Five Generations of Musical Shermans

When I see that someone has a surname that I recognize from my family tree I immediately do a bit of research to see if if we’re related. Make no mistake; we’re all related. That’s not just feel-good, goody two-shoes gibberish, it’s literally true and no less inspiring for being so. The connection may occur a thousand or ten thousand or a hundred thousand years ago, but it’s there. Very often people hear me say, “I’m related to so-and-so” and make an assumption that I mean a close relative, but divergence happens very rapidly. If myself and another individual share an ancestor from 400 years ago it’s almost certain that millions of others do too. It’s just that I LIKE knowing the connection. I feel that it anchors me in the world somehow.

My great-great-grandmother was a Sherman, but it’s the old Yankee Shermans, the line that gave us the Civil War General. Knowing that the musical Shermans were Jews from Ukraine, I rapidly concluded that the name wasn’t the connection, for in this case, any common ancestry would likely be thousands of years ago or something. But this does prove to be an example where there cultural connections occur much more recently than a blood one. Anglo-Saxon and Yiddish are both Germanic languages. In Medieval times, surnames were doled out on the basis of occupations, and “Shear-man” (and variations thereon) generally referred to either a tailor, or someone who sheared sheep. Different families; same tools. Some might consider that a connection too loose to be worth mentioning; I think it’s kind of fascinating. At any rate, the Shear-mans I treat of today turned in their shears at some point and became smiths — tunesmiths, to be precise.

The fact that the earliest known of the family was named Otto Sherman tends to reinforce the idea that family was in Central/Western Europe for a time before migrating to Ukraine. Otto is known to have been a clarinetist, and he raised his family in a fishing village near Kiev.

Otto arranged for his sons to have violin lessons, and one of them Samuel Sherman (1871-1948) rose to become concertmaster, first violinist and sometime composer to Emperor Franz Josef I of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In 1909 he moved to America, where he didn’t fare as well. He spent the last years of his life playing his violin in an Italian restaurant in Brooklyn. He is reported to have died while eating breakfast at Yonah Schimmel’s on the Lower East Side! (For you non-New Yorkers, it is a local institution, and still exists). Though Samuel was broke, when he died, he did have one very valuable possession — his Stradivarius.

Samuel’s son was the great Tin Pan Alley songwriter Al Sherman (1897-1973), whose given name was Avrum. Born in Kiev, he’d spent some his childhood in Prague and came to the U.S. at 12. His father had left the family soon after their arrival. Al helped earned money for the family by playing piano with bands, and also playing mood music on silent movie shoots, helping to fuel performances of actresses like Olga Petrova, Mae Murray, and Pauline Frederick. In 1918, he became a songwriter, collaborating with many of the Tin Pan Alley Greats. Among his best known songs are “He’s So Unusual”, sung by Helen Kane and adapted into the title of Cyndi Lauper LP years later; “Livin’ in the Sunlight, Lovin’ in the Moonlight” (1930 with Al Lewis), performed by everybody from Maurice Chevalier to Tiny Tim (you may know it from Sponge Bob); and the gridiron marching band standard “You Gotta Be a Football Hero” (1933). From 1931 to 1934 the Loew’s and Keith vaudeville circuits with many of his fellow tunesmiths in an act called “Songwriters on Parade”. Over the years his songs were performed by singers like Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Bing Crosby, and Rudy Vallee, as well as musicians and bandleaders like Louis Armstrong, Fred Waring, Ozzie Nelson, and Duke Ellington. In 1952 Kay Starr had a hit with “Comes A-Long A-Love”, his last tune to make a big splash.

By that time, his sons Robert (1925-2012) and Richard (b. 1928) had begun writing songs as a team, soon to become famous as The Sherman Brothers. This may be a heresy to some, but I stand by it: the public impact of the Sherman Brothers as movie songwriters far exceeds that of any more critically-lauded Broadway tunesmiths from the same years. For, while their grandfather may have been court composer to Emperor Franz Joseph, they were court composer to Walt Disney. They penned, for example, “It’s a Small World (After All)” for Disney’s exhibit at the 1964 World’s Fair, later used for attractions at his theme parks. They wrote the songs for Mary Poppins (1964), The Jungle Book (1967), The Aristocats (1970), Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971), numerous Winnie the Pooh films and TV specials, and many more Disney pictures starting in the early 1960s.

They also had success outside the Disneyverse, writing the songs for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968), Snoopy Come Home (1972), and Charlotte’s Web (1973). They wrote the screenplays AND the songs for Tom Sawyer (1973) and Huckleberry Finn (1974). In 1973, Ringo Starr of the Beatles had a #1 hit with their 1960 tune “You’re Sixteen”, originally a #8 hit for Johnny Burnette. Some of their material has been adapted for Broadway, the West End, and provincial theatre. I reviewed the 2004 Broadway production of Mary Poppins, though the piece is not online for me to link to.

Silly? Cheerful? Cute? “Family entertainment”? Ordinarily these qualities throw up warning flags for me, but I grew up on the Sherman Brothers’ songs and they’ve always meant a lot to me. I think they’re frequently clever, sometimes even audacious, and I especially love when they shift into music hall gear on songs like “Me Ol’ Bamboo”, “Roses of Success”, and “Posh!” (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) or “Step in Time” (Mary Poppins). As I write this, Richard Sherman is still alive! (Getting back to our original topic, I want to elementary school with a kid named Richard Sherman. THAT one, I’m almost certainly related to.)

I am delighted to learn that there is a member of the fifth generation, London-based Robbie Sherman (b. 1968), pluggin’ away at the family trade. I’m just sentimental enough to find that wonderful. Two other members of his generation Gregory Sherman and Jeffrey Sherman made a documentary about their fathers, who sadly became estranged during their last years. It’s called The Boys: The Sherman Brothers Story (2009) and it was produced by Ben Stiller!

For more on vaudeville, where Al Sherman performed, and the aesthetics of which influenced the Sherman Brothers, please read my book No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous