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Richard Sherman on Hits for Walt Disney, THE BOYS & Ringo Starr

by Quendrith Johnson, Los Angeles Correspondent

Famous brother teams are not unusual in movies, from the Coen Bros to the Hughes Bros to the Wachoski Bros, but the combination of working brothers as Oscar-winning songwriters is a little more rare.

Like George and Ira Gershwin, who are credited with writing "The Great American Songbook," Richard and Robert Sherman can surely be said to have written The Great American Children's Songbook.

New York-born brothers Richard Sherman (b: 1928) and older brother Robert Sherman (b: 1925) brought us hit songs from MARY POPPINS, THE JUNGLE BOOK, CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG, and THE ARISTOCATS to name a few.

Oscar winner Richard Sherman: The Man Behind Mary Poppins & More
Their mind-melding lyrics gave us new words like "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" and brought imaginary worlds to life wrapped in melodies such as the one for their indelible Disney-ride theme song, "It's A Small World After All."

Working with Walt Disney, then on their own for nearly five decades, the brothers' creative lives are captured in a new movie, THE BOYS: THE SHERMAN BROTHERS STORY, directed by their sons, Jeffrey Sherman and Gregory Sherman.

Here's an exclusive interview with the legendary Richard Sherman, in advance of a special screening of THE BOYS, set for Nov. 15 at Laemmle's Musical Hall in Beverly Hills.

Quendrith Johnson: So you're a second generation composer is that correct?

Richard Sherman: Songwriter, yes, our father was Al Sherman was a great pop tune writer of the 20's and 30's. "You Gotta Be A Football Hero" was Eddie Cantor's favorite. Also "Potatoes Are Cheaper," "Now Is the Time to Fall in Love," these were all big songs back in the day.

Quendrith Johnson: Do you remember the Vaudeville greats coming in and out of your house back in the day?

Richard Sherman: Yeah, sure. Entertainers and wonderful people who sang his songs; and Dad was always playing piano. As a little boy I remember Eddie Cantor. Backstage, I remember Georgie Jessel playing a song; I remember being patted on the head by these guys. I was very proud of my father.

Quendrith Johnson: Do you know the story of George Jessel fighting over money on THE JAZZ SINGER, then the role went to Al Jolson?

Richard Sherman: It was a bit of rivalry between the two. They were both major stars on Broadway. Georgie had starred in the original version on Broadway, but movies were kind of a secondary thing. Jolson jumped at it: "sure, I'll do it." People make a big deal out of it.

Quendrith Johnson: Because it is film history.

Richard Sherman: Yeah, it's film history, but Jolson made the right decision. Jessel could very well have been the first person to do a talkie.

Quendrith Johnson: So when did you and your brother, Robert Sherman, decide to sit down and write songs together?

Richard Sherman: Our Dad, he was the one who put it together. We'd just gotten out of colllege, Bard College, and we were living in this little apartment over a cleaning store. Bob was trying to write the Great American Novel, and I was trying to write the Great American Musical. Dad came up and said "I bet you guys together couldn't write a song that some kid would give up his lunch money for to buy the record." He was trying to challenge us to cooperate. That's how it started

Quendrith Johnson: And years later here comes Annette Funicello to record one of your songs that becomes a hit --

Richard Sherman: Absolutely, and that started the ball rolling for our great association with Walt Disney. Actually we called her our "lucky star," because she sang "Tall Paul," "Pineapple Princess," "The Dog-faced Boy," and many more hits that we wrote for her.

That caught the ear of Walt Disney. Actually we didn't know it was Walt Disney. They called us up and told us the whole story line, and asked if we'd like to write a song for it.

Quendrith Johnson: What was your first meeting with Walt Disney like?

Richard Sherman: We got the word Walt Disney would like to see us. We were terrified.

Quendrith Johnson: Star-struck?

Richard Sherman: Star-struck is not the word, awe-filled. The only trouble was he started describing the wrong picture to us. So we had to interrupt him. He was describing a picture that became THE PARENT TRAP. He said "now that I wasted so much time describing this other picture, maybe you can take the script home and take a crack at it." So we did.

Quendrith Johnson: That starred Hayley Mills?

Richard Sherman: Yeah. So we kept up with songs. And we came up with a giant hit for that movie. "Let's Get Together, yeah, yeah yeah." We came up with songs for Zorro, other things. Then one day he hands us a book -- he said "I need a song for this, tell me what you think." It was Mary Poppins, the original book was just a bunch of stories.

