One of the most enigmatic and influential figures in showbiz history, Walt Disney’s legacy transcends the impressive body of work he produced throughout his lifetime. His family name has become synonymous with family entertainment, and his films and theme parks have entertained literally billions of people worldwide. Sometimes, it’s easy to forget that Disney was an actual person who strived tirelessly to build his brand. He also had a soft side, however, and he loved the music that was featured in his films. His favourite song was written by Richard and Robert Sherman–the brothers behind many of the classic Disney tunes from the 1960s and ’70s. The lilting ballad “Feed the Birds” from Mary Poppins never ceased to put a smile on Disney’s face, and the song lives on as a tribute to the man behind the magic nearly half a century after his death.
It’s been 50 years since the movie-going world was first introduced to Mary Poppins, as portrayed on screen by Julie Andrews. The 1964 film, which was one of the final efforts produced and overseen by Disney himself before his passing in 1966, drew rave reviews from critics around the globe. It also earned Andrews her first Oscar–one of five accolades heaped on the film by the Academy. The making of the film was chronicled in the 2013 movie Saving Mr. Banks, which featured Tom Hanks as Walt Disney and Emma Thompson as persnickety Poppins author P.L. Travers. Recently, I had the opportunity to watch Saving Mr. Banks and I was struck by the openess of Disneys creative team and their process. Of course everything was dramatized to have us believe that they were all walking on eggshells around the ultra serious P.L. Travers, but it seemed that being part of such a creative journey would have been a lot of play and fooling around on the part of the musicians.
Of course, one of the main reasons why Mary Poppins has endured as an American classic for so long is because of the gorgeous score by the Sherman Brothers. Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman began writing songs together in the early 1950s, and they had made a name for themselves at Walt Disney Studios by 1961. After composing hits for Disney movies (including “Let’s Get Together” for The Parent Trap) and theme park attractions (including the iconic earworm, “It’s a Small World”), the brothers were recruited to write the score and songs for Mary Poppins.
The memorable tunes written by the Shermans for the hit film included “Spoonful of Sugar,” “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” and the Oscar-winning “Chim Chim Cher-ee.” It was a simple tune written by the brothers for Mary Poppins to sing to the Banks children, however, it made a big impression on Disney. “Feed the Birds,” which expresses the idea that simple acts of kindness make all the difference in the world, struck a major chord with “Uncle Walt.” After the brothers played the tune for him for the first time, the studio head was obviously touched and offered the Shermans a contract as in-house composers.
Even after the film had wrapped, Disney never grew tired of hearing “Feed the Birds.” According to Richard Sherman, the boss would show up in his office every Friday afternoon to ask what the brothers were working on. After hearing their latest tunes for films like Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree, Disney would ask to hear his favourite song to conclude their meetings. One of the entertainment industry’s most powerful men would go into a sort of reverie as he heard the iconic lyrics, “Feed the birds, tuppence a bag.” On more than one occasion, Disney turned to them after hearing the song and said, “That’s what it’s all about.”
In the years since Disney passed away, the song has become something of a link between the brand’s devotees and the late creator. Richard Sherman, who is still actively performing even in his late 80s, always makes a point to sing the song at his concerts and recounts the story of its connection to Disney. Though the man is gone, his legacy lives on with the song, and it clearly expresses his views about the world and the importance of giving back.
I remember the first time I stepped into Selena James’ studio for a voice lesson. The studio was located on the third floor of the old (now demolished) Victoria conservatory. The studio’s large window had a spectacular view of St. Ann’s Academy and she waved me in while fixing a cup of tea and checking her messages on the the conservatory’s old voice mail system. She was impeccably turned out in one of her trademark Chanel suits and she was clearly put out by the person on the other end of the phone. I had heard stories of how harsh a vocal task master she could be, and that she did not suffer fools. I was young and nervous and after I introduced myself she said, “well that’s just great dear,” and then somewhat under her breath, ” here we go with another tenor.”
I started to sing, determined to impress her by singing as loudly and robustly as I could. I made it to the end of the piece, whereupon she sighed and said “that was wonderful Mr. Domingo, but I’d really like to hear from Mr. Lavigne now. Try it again and this time just be you.” Suddenly, the weight of comparison to the great classical artists melted away and I was given permission to simply be myself. I went on to have the best lesson I’ve ever had and I have never forgotten the advice. Selena was in her seventies then and had incredible talent as a teacher. She genuinely cared about the vocal health of her students and had no time for divas. She is now in her nineties and still a firecracker who does not suffer fools!
I was in Victoria yesterday and popped in for a visit, asking if she had any plans for her upcoming birthday september 4th. “No,” she said, “at my age I don’t make a big deal about birthdays so don’t even think about sending flowers!” I had a devious plan though, and asked if I could borrow a recently unearthed recording of her singing when she was younger. “Take it,” she said “I can’t stand listening to it anymore.”
I decided to upload a performance of her singing the famous Soprano aria from mozarts opera The Magic Flute… it is unbelievably difficult piece to perform and very few can do it well. She nails it, every last breathtaking high F.
I know the quality of the recording is a little suspect, but I think the performance is amazing. There was no date on the recording but I suspect it was from the late 1940′s or 1950′s. No other information was given other than the title of the piece she is singing. It is The Queen of the Night aria from Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.”
I had heard that Selena had an amazing voice, but since I started taking lessons when she was in her late 70’s I have never heard her perform. This recording leaves me in awe and such gratitude for the opportunity to be her student.
Wait for it…. 1:58 just floors me.