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Saturday, July 16, 2011
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Exactly a month ago today, I was at the Beverly Hills home of Richard Sherman, 83, one half of the great “Sherman brothers” who were the only songwriters ever put under contract by Walt Disney. (Richard’s brother Robert Sherman is now 85 and lives in London.) Over the course of a two-hour interview for a book that I’m writing about film history, Sherman regaled me with stories about the evoltuion of some of the most famous and beloved songs of our time — “It’s a Small World” (for the 1964 New York World’s Fair), “A Spoonful of Sugar” (1964, for “Mary Poppins”), “I Wan’na Be Like You” (1967, for “The Jungle Book”), and the list goes on and on.

One song that I was particularly curious to learn the origin of was “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” (1964, also for “Mary Poppins”) — how in the world, I asked Sherman, did he and his brother manage to (a) come up with a thirty-four letter word that nobody had ever heard of before, and, even more impressively, (b) use that word at the center of a song that everyone quickly learned at the time of its release and that people of all ages know to this day?

His response:

Well, basically, Bob and I used to do double-talk. “Cobbleflobbleation” and things like that. It meant nothing. People would say, “What was that?” And you felt very smart. “It’s a secret,” you know? We would come up with things like that — “dumbleslobulation” and just crazy stuff.

I remember we wanted to give the Banks children a souvenir to take out of this magical place when they have this adventure, and we had all these ideas about going on a merry-go-round ride, and the merry-go-round horses become race horses — we had a whole bunch of things going, and we changed it to having a race, and they see the race, and, at the end, we’d like to have them learn a big word, and Mary Poppins could teach it to them. And then, in the course of discussing how we would do it, I think it was [Disney sketch artist/writer Don] DaGradi who said, “You know, they have the English pearlies,” these little bands with pearls sewn all over their coats and everything, so we could have a little pearly song, and then you could have one of those double-talk English songs like you like so much.” I loved to do those things, so we said, “Yeah, we’ll write a pearly song.” Then we started talking, “What would this pearly song be?” And we said, “If we want to give the kids this word, that will be the song.”

It was all, kind of, discussions, discussions. And, finally, one day, we said, “Well, let’s give them a super-colossal word that’s really obnoxious.” “‘Super-colossal’? ‘Obnoxious’? That stinks. [pauses] ‘Super-colossal.’ ‘Super-colossal.’ That stinks. But ‘super’’s nice.” And then we just left it at that, and we said, “Well, ‘obnoxious.’ It’s a English show; why don’t we say ‘atrocious’? That sounds very English.” That was our clue. We said “atrocious,” “super-atrocious,” and we said then, “You always feel smart when you know the word, and then you’re ‘precocious.’ ‘Super-atrocious-precocious.’ What does that rhyme with? ‘Docious.’ Okay, we got the end of the song! Now let’s start at the top. ‘Super-colossal–’ Nah, it dies. Just pure double-talk! ‘Califragilation.’ ‘Califragilistic.’ Oh, that’s good!” Then, after playing with the whole thing, eventually– I’m giving you, in five minutes, or three minutes, what took about a week-and-a-half. We finally came up with “califragilistic” — it came out easy — and “experience,” “expolotion,” “expulsion,” “expialadocious!” We just played with it and played with it until we finally got something that could fall trippingly on the tongue, so to speak.

And, basically, we were afraid of the title, so we called it “The Pearly Song.” And when we first played it for Walt Disney, we had this thing that said, “The Pearly Song,” and I started playing, [sings] “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” [reassumes voice] and he listens to it, and he says, “Yeah. Why do you call it ‘The Pearly Song’?” “Because the Pearlies are gonna be playing it — there’s a little Pearly band, and Mary Poppins sings with them, and Bert will sing with her, and everything.” “Why don’t you call it this double-talk word?” “Because nobody’s gonna be able to say it.” He says, “They’ll learn it! That’s your title. That’s your title.”

It’s now in all the better dictionaries.

Last night, I attended Paul McCartney’s concert at Yankee Stadium (check out the setlist), and as he was singing “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La Da” (1968) it occurred to me that it, too, was a Sherman-esque “double-talk” song (apparently derived from an expression used by a Nigerian conga player that McCartney once knew).

Today, I sat down and tried to see how many other songs with double-talk/nonsense titles and/or words I could think of, and then investigated their origins:

    • “Heigh-Ho” — this hallmark tune of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (1937) is the first instance that I can find of a Disney film incorporating double-talk — in this case for the sake of rhyming something with “…it’s off to work we go”
    • “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” — this catchy tune from Disney’s “Song of the South” (1946) won the best original song Oscar, and portions of it were later used in the intro to the “Wonderful World of Disney” TV program
    • “Chi-Baba Chi-Baba” — this song, written in 1947, was popularized that same year by Perry Como
    • “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” — written in 1948, this song became a hit through its use in the Disney film “Cinderella” (1950),
    • “Aba Daba Honeymoon” — first recorded in 1914, and made into a hit by Debbie Reynolds and Carleton Carpenter in 1950, its chorus goes: “Aba daba daba daba daba daba dab, Said the chimpie to the monk; Baba daba daba daba daba daba dab, Said the monkey to the chimp”
    • “Sh-Boom” — sometimes referred to as “Life Could Be a Dream,” this early example of doo-wop (a genre that owes a lot to scat singing, or imrovising words to use as melodies) has a rare distinction: two versions of it cracked the top 10 in the same year in which it first appeared (1954), the first by The Chords (who also wrote it) and the second by The Crew-Cuts
    • “Do Wah Diddy Diddy” — originally written in 1963, it was turned into a number one hit in both England and America by the British band Manfred Mann
    • “Chim Chim Cher-ee” — this Sherman brothers song, which was performed by Dick Van Dyke in “Mary Poppins” and ultimately won the best original song Oscar for 1964, runs wild with variations of the word “chimney”
    • “I Wan’na Be Like You” — another Sherman brothers song, this one — which is also known as “The Monkey Song” and became a hit after Louis Prima sang it in the Disney film “The Jungle Book” (1967) — periodically incorporates nonsense words amongst its more traditional lyrics
    • “Substitutiary Locomotion” — the Sherman brothers strike again with this song from Disney’s “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” (1971); “substitutiary,” of course, is not a real word, and neither are many of the lyrics sung by Angela Lansbury and friends, most notably “Treguna Mekoides, Tracorum Satis Dee”
    • “Shoo-Bee-Doo” — Madonna’s 1984 song derived its meaningless title from a “word” that previously popped up in a few sixties Motown songs
    • “Sussudio” — Phil Collins couldn’t find a word to fit a rhythm so he made one up and turned it into the title of this 1985 song, which became a chart-topping hit

Which others am I forgetting?

Photo: Richard Sherman and Scott Feinberg (holding Sherman’s Oscars for “Mary Poppins,” at Sherman’s urging).

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  • Scott, it looks like the problem I was having with the “Read the rest of this entry” link is confined to the Explorer browser. I do not have this issue when I use Firefox with your site.