Quendrith Johnson: Mary Poppins wasn't really a successful book until the movie version, is that correct? It was known, but not a phenomenon.

Richard Sherman: Absolutely not. English children knew it. We read it thoroughly. We were enchanted by the personality of the character, but we were terrified because there was no storyline. I mean she came in on the East Wind, and then she blew out on the West Wind.

We said "we gotta come up with something or this is just a waste of time." We cobbled a story line together from six of the chapters. It was a little story about how she teaches the family a lesson about caring, then she flies out at the end when she gets her job done.

We also changed the period. Because it was written in the 1930's. Who's going to believe there is a nanny, a cook, and such?

Quendrith Johnson: In the Great Depression, you mean?

Richard Sherman: Right, in Depression England. Then we changed it to the turn of the century. When English folk music was around. We came up with "Feed the Birds," and we knew this was a subtle way of saying it doesn't take much to give the kids love."

Quendrith Johnson: When they were being neglected in the story.

Richard Sherman: Yeah. The father learned a lesson of love about giving that "Spoon Full of Sugar" to help the medicine go down.

Quendrith Johnson: How did you come up with that word "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious"? You guys made that word up, right?

Richard Sherman: Actually I congratulate you on a perfect pronunciation. That was very good. Can you say it backwards? Suoicodilaipxecitsiligarfilacrepus? I've been doing that for years!

Quendrith Johnson: You're the pro.

Richard Sherman: We wanted to make a gift to the children. You know, Mary Poppins jumps through the sidewalk, and they leave their everyday life. But if are going into an imaginary place, you can't come back with a tangible souvenir.

Quendrith Johnson: Oh, I get it, the word is the souvenir. You need the word! It makes perfect sense now.

Richard Sherman: Exactly. The father says, after he hears the word, "I don't want to hear that poppycock." And by the end of it, he is singing that word.

Quendrith Johnson: But how did you come up with it?

Richard Sherman: That word was cobbled together by us -- we kept saying Super colossal, but everyone says that. And it's kind of corny. We wanted to have a Super Colossal Obnoxious word, but it was too obnoxious.

Then British always say "atrocious," so we kept coming up with "oh-doc-oius." Then we came up with "precocious," which means you're pretty smart -- so we combined it with atrocious. Then we went back to the beginning with Super Colossal. So then we made up garbage-y double talk words: gobble, scobble, copa, dopa.

Finally, after about two weeks of work, we came up with "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious." It sounded right. A crazy word.

Quendrith Johnson: The interesting part, subliminal part is the "fragile" in the middle of the word, like how fragile a fantasy world is. Did you see that part?

Richard Sherman: Exactly, exactly. We just used our imaginations. Our father told us this about songwriting: it had to simple, sing-able, and sincere. And it had to be original. We always tried to be very simple and very sincere in all of our songs.

Quendrith Johnson: All of your songs are well constructed too. With a beginning, middle, and an end it seems? There is a completeness to them.

Richard Sherman: Thank you for the compliment, because we try not to do just an "I want you; I need you; I love you; I lost you" kind of thing in our songs. That's been done a thousand, million times. We always try to do it in an original way, like "A Spoon Full of Sugar."

We wanted something special for Mary Poppins, her philosophy done in one lousy little song. One day, we weren't getting very far, and Bob's son came home from school. He'd had a Salk vaccine. And Bob asked if it hurt. He said "no they put it on a cube of sugar on a spoon. It tasted good."

Bob came into work the next day with a very glassy look; he said "I think I've got it. I think I got the title." I said "I hope so because I don't have it." He said "listen to this: 'a spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down.'" I said: "This is GREAT, great."

You know the tune, right?

Quendrith Johnson: Yes, of course.

Richard Sherman: Well you know how it goes 'down' at the end; well we went up -- "a spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go DOWN," but the note goes up at the end.

Quendrith Johnson: Upbeat? For her optimism?

Richard Sherman: Yes. Up instead of down. That was the "Ah-ha" moment.

You know she does everything backward; she slides up the bannister. Sings about keeping the children awake to get them to sleep. All that.

Quendrith Johnson: For THE JUNGLE BOOK, did you get a chance to talk to Louis Prima first?

Richard Sherman: Oh. yeah. In fact we cast him! There's a good story there.

