Before Julie Andrews first sang "A Spoonful of Sugar," its songwriter found inspiration for the iconic Mary Poppins tune in an unlikely place.
The late Robert B. Sherman wrote it with his brother, Richard; many of the duo's songs are featured in classic Walt Disney films. At StoryCorps last month, Robert's son, Jeffrey, said that it was telling his father about getting the polio vaccine as a child that sparked the lyrics for the famous song.
Jeffrey, now 63, said his dad had a way with words.
"My dad always filtered everything down to its simplest form," he said.
"People thought maybe he wasn't listening, but he would always listen. And then he would form his words very carefully. ... He wanted to just know words and he loved the sound of words and how they felt on your tongue."
But his dad and uncle found themselves at a creative block while writing music for the 1964 film.
The pair wrote a favorite song of theirs for Mary Poppins called "The Eyes of Love," but it never made it into the movie.
"Walt Disney said, 'Could you write something that's more in line with the philosophy of Mary Poppins?' and it was all just falling flat," according to Jeffrey. "They were both really depressed."
In 1962, when he was about 5 years old, Jeffrey had come home from school one day when he says he found his dad in low spirits.
"All the shades were closed, it was very dark in the house," he said.
His dad asked him how his day was and Jeffrey told him that he and his classmates had received an oral polio vaccine that day.
"He goes, 'You let someone give you a shot at school? Did it hurt?' " recalled Jeffrey. "And I said, 'No, no, no. They took out this little cup and put a sugar cube in it and then dropped the medicine and you just ate it.' "
"And my dad looked at me and started shaking his head," he said.
Soon after, Jeffrey said, Robert phoned his brother Richard to tell him that he had something for a song.
The very next day, said Jeffrey, the two wrote the lyrics: A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.
His dad, he said, thanked him for that song.
"I think that the love of his family and each of us kids inspired different things all the time for him," said Jeffrey.
"It was kind of like that was his yarn and he could make it into the most beautiful afghan. He could take something mundane like that and see the magic in it."
Audio produced for Morning Edition by Jo Corona. NPR's Emma Bowman adapted it for the Web.
StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And it's time now for StoryCorps. Today, we hear about a man who inspired the best in human nature with his words.
Robert Sherman was a lyricist and one half of the Sherman Brothers, the songwriting duo behind many of Walt Disney's great musicals. At StoryCorps, his son Jeffrey Sherman talked about how a vaccine sparked the creation of one of his father's most famous songs.
JEFFREY SHERMAN: My dad always filtered everything down to its simplest form. People thought maybe he wasn't listening, but he would always listen. And then he would form his words very carefully. Words were like his religion. He brought word builders on my mom and dad's honeymoon.
WENDY LIEBMAN: (Laughter).
SHERMAN: My mom complained. He wanted to just know words. And he loved the sound of words and how they felt on your tongue.
My dad and uncle had a favorite song that they had created for "Mary Poppins" called "The Eyes Of Love." But Walt Disney said, could you write something that's more in line with the philosophy of "Mary Poppins"? And it was all just falling flat. They were both really depressed.
Well, it happened that that day I was at school - I was about six years old - and they were giving us the oral polio vaccine. You know, it wasn't the shot. So I, you know, stood in line with all my friends and we all just took this thing.
And then I got home. And my dad looked depressed. And all the shades were closed. It was very dark in the house. And I said, oh, we had the polio vaccine at school today. And he looked at me and he goes, you let someone give you a shot at school. Did it hurt? And I said, no, no, no. They took out this little cup and put a sugar cube in it and then dropped the medicine in it and you just ate it.
And my dad looked at me and started shaking his head. And he went over to the phone and he called Dick and told him he had something. And the next day they wrote "A Spoonful Of Sugar Helps The Medicine Go Down."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPOONFUL OF SUGAR")
JULIE ANDREWS: (As Mary Poppins) A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.
SHERMAN: They had this little recording studio. My uncle usually would play. And sometimes my dad would sing backup. And so they would bring home the songs. And I would hear all these songs before anybody else. And he played "Spoonful Of Sugar." And he said, thank you for that song.
I think that the love of his family and each of us kids inspired different things all the time for him. It was kind of like that was his yarn and he could make it into the most beautiful Afghan. He could take something mundane like that and see the the magic in it.
(SOUNDBITE OF DUKE ELLINGTON'S "SPOONFUL OF SUGAR")
INSKEEP: All right. Jeffrey Sherman with his wife, Wendy Liebman, in West Hills, California. Their StoryCorps conversation - the series just keeps going. Their conversation will be archived in the Library of Congress. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.