn’t write for spiders (laughs). We wrote for a character named Charlotte. It’s amazing, but they become your people. When we wrote for Winnie the Pooh (1977), we were not writing for a stuffed teddy bear. We were writing for Winnie the Pooh, and he’s a character. He speaks, thinks and feels. We throw away all of the garbage on the outside and write for the personalities. We have written for so many different kinds of people.
We did a film called The Slipper and the Rose (1976). It was kind of a mature picture and another look at the Cinderella story from the Prince’s point of view. We took a whole different tact, and that’s a very adult love story. We write for the character. We write for the personality and try to write in a language people can understand. If it’s Winnie the Pooh in kind of a make believe world, we would write in those terms. It’s all about what the story calls for. For years, Bob and I had to vary our style to whatever we were working on.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Mr. Sherman, have you accomplished everything you set out to do since your father sent you and Bob out into the world to create musical history?
Richard M. Sherman: Well, I’m not through yet. I’m still writing. I haven’t achieved all the goals I wanted. I still have a number of shows I want to do. I still have a number of movies I want to write songs for, and I’m happy to be still doing it. I’m 87 years old, and I don’t feel more than 35.
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