A Conversation with Richard Sherman, Disney composer from “The Aristocats”
BY KEVIN CARR
Anyone who has seen the classic Disney films understands the importance of music in these movies. While it seems to be disappearing from the standard feature, the classic films have songs that are equally – or even more – famous than the movies themselves.
Songwriter Richard Sherman became a staff songwriter for Walt Disney in 1960. Along with his brother Robert, he was responsible for a large portion of the Disney vault of songs. From the infuriatingly infectious “It’s a Small World” to the tunes of “Mary Poppins,” the Sherman brothers helped write the songs that made the Disney films famous.
Richard Sherman often worked closely with Walt Disney in the development of songs, characters and story. Sherman explains that Disney made a point that these three things were always connected. “Walt Disney was a great believer in the use of song to convey story,” Sherman said. “He was primarily a storyman, and story-driven songs were his ‘pets.’ He always asked what was going on with the song. He hated ‘singing heads.’ He loved learning about character & motivation through music and lyrics.”
What started out as a songwriting gig for Annette Funicello blossomed into a career for the songwriting brothers. In the middle of their tenure for Disney, the Sherman brothers scored “The Aristocats,” which is now available on a special edition DVD.
“The Aristocats” features a title song, sung by Maurice Chevalier, which is one of the quintessential tunes from the Disney library that perfectly sets the mood for the film. “I love the title song,” said Sherman. “It’s a mood and scene setter , and accomplishes many things. First of all it’s very French – very period. In words, this title song describes these very pampered pussy-cats.”
Ironically, Sherman’s favorite characters in the film not only don’t get a song of their own, but they’re not even cats. Sherman enjoyed the two country hounds voiced by George Lindsey and Pat Buttram. “They were hilarious!” Sherman said. “They were extraordinarily well voiced and beautifully animated.”
Even with the Disney history, Sherman refuses to be categorized as a songwriter for children’s movies. “We compose for ‘family’ films,” Sherman explained. “Adults, grandmas, moms and dads and the children all derive joy from a well-crafted story, and I find it rather odd at this point in time, with the stupendous success of such pictures as ‘Ratatouille’ and ‘The Little Mermaid’ and ‘The Lion King,’ that anyone would think that these films are for children. As Walt used to say, ‘They’re for the child in every sophisticated adult who longs to return to the pure joys of innocence, away from worldly cares.’”
His career at Disney has given Sherman a unique perspective on life, as well as giving him accolades. He has received two Academy Awards for his works, and even today he treats his fame with humble, good humor: “My two Oscars are enshrined on an alabaster, crystal-domed plinth with several spotlights on 24 hours a day while incense burns and heavenly music is piped in on a custom THX sound system with 7.0 Surround Sound, while a band of trained penguins dance to ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!’”
“The Aristocats” Special Edition DVD is now available from Walt Disney Home Entertainment.