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March 6, 2012
Songwriter Robert B. Sherman Dead at 86
Teamed with brother Richard to become a Disney institution by Jon Burlingame

Robert and Richard Sherman with Walt Disney, performing their anthem to optimism,

Robert and Richard Sherman with Walt Disney, performing their anthem to optimism, "It's a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow."

Robert B. Sherman, half of the songwriting Sherman Brothers team that penned such memorable Disney tunes as "Chim Chim Cher-ee," "Winnie the Pooh" and "It's a Small World (After All)," died Monday in London. He was 86.

Sherman's son Jeffrey, who in 2009 co-produced a documentary on his father and uncle's complex relationship (The Boys: The Sherman Brothers' Story), announced his father's death on Facebook late Monday, saying "he went peacefully after months of truly valiantly fending off death."

Robert B. Sherman and younger brother Richard M. Sherman won 1964 Best Song and Best Original Score Oscars, as well as a Grammy, for their musical Mary Poppins, one of dozens of assignments for their boss Walt Disney. They were the only songwriters ever put under contract by the Disney studios.

They received seven other Oscar nominations including two 1971 nods (song and score) for Disney's Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and for non-Disney films Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (the title song, 1968), Tom Sawyer (song score, 1973), The Slipper and the Rose: The Story of Cinderella (song and score, 1977) and The Magic of Lassie (song, 1978).

The Shermans also wrote songs for Disney's The Jungle Book, The Parent Trap, The Aristocats, the Winnie the Pooh cartoons and some Disneyland's most popular theme-park attractions including "It's a Small World" (first written for Disney's 1964 World's Fair ride and said to be the most translated song on Earth), "There's a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow" (for the Carousel of Progress), and "The Tiki, Tiki, Tiki, Tiki, Tiki Room" among others.

Their other non-Disney films included Snoopy Come Home and Charlotte's Web as well as pop tunes including the hit "You're Sixteen" and many songs for Mickey Mouse Club star Annette Funicello.

Their Mary Poppins songs achieved the greatest fame, among them the Oscar-winning "Chim Chim Cher-ee" plus "A Spoonful of Sugar," the tongue-twisting "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" and the benevolent "Feed the Birds" (the latter, Walt Disney's favorite song, which the brothers often sang to him in his Burbank office).

On Tuesday, fellow Disney songwriter Alan Menken said: "The Sherman Brothers' legacy goes far beyond the craft of songwriting. There is a magic in their songs and in the films and musicals they breathed life into. My thoughts and prayers are with the family of Robert Sherman and, in particular, with Richard Sherman, who has been a dear and precious friend to me."

Added Tony-winning tunesmith Marc Shaiman: "Along with his brother Richard, Robert Sherman is completely responsible for teaching me the power of song. I learned everything I will ever need to know from listening to my Mary Poppins soundtrack album as a child, both as a songwriter and as a caring human being. Robert Sherman is a legend to me and countless others, and the news of his passing is a blow to the child in all of us."

Robert Sherman was born in New York, 1925; his father was Tin Pan Alley songwriter Al Sherman (whose "Now's the Time to Fall in Love" was a Depression-era hit). After military service during World War II, he attended Bard College.

Robert and younger brother Richard started writing songs together in 1951. Their first big hit was "Tall Paul" in 1959, sung by then 16-year-old Annette Funicello, the ex-Mouseketeer who had embarked on a recording career while continuing to appear in Disney movies and TV shows. Johnny Burnette sang their second big hit, "You're Sixteen," in 1960 (Ringo Starr's 1974 cover of the same song went to no. 1).

Walt Disney placed the songwriters under contract, and for 13 years they created dozens of songs for Disney projects including Annette's albums, theme songs for Disney films (including In Search of the Castaways, Summer Magic, The Sword in the Stone, That Darn Cat and others), songs for Disney TV (including The Wonderful World of Color and individual shows like Golden Horseshoe Revue, The Horsemasters, The Ballad of Hector, etc.) and entire song scores (including The Happiest Millionaire, The One and Only Genuine Original Family Band and others).

Robert B. Sherman and Richard M. Sherman (© Rex Features / W. Disney/Everett)

Robert B. Sherman and Richard M. Sherman
© Rex Features / W. Disney/Everett

They collaborated on a Broadway show, Over Here!, with the Andrews Sisters and a World War II setting, in 1974.

The Disney organization continued to hire the Shermans on a freelance basis over the years, especially for theme-park songs and films like The Tigger Movie in 2000.

In recent years Sherman lived in London, where he indulged his love of painting. Rare public appearances included the recent, successful London stagings of both Mary Poppins (2004) and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (2002). Survivors, in addition to his brother Richard (who lives in Beverly Hills), include four children.

©2012 Jon Burlingame
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