Liverpudlian podcasters Sodajerker pull off another coup as they bring us an interview with legendary Disney songwriter Richard M Sherman
ar be it from us to pretend that Songwriting is the only useful destination for songwriters on the internet. Another great resource that’s always worth checking out is Sodajerker On Songwriting, the bi-monthly podcast put together by songwriters Simon Barber and Brian O’Connor. This month they’ve pulled yet another great interview out of the bag, as they speak to Richard M Sherman.
Now, you might not know Mr Sherman’s name, but you’ll certainly know his songs… this is the man who, with his brother Robert B Sherman, wrote Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, I Wanna Be Like You, A Spoonful Of Sugar and Chim Chim Cher-ee, not to mention the Disney theme parks anthem It’s A Small World After All.
The brothers were initially pop songwriters, penning the hits Tall Paul for Annette Funicello (1959) and You’re Sixteen for Johnny Burnette (1960), before becoming in-house songwriters at Walt Disney Studios, where they wrote the scores for Mary Poppins (1964), The Jungle Book (1967), The Aristocats (1970), Bedknobs & Broomsticks (1971), Charlotte’s Web (1973), The Many Adventures Of Winnie The Pooh (1977), The Tigger Movie (2000) and many more. They also scored a number of non-Disney films including Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968), Snoopy, Come Home (1972) and Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland (1989), and wrote the hit Broadway musical Over Here! (1974).
Winners of two Grammy awards and proud owners of 23 gold and platinum albums, in 2005 the Sherman brothers were inaugurated into the Songwriters Hall Of Fame, and in 2009 Walt Disney Pictures released The Boys, a documentary about them written by their sons Gregory and Jeff Sherman. An accompanying 59-track, two-CD compendium of their songs for the studio, entitled The Sherman Brothers Songbook, was released the same year.
Robert Sherman sadly passed away in March 2012, but Richard is alive and well – and here’s what he had to say to our friends at Sodajerker…
SJ: Your father was a successful songwriter himself…
“Yes, he had a lot of success in the 1920s and ’30s, through into the ’40s, he wrote a lot of successful songs and he was a wonderful man. He’s the one that told us, together we could make it, and he was right. And he also taught us the three S’s: simple, singable and sincere!”
SJ: Did you learn any other practical songwriting skills from him?
“Not necessarily, I think that comes more from your ear and your heart. I think my greatest teachers, although I never met them, were people like Rodgers & Hart, Noel Coward, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Cole Porter… all these great writers from the past who were part of my childhood.
“And of course Bob and I were blessed because we were put on staff at Walt Disney studios, so every time we wrote it was for an assignment, for a story that had already been created. Winnie The Pooh, Mary Poppins, The Jungle Book… all these wonderful assignments that we had.”
SJ: Some people might be unaware that you started out writing pop hits…
“Yes, we did… but for me that’s the hardest thing in the world, to sit in a room with no story, no characters and just say ‘write me a hit’. When we were given assignments, there were a whole set of buttons you could press already. It took place in 1813 or 1912, you could write in a style like that. Someone had committed a murder and was running away? A girl had fallen in love with a sailor who was going off to war? You had a problem to write about, you had things you could work with.
“But when you’re sitting in a room with nothing? It’s the hardest thing. I admire songwriters who can do that and come up with hit after hit.”
“I learned a lot by listening”
SJ: Can you trace a connection from your early pop/rock n’ roll songs to the big show tunes?
“I think it’s just that you need to be able to write in every direction. I learned a lot by listening. I learned how to write rock n’ roll by listening to Lieber & Stoller. When we came to write Mary Poppins, that was set in 1910 so I listened to a lot of English music hall songs from that period, those wonderful old Cockney songs.”
SJ: A lot of the Mary Poppins songs have so much joy in the music… did you have a good time writing them or was it hard work?
“No, we worked hard but it wasn’t hard work! We enjoyed writing those songs, and when we knew we had a good line we’d be jumping up and down. Mary Poppins was a big challenge because it was the first time we were given an assignment to do a full musical score, as opposed to a song here and there. That was a big thing, but Walt had faith in us. He gave us the book and said, get to work. So we worked very hard on it but it was a joyous experience, and it was the doorway to our future work.”
SJ: All the melodies are so well woven into the orchestral score. What was it like to go from writing something at the piano, to hearing something like Step In Time in all its glory?
“Well we had a master arranger, a brilliant arranger and conductor called Irwin Kostal, who did a lot of Broadway shows and a lot of television. We were instrumental in getting him to come out to the studio and work on our picture, because we needed someone of his calibre to capture the feel of 1910 England with his music.
