A Tribute to Richard M. Sherman

Caricature by Pete Emslie

Few people leave behind as many admirers as the legend we lost earlier this week, Richard M. Sherman. He and his brother Robert B. Sherman were responsible for music and lyrics created for an astonishing number of original film and TV musicals, winning two Academy Awards for Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins. Even as the big-screen musical genre was losing ground, the Shermans continued providing movie audiences (and soundtrack collectors) with fresh, solid musical scores for such films as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Tom Sawyer, and The Slipper and the Rose. Several featured Sherman screenplays as well as songs.

Walt Disney became aware of their keen story sense from the moment Walt Disney Records founder Jimmy Johnson arranged a meeting with them. Walt described the storyline for what would be The Parent Trap (the title of which was due to their song). When Walt was reminded that they were there to present Annette’s “Strummin’ Song” for 1961’s The Horsemasters (the sheet music sits on Walt’s office piano to this day), Johnson suggested that the brothers write some tunes for the Hayley Mills hit.

Walt recognized that the brothers possessed the ability to create songs that advance the story and reflect the characters. One cannot remove a song from most Sherman scores without damaging the overall work. They worked closely with the creative team at Disney and later at Hanna-Barbera in the seventies, where they enjoyed a welcoming atmosphere and collaborative spirit much like their experience with Walt. On Oscar night in 1965, they were presented with one of their Oscars by Debbie Reynolds, who would perform the voice of Charlotte (in Hanna Barbera’s Charlotte’s Web).

Richard enjoyed greeting and entertaining the public, friends, and colleagues, sitting at a piano to sing a favorite song, and regaling fans with the less well-known ones, usually ending the tune with a “plink-PLUNK” on the keys. He also left behind at least an album’s worth of songs he sang either in character or in his own warm voice. Several collections of classic Disney scores include bonus tracks of his demo recordings. In 2018, he sang his title song for the 2018 film Christopher Robin, as well as appearing onscreen in a music video for “Busy Doing Nothing.”

He and Robert frequently attended the recording sessions for their songs at Sunset Sound studios, which is still going strong at Sunset and Cherokee in Hollywood. When Tutti Camarata was producing the “second cast” recording for Mary Poppins with Marni Nixon (who we featured in this Spin) and Bill Lee, the group discovered that the performer hired to sing “I Love to Laugh” wasn’t capturing the vocal adequately. After Richard demonstrated what they were listening for, it was decided that he should just go ahead and record what ended up on the album.

Here, Leonard Maltin introduces a clip of Robert and Richard with Walt, singing for “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” in a promotional film for General Electric and the Carousel of Progress, from the Walt Disney Treasures DVD series:

Richard Sherman was honored at several events for his 90th birthday, including this one in which Shannon Warne sang the song he wrote for Disneyland’s 60th anniversary, “A Kiss Goodnight,” which was made into a book illustrated by another Disney Legend, Floyd Norman.

Richard and Robert’s father was a hit songwriter in the early days of pop music, Al Sherman, who lived to enjoy witnessing some of the success of his sons in the same field. Among the many Al Sherman hits was the Eddie Cantor tune “When I’m the President,” sung in this cartoon by Betty Boop:

Richard told me that Al’s favorite of all their scores was Charlotte’s Web (1973), a highly personal collection of songs in a film about life, friendship, and the bittersweet passage of time. Debbie Reynolds brought tears to the eyes of the cast and crew at the recording session when she performed her classic version of “Mother Earth and Father Time,” a song that, in the Sherman tradition, was deceptively simple yet infinitely textured and layered.

How very special are we to have had Richard Sherman and Robert Sherman in our countless lives all over this small world–for now and for always.

Richard (far right) and Robert Sherman were presented with their Mary Poppins Oscar for Best Original Score by future Charlotte voice, Debbie Reynolds. Fred Astaire presented their award for “Chim Chim Cheree.”