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‘Mary Poppins’ songwriter Robert Sherman dies at 88

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Robert Sherman, one half of a pair of songwriting brothers whose memorable tunes for Disney included tunes from "Mary Poppins," and Disney theme song, “It’s a Small World,” died March 5 at 88 in London.

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Sherman and his brother Richard were on staff for Disney during its glory years in the 1950s and 1960s and wrote pop confections such as "Tall Paul," for Mouseketeer Annette Funicello, which hit the pop charts in the early days of rock. Their most remembered and honored songs came from “Mary Poppins,” including the novelty “Supercalifragilisticexpialadocius,” a word the Shermans said they made up out of double-talk. A Wikipedia entry defines the word as meaning, "atoning for educability through delicate beauty." The pair received their only Oscar of three nominations, for the film’s songs, which also won them a Grammy Award.

The Shermans also wrote songs for such childrens’ films as "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang," "Bedknobs and Broomsticks," "Charlotte’s Web," and "The Jungle Book." The two worked together until recently, reviving and adding songs for British stage versions of Poppins and Chitty in the last few years.

A 2009 documentary, “The Boys: The Sherman Brothers’ Story,” made by the Shermans’ sons detailed their creative successes but also the personal issues the two brothers had. They were an inseparable musical team but bitter enemies away from the piano. The cousins who made the film had not known each other growing up, as the families were estranged.

Sherman also painted for decades, but none of his work was seen until the last few years. His work has recently been exhibited in galleries in London, and the US, and he and his son have donated artworks with Jewish themes, Moses, and Sacrifice, to synagogues in England and Scotland.

Shermans was born in New York. His father, Al, was a Tin Pan Alley songwriter who penned tunes for Maurice Chevalier and others, and he gave them the musical advice: "Singable, simple and sincere."

The brothers began writing together as teenagers until World War II separated them. Robert was among the first US soldiers at the liberation of Dachau, and the 2009 film stated that the experience changed his life; he had planned to be a novelist.

The vast majority of the Shermans’ output was for Disney and other films, and their work largely was uninfluenced by the rock era. Among the few songs sung by rockers, "You’re Sixteen," became a Top Ten hit for Johnny Burnette in 1960 and No. 1 in a 1974 version by Ringo Starr

The Eulogizer highlights the life accomplishments of famous and not-so-famous Jews who have passed away recently. Write to the Eulogizer at eulogizer@jta.org.

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