“With Step In Time, a big dance production number, we had a whole team of heroic people: the choreographer Nat Farber, Irwin Kostal who wrote a 70-piece orchestration… me and Bob just wrote a simple song on the piano so we can’t take all the credit, it was actually a lot of people that created that song.”
SJ: You wrote most of those songs in your offices at Walt Disney Studios, didn’t you? What was your routine like – did you keep office hours?
“Yes… well, maybe we’d come in a bit later and work a bit later to avoid the crowds, but we worked on about 50 pictures in those years so yes it was a full-time job, especially because usually we’d be working on several projects at once.”
SJ: Did you have a particular method?
“We’d sit in a room and talk about it, mostly. Not at the piano, we’d just talk about it. A good example is, we wanted a song for Mary Poppins to put the children to sleep with. And we knew that Mary Poppins never did what was expected – she didn’t walk upstairs, she slid up bannisters – so we did a lullaby called Stay Awake, with every cliché turned on its ear. ‘Stay awake, don’t rest your head/don’t lie down upon your bed’. So you see, the song came out of the character.”
SJ: Did ideas often get shelved, then returned to later?
“Oh, absolutely. When you’re writing prolifically, everything you write doesn’t see the light of day, a lot of things end up ‘in the trunk’. Many times you’ll have a thought or an idea or a musical phrase that’s not needed, then later on you’ll think hey, I could use that. Lots of songs we wrote for sequences in Mary Poppins that were never filmed ended up in other projects later. The Beautiful Briny Sea was a song we wrote for Mary Poppins originally, but it never got used, and it ended up more or less verbatim in Bedknobs & Broomsticks seven years later.”
“Working with animators gave us a great head-start”
SJ: Many of your songs tie in so beautifully with the animations – did you ever have visual material to work from?
“Yes we did, and working with animators gave us a great head-start. With I Wanna Be Like You, for instance, we’d already seen what the ape and his band of monkeys would look like. So the conversation went, what do apes do? They grunt. So what if he grunts when he sings? What if he says, oo-oo-ooh, I want to be like you-oo-ooh? So we started with that. And then what else does he do? He swings in the trees, so okay, if he’s king of the apes then let’s call him the king of the swingers! And we’ll have a Dixieland tune and the monkeys can be the band. So we knew what we going to write before we wrote it.
SJ: Another film that delighted and scared us as children was Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. That wasn’t a Disney film, so how long would you spend on a project like that, typically?
“Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is an interesting one. Cubby Broccoli, who produced all the original James Bond films, approached us because he had the rights to the one Ian Fleming story that wasn’t about 007, it was about a magical flying car. He’d actually written this story for his little boy. And Cubby was a big fan of Mary Poppins and he wanted to do a film along the same lines, so he rang Walt Disney and offered him the chance to do a co-production. And Walt said no, but if you want to use the Sherman boys I’ll give them an out so they can have some time to work with you.
“Walt was very considerate in that, because he let us take that time off. I think we wrote the songs for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang over the course of about a year, working in collaboration with Roald Dahl who had developed the Ian Fleming story into a film, and then we spent about three months in England rehearsing and recording them. In total, I think it all took about two years.”
SJ: You wrote 200 songs in eight years at Disney and we’ve barely touched on some of the projects, such as The Aristocats. When you look back now was there any one project you feel best represented you?
“Well, all the ones we’ve mentioned, because they were such big hits. But I was also very proud of the songs in The Happiest Millionnaire, even though the movie wasn’t such a big hit. And then one of the most successful scores I think we ever did was for The Slipper & The Rose, a marvellous British film with Richard Chamberlain.”
SJ: We’ve also been listening to your own albums, Forgotten Dreams and Keys Of Love. Is it a different process when you’re writing instrumental pieces like that?
“No, it all comes out of the same brain. With the last album, Keys Of Love, I just sat down and thought of things I loved, places, memories, people… and out came the music. Memories Of Tuscany is about a beautiful week my wife and I spent in Tuscany, Russian Lullaby is about my Russian grandma who used to sing to me. The songs on that album, they’re the colours of my life.
With almost 40 episodes already under their belt, internationally renowned songwriters are queuing up to be interviewed by Liverpool-based duo Sodajerker. Founded last year by songwriters Simon Barber and Brian O’Connor, the Sodajerker On Songwriting podcast has welcomed guests including Neil Sedaka, “Weird Al” Yankovic, Valerie Simpson and Harry Shearer among many others and has received positive reviews including celebrity endorsements from artists like Jamie Cullum.
To find out more about Sodajerker and their work, or to download their podcasts – including the full hour-long interview with Richard M Sherman – go to www.sodajerker.com. You can also connect with them via www.facebook.com/sodajerker or www.twitter.com/sodajerker, or download the podcasts from iTunes.