Robert B. Sherman, one half of the prolific, award-winning pair of brothers who penned instantly memorable songs for “Mary Poppins,” “The Jungle Book” and “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” — as well as the most-played tune on Earth, “It’s a Small World (After All)” — died of natural causes in London on Monday. He was 86.
Sherman, together with his brother Richard, won two Academy Awards for Walt Disney’s 1964 smash “Mary Poppins” — best score and best song, “Chim Chim Cher-ee.” They also picked up a Grammy for best movie or TV score.
The Shermans’ work was both complex and instantly memorable, for child and adult alike. Once heard, it was never forgotten.
Their hundreds of credits as joint lyricist and composer also include the films “Winnie the Pooh,” “The Slipper and the Rose,” “Snoopy Come Home,” “Charlotte’s Web” and “The Magic of Lassie.” Their Broadway musicals included 1974’s “Over Here!” and stagings of “Mary Poppins” and “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” in the mid-2000s.
The brothers racked up 23 gold and platinum albums. They became the only Americans ever to win first prize at the Moscow Film Festival for “Tom Sawyer” in 1973 and were inducted into the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame in 2005.
“Something good happens when we sit down together and work,” Richard Sherman told the Associated Press in a 2005 joint interview. “We’ve been doing it all our lives. Practically since college we’ve been working together.”
President George W. Bush awarded them the National Medal of Arts in 2008, commending them for music that “has helped bring joy to millions.”
The Shermans began a decade-long partnership with Disney during the 1960s after having written hit pop songs like “Tall Paul” for ex-Mouseketeer Annette Funicello and “You’re Sixteen,” later recorded by Ringo Starr.
“Today, on behalf of everyone at Disney, we mourn the loss of an extraordinary talent, Robert Sherman,” said Disney president and CEO Bob Iger. “His legacy will endure forever through the magic of his music. Robert, along with his brother Richard, wrote many of Disney’s most memorable and beloved songs, which continue to enchant millions of people around the world to this day.”
They wrote more than 150 songs at Disney, including the soundtracks for such films as “The Sword and the Stone,” “The Parent Trap,” “Bedknobs and Broomsticks,” “The Jungle Book,” “The Aristocats” and “The Tigger Movie.”
Alan Menken, composer of scores for Disney films including “The Little Mermaid,” ”Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin,” 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,” he said.
Robert Bernard Sherman was born in New York and raised there and in Beverly Hills. The brothers’ father was Tin Pan Alley composer Al Sherman. They credited him with challenging them to write songs and for their love of lyrics. Al Sherman’s songs include “You Gotta Be a Football Hero,” ”(What Do We Do On a) Dew-Dew-Dewy Day” and “On the Beach at Bali-Bali.”
Robert Sherman’s affection for Britain was nurtured during his service with the U.S. Army in WWII. One of the first American soldiers to enter the Dachau concentration camp — and, his son Jeffrey said, the only Jewish serviceman there — he was shot in the knee in Germany in 1945.
Recovering in hospitals in England, he developed a fondness for and familiarity with the country that stuck with him. He wrote for British characters in “Mary Poppins,” ”Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” and “Winnie the Pooh,” and spent the last years of his life in London.
After the war, the brothers started writing songs together. Most of the songs the Shermans wrote — in addition to being catchy and playful — work on multiple levels for different ages, something they learned from Walt Disney.
“He once told us, early on in our career, ‘Don’t insult the kid — don’t write down to the kid. And don’t write just for the adult.’ So we write for grandpa and the 4-year-old — and everyone in between — and all see it on a different level,” Richard Sherman said.
Away from the piano, the two raised families and pursued their own interests, yet still lived close to each other in Beverly Hills and continued working together well into their 70s. When “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” came to Broadway in 2005, they added new lyrics and four new songs.
Robert Sherman is survived by his brother and four children: Laurie, Jeffrey, Andrea and Robert.