Hundreds of recording artists created “cover” versions of the Mary Poppins score—and the first two featured “The Duke,” “Peter Pan” and some “Do-Re-Mi’s”.
DUKE ELLINGTON Plays With The Original Motion Picture Score
Walt Disney’s MARY POPPINS
Reprise Records RS-6141 (Stereo) R-6141 (Mono) (12” 33 1/3 RPM LP)
UK LP Reissue: Valiant Records VS-115 (1970)
CD Reissue: Collectables Records (March 15, 2005)
Released in 1965. Arranger: Duke Ellington. Associate Arranger: Billy Strayhorn. Recorded at Universal Studios, Chicago on September 6, 8 & 9, 1964. Running Time: 37 minutes.
Musicians: Duke Ellington (Piano); Cat Anderson, Herb Jones, Cootie Williams, Nat Woodward (Trumpet); Lawrence Brown, Buster Cooper (Trombone); Chuck Connors (Bass Trombone); Jimmy Hamilton (Clarinet, Tenor Saxophone); Johnny Hodges (Alto Saxophone); Russell Procope (Alto Saxophone, Clarinet); Paul Gonsalves, Eddie Johnson (Tenor Saxophone); John Lamb (Bass); Sam Woodyard (Drums).
Songs: “A Spoonful of Sugar,” “Chim Chim Cheree,” “Feed the Birds,” “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” “Stay Awake,” “Love To Laugh,” “Jolly Holiday,” “Sister Suffragette,” “The Perfect Nanny,” “Step In Time,” “The Life I Lead,” “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” by Richard M. Sherman, Robert B. Sherman.
The denizens of show business were all abuzz even before Mary Poppins finished production. The big labels, including Columbia and RCA, approached Roy O. Disney for the rights to the soundtrack album, but Disney Legend Jimmy Johnson was delighted to get Roy’s approval to release it on the studios’ own Buena Vista Records.
Johnson knew the score itself had enormous potential for other artists and labels to create their own versions of the songs. And while it eventually happened—in droves—initially the deals were slow in coming.
The film was only in limited release in 1964. But by 1965, especially after its success at the Academy Awards, the dam broke and it seemed everyone wanted to do cover versions, either by “A”-list artists for major labels or sound-alike performers for budget labels.
The very first artist to record a Poppins song (outside of the soundtrack) was Louis Prima, who cut a single of “A Spoonful of Sugar” and “Stay Awake,” using the former to close his Las Vegas act. Next came Kapp Records, with the historically significant LP by the Do-Re-Mi Children’s Chorus with Guest Star Mary Martin (see below).
Johnson himself approached Duke Ellington. In his book, Inside the Whimsy-Works: My Life with Walt Disney Productions, he recalls:
“I was always sure the score of Mary Poppins would truly become an international hit. Deciding that nothing could give the score the stature around the world that it deserved as would a Duke Ellington LP, I contacted the Duke and talked about the film and its music. He was delighted with the music and agreed to do an album on the Reprise label.
“Perhaps not so surprisingly, he didn’t want to see the film before doing the album—not wanting to be influenced by the visual image…
“The Ellington album…certainly had the desired effect internationally, where the Duke was perhaps more honored than at home. It also helped tremendously in the U.S.—what other Broadway show or Hollywood musical had the benefit of the Ellington treatment so early in the game? The album came out in the fall of 1964, foreshadowing the big Mary Poppins music boom of 1965.”
I asked our friend Will Friedwald, one of the most renowned music (and animation) author/historians, for his take on this classic disc:
“Music from Mary Poppins is an underrated gem of an Ellington album, one of the best to result from the Duke’s association with pal Frank Sinatra’s Reprise Records. Although ostensibly a purely “commercial” project, the arrangements of Ellington and longtime musical partner Billy Strayhorn prove that there’s no reason that a set of songs conceived purely for the marketplace can’t also be incredibly satisfying on a musical level as well.
A few high points are the recasting of “A Spoonful of Sugar” as if it were a shovelful of the blues, Johnny Hodges style, Paul Gonsalves’ wailing interval tenor sax solo on “SuperCal” (you spell it!), and one of the very few Ellington waltzes, “Chim-Chim-Cheree.”
There is also a particularly unique version of “Step in Time,” done almost completely in rhythmic patterns that build slowly from a “sawing” musical effect to soaring horns, with bongos accentuating the journey.
This album is also notable because it features actual cover photography from the film, something that is rare among Disney cover version albums. The influence of Johnson and the stature of Ellington must have made it possible.
GIVE A LITTLE LISTEN
Big band jazz at its most perfect—not just practically perfect. With its high-speed drive and jutting brass, this piece puts one in the mind of a red-hot Walter Scharf main title for a Technicolor comedy with Jerry Lewis at its peak, capping the number with the kind of Jetson-jazz topper that Hoyt Curtin so often used to close out of a ’60s Hanna-Barbera classic.
Songs from MARY POPPINS and Other Favorites
The Do-Re-Mi Children’s Chorus
Kapp Records RS-6141 (Stereo) R-6141 (Mono) (12” 33 1/3 RPM LP)
Released in 1964 & 1965. Executive Producer: Jack Kapp. Producer/Arranger: Richard Wolfe. Running Time: 28 minutes.
Mary Poppins Songs: “Feed the Birds,” “A Spoonful of Sugar” (both with Mary Martin); “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” “A Spoonful of Sugar,” “Chim Chim Cheree”, “Stay Awake” by Richard M. Sherman, Robert B. Sherman.
Other Songs: