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Jewish-American tunesmith behind Disney classics dies at 95

Richard Sherman wrote songs for “Mary Poppins,” “The Jungle Book,” “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” and “Bedknobs and Broomsticks.”
Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY NETWO
Portrait of Julia Andrews and Richard Sherman.

Acclaimed songwriter Richard M. Sherman, who along with his late brother Robert crafted the iconic melodies for Disney cinematic gems such as “Mary Poppins,” “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” and “The Jungle Book,” died on Saturday aged 95 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Beverly Hills due to age-related illness.

One of the most prolific composer-lyricists in the history of family entertainment and a key member of Walt Disney’s inner circle of creative talents, Richard garnered nine Academy Award nominations (winning two Oscars for his work on the 1964 classic Mary Poppins), won three Grammy Awards and received 24 gold and platinum albums over the course of his 65-year career.

The Sherman brothers produced more motion picture song scores than any other team.

“Richard Sherman was the embodiment of what it means to be a Disney Legend, creating along with his brother Robert the beloved classics that have become a cherished part of the soundtrack of our lives,” said Bob Iger, CEO of The Walt Disney Company.

“From films like Mary Poppins and The Jungle Book to [theme park] attractions like ‘it’s a small world,’ the music of the Sherman Brothers has captured the hearts of generations of audiences. We are forever grateful for the mark Richard left on the world, and we extend our deepest condolences to his family,” added Iger.

Born on June 12, 1928, in New York City, Richard and his brother followed in their Tin Pan Alley songwriter father Al’s footsteps. The Sherman family relocated to Beverly Hills in 1937 after years of cross-country moves. Richard attended Beverly Hills High School before he majored in music at Bard College. Drafted into the United States Army, he served as conductor for the Army band and glee club from 1953 to 1955.

In 1951, Gene Autry was the first to record a Sherman brothers song, “Gold Can Buy You Anything But Love.” But the songwriters’ big break wouldn’t come until seven years later, when Mouseketeer (and fellow future Disney Legend) Annette Funicello recorded their song “Tall Paul.” That tune peaked at No. 7 on the charts, selling more than 700,000 singles.

The success of such songs caught the attention of Walt Disney, who hired the Sherman brothers as staff songwriters for The Walt Disney Studios. Their first assignment: write a song for the made-for-television movie “The Horsemasters” (1961) starring Funicello.

Soon, they would contribute to such feature films as “The Absent-Minded Professor” (1961), “The Parent Trap” (1961), “Summer Magic” (1963), “The Sword in the Stone” (1963), “Mary Poppins” (1964), “That Darn Cat!” (1965), “Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree” (1966), “The Jungle Book” (1967), “The Happiest Millionaire” (1967), “The Aristocats” (1970) and “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” (1971).

They would ultimately write more than 200 songs for some 27 films and 24 television productions.

They also contributed music for a number of theme park attractions around the world, including “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow,” “The Tiki, Tiki, Tiki Room” and “It’s a Small World”—the latter of which Richard once described as “a prayer for peace.”

In the early 1970s, the Sherman brothers left The Walt Disney Studios to pursue other film projects.

The Sherman Brothers went on to provide an array of music, songs and occasional screenplays to such memorable family films as “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” (1968), “Snoopy Come Home” (1972), “Charlotte’s Web” (1973), “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” (1973), “Huckleberry Finn” (1974), and “The Slipper and the Rose” (1976).

Richard and his brother were inducted as Disney Legends in 1990. In 2005, they were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Three years later, the brothers were awarded the National Medal of the Arts, “for unforgettable songs and optimistic lyrics that have brought magic to the screen and stage.”

Richard is survived by his wife of 66 years, Elizabeth; son Gregory and grandsons William and Matthew; daughter Victoria Wolf, son-in-law Doug Wolf, and grandchildren Mandy and Anthony. He is also survived by his daughter from a previous marriage, Lynda Rothstein, as well as her two children and three grandchildren.

His brother Robert died in London in 2012, aged 86.

A private funeral is scheduled to take place Friday, May 31, at Hillside Memorial Park and Mortuary in Los Angeles. Plans for a celebration of life will be announced at a later date.

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