We were first going to do the voice of the ape with Louis Armstrong. We thought it would be great for him, King Louie. But one of the writers said "you know the NAACP is going to jump all over it having a black man playing an ape -- it would be politically terrible."

That was the last thing on our minds, nothing we'd ever thought of, so we said "okay, we'll think of someone else."

Quendrith Johnson: Another Louie?

Richard Sherman: Well, the wonderful Louis Prima. That's another story because Louie had done an album of Mary Poppins songs, plus he'd done "Chim Chim Cher-ee." But he did it shuba-duba-duba.

I remember I ran upstairs to my office and played that song for the animators and the director of the Jungle Book. They said "he's perfect, and his name is Louie!"

Quendrith Johnson: That's a great story.

Richard Sherman: I'll tell you another funny story. In order to get Louis Prima to do it, we had to go to Vegas and play it for him. He had his whole band there.

We got into this little room with a piano. I'm sitting there singing. And the guys in his band looked like university professors with these long faces -- listening to me sing this crazy song, you know, 'I wanna be like you-ho-ho..."

At the end, Louis Prima says to me "are you trying to make a monkey out of me?" I said "no, no, you're an ape; the other guys are monkeys." Then they all started to laugh, really laugh, the whole band. They'd made a deal they wouldn't laugh until after the song.

Quendrith Johnson: Wow. You mentioned "Chim Chim Cher-ee," but did you also write "Hush-a-bye Mountain" in CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG?

Richard Sherman: Yes. It's an irresistible title. That was Cubby Broccoli's production.

Quendrith Johnson: After you left Disney?

Richard Sherman: No, we didn't leave Disney. Walt gave us time off to work on other things. I don't know what other boss would have done that.

Quendrith Johnson: How did you guys come up with "Hush-a-bye" because it is so sweet?

Richard Sherman: We wanted the father to give the children sweet dreams. The children didn't have a momma because she died. They live in an old rundown windmill. I don't know -- it was just poetic and beautiful -- something that didn't cost a nickel, like your dreams.

Quendrith Johnson: Did you guys sing these songs to your kids?

Richard Sherman: Sure. I sang a lot of my songs to my kids.

Quendrith Johnson: What was the last picture you did for Disney before leaving?

Richard Sherman: Walt gave us a leave of absence. Actually Cubby had approached Disney about doing a co-production, but Walt's plate was too full. So he gave us a leave of absence out of our contract. He was a very generous man; I don't know another producer in the world who would do that.

Then we had several months out to do the picture in England, then we came back and did THE ARISTOCATS and BEDKNOBS AND BROOMSTICKS.

Quendrith Johnson: BEDKNOBS AND BROOMSTICKS is such a great movie, that should be re-released.

Richard Sherman: Again, there was a great song, "The Age of Not Believing," in that picture. The little boy is so bitter he doesn't believe in anything anymore.

Quendrith Johnson: What was it like returning to Disney?

Richard Sherman: Well, the boss was gone. Walt Disney had died by that time. It was tough without him. Now we said "we gotta trust ourselves."

We thought of this idea that had to be imparted to the little Doubting Thomas boy in Bedknobs. Angela Lansbury was playing the good witch; the boy didn't believe in magic or any wonderful things could happen. So we came up with "Age of Not Believing."

We got nominated for an Academy Award that year.

But it was an inspiration because, without Walt, we had to believe in ourselves.

Quendrith Johnson: I bet you never asked him any Mickey Mouse questions!

Richard Sherman: You didn't sit around shooting the breeze with him too much. He was private.

But he would be very open in story meetings -- one of the guys, but very much in charge. But he didn't confide his personal woes. We never knew what was going on.

Quendrith Johnson: Getting back to CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG, what did you think of it when you first read it?

Richard Sherman: We have to thank Roald Dahl for that.

Quendrith Johnson: He's a great writer, he wrote "James & The Giant Peach," "Charlie & The Chocolate Factory" --

Richard Sherman: He's is great; he took a thinly written story by Ian Fleming for this picture and turned it into a movie. He is the unsung hero of that story. There was no Vulgaria, there was no parallel to a thing like Germany at one point in Hitler's raid. But he had a comedic take on it that children were not accepted.

Quendrith Johnson: Without the child-catcher, all those scenes where they turn into dolls?

Richard Sherman: Yeah. He did all that work so we could write songs like "Doll on a Music Box," all those things.

Quendrith Johnson: That song is so beautiful, fits the character beautifully.

Richard Sherman: That is all part and parcel of collaboration, when you have a solid story, wonderful characters, we were very blessed with some great, great people.

I don't want to even finish talking about the things we did with POPPINS without mentioning Bill Walsh and Don DaGradi.

These two guys were the scriptwriters. Don was an artist as well as a writer. Bill was literate, a genius with the words. It was a collaboration of that and Walt Disney's input; the five of us.

Quendrith Johnson: What were Walt Disney's notes like, on making changes?

Richard Sherman: He would come right out and say it "we can do it better." He was the boss. But never would say anything was great. Behind your back he would say "they wrote the perfect number for this." But he'd never say it. He'd say "that'll work."

Quendrith Johnson: Probably so he didn't have to pay you more!

Richard Sherman: No. It was to keep us on our creative toes.

Quendrith Johnson: But when something takes off and becomes a worldwide phenomenon, come on, he felt it too, right?

Richard Sherman: We came into Walt's office after the Academy night. We brought our four awards and stuck 'em on Walt's desk. He was very blase.

We said "Walt, we just want to thank you for these guys!" He said: "You hit one out of the park, but just remember, bases were loaded!"

Quendrith Johnson: What was your favorite songwriting moment, one of the big ones?

Richard Sherman: As a kid I loved Bing Crosby. I never dreamed, years later, I'd be writing songs for him.

Bing was in the studio one day recording a couple of the songs we'd written for him. I was so excited, we brought our Dad to the booth. Bing was in the studio; he gave the thumbs-up sign to my Dad.

That was thrilling; I don't think I'll forget that.

Quendrith Johnson: What do you think of your new movie, THE BOYS? It was made by your sons, right?

A New Movie About Two Brothers: Who Made Hollywood History

Richard Sherman: Yes, our sons made it. They did a lot of work. There's all kinds of (interviews) in it, Debbie Reynolds talks about us, a lot of others -- Debbie presented us with our Academy Award for POPPINS. They make the story about how we parted, in our personal lives, which I won't talk about.

Quendrith Johnson: You've brought joy to so many people. Didn't Ringo Starr remake one of your songs? After The Beatles broke up?

Richard Sherman: "You're 16" is a rock standard. Ringo did that for one of his biggest hits. Before that it was Johnny Burnett back in the 60's.

Quendrith Johnson: Who was the girl behind that song? Was there one? The inspiration?

Richard Sherman: Who was it based on? It was well-thought out (an idea). But the one thing that made a difference was that we did it in shuffle rhythm. We had a very definite teen appeal, so we were pragmatic. This became the biggest of all the rock songs.

Quendrith Johnson: Did Ringo ever talk to you about it, or was it just through intermediaries?

Richard Sherman: Through intermediaries. But I found our later it was a song John Lennon used to do in Hamburg.

Quendrith Johnson: You mean their early career German sets?

Richard Sherman: Yes. They would sing everything.

John's favorite number was, he would always go into it, "you're sixteen, you're beautiful, and you're mine."

There's really touching story. I guess Paul McCartney liked it. He played a kazoo solo on his recording of "You're 16."

Quendrith Johnson: Paul is still touring, he should do that song. Did you talk to the Beatles in later life?

Richard Sherman: Not really, but I had two Beatles once.

Quendrith Johnson: That song is like "Small World," it stays in your head and you can't get rid of it. Do people ever tell you that, they can't get it out of their heads?

Richard Sherman: A few years ago, Reader's Digest said "'It's A Small World' is the Number One Earworm!" The most infectious. People want to kiss us or kill us over it!

But if you think about the words for that song, it is a prayer for peace and universal understanding for your fellow man. Because it says: "it's world of laughter, a world of tears, a world of hopes and a world of fears. There is so much that we share, that is time that we declare, it's a small world after all." And don't kill each other; we don't say that, but that's what we mean!

Richard and Robert Sherman are the subjects of THE BOYS: THE SHERMAN BROTHERS STORY directed by Jeffrey Sherman & Gregory Sherman.

THE BOYS: THE SHERMAN BROTHERS STORY will screen Monday, Nov. 15 at Laemmle's Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, CA. Tickets are $12. This special screening, which is followed by a Q&A by Richard Sherman with the directors, was arranged by Hillary Helstein, Program Director of -- tickets can be purchased from this website, Disney Home Entertainment and Westside JCC participated in arranging this event.

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