LONDON — How do you sum up the work of songwriter Robert B. Sherman? Try one word: “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”
The tongue-twisting term, sung by magical nanny Mary Poppins, is like much of Sherman’s work — both complex and instantly memorable, for child and adult alike. Once heard, it was never forgotten.
Sherman, an American who died in London at age 86, was half of a sibling partnership that put songs into the mouths of nannies and Cockney chimney sweeps, jungle animals and Parisian felines.
Robert Sherman and his brother Richard composed scores for films including “The Jungle Book,” ”The Aristocats,” ”Mary Poppins” and “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.” They also wrote the most-played tune on Earth, “It’s a Small World (After All).”
Sherman’s agent, Stella Richards, said last week that Sherman died peacefully in London on March 5.
Son Jeffrey Sherman paid tribute to his father on Facebook, saying he “wanted to bring happiness to the world and, unquestionably, he succeeded.”
Jeffrey Sherman told The Associated Press that his father had learned the craft of songwriting from his own father, Tin Pan Alley composer Al Sherman.
“His rule in writing songs was keep it singable, simple and sincere,” Jeffrey Sherman said. “In the simplest things you find something universal.”
Robert Sherman knew another truth, his son said: “What seems so simple is really very complex.
“He was a very simple guy — complex but simple. If you ever want to know about my Dad, listen to the lyrics of his songs.”
Robert A. Iger, president and CEO of The Walt Disney Co., said in a statement that the company mourned the loss of “one of the world’s greatest songwriters and a true Disney legend.” Three Broadway marquees — including The New Amsterdam Theatre, where “Mary Poppins” is playing — were to dim their lights Tuesday night in Sherman’s honor.
The Sherman Brothers’ career was long, prolific and garlanded with awards. They 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.
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.
“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.”
The brothers’ awards included 23 gold and platinum albums and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. 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.
President George W. Bush awarded them the National Medal of Arts in 2008, commended for music that “has helped bring joy to millions.”
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 Tuesday.
Robert Bernard Sherman was born in New York on Dec. 19, 1925, and raised there and in Beverly Hills, California.
The brothers credited their father with challenging them to write songs and for their love of lyrics. Al Sherman’s legacy of songs includes “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 World War II. One of the first American soldiers to enter the Dachau concentration camp — and, his son 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. They 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.
Though they were estranged for a number of years, the brothers never completely broke ties. When asked about that, Richard Sherman said: “We’re human. We have frailties and weaknesses. But we love each other very much, respect each other.”
They wrote over 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.”
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 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.
The Shermans teased songs out of each other, brainstorming titles and then trying to top each other with improvements. “Being brothers, we sort of short-cut each other,” Richard Sherman said. “We can almost look at each other and know, ‘Hey, you’re onto something, kiddo.’”
Most of their songs were written quickly, but others took longer. The pair spent two weeks trying to nail down a snappy title for a song sung by the nanny in “Mary Poppins.” They considered, and then nixed, “An Apple a Day” and “A Stitch in Time.”
“Nothing was coming,” Robert Sherman recalled. Then one day his then-8-year-old son came home from school. “I said, ‘How was school?’ He said, ‘Great. We got the (polio) vaccine today.’ I said, ‘Oh, did it hurt?’ He said, ‘No, they just stuck medicine on a lump of sugar.’ I went, ‘Ohhhh!’ That was it!”
“He came in the next day all glassy-eyed,” Richard Sherman recalled. The final lyric would become world famous when it emerged from the lips of Julie Andrews: “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.”
Another of their songs — “It’s a Small World (After All)” — has become one of the most translated and performed songs on the planet. It plays on a continual, multilingual loop every few minutes at Disney theme parks across the world — a fact that Disney employees are only too well aware of.
“We’ve driven teenagers crazy in every language,” quipped Robert Sherman.
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 moved to Britain in 2002 after the death of his wife Joyce. He is survived by his brother and four children: Laurie, Jeffrey, Andrea and Robert.
Kennedy reported from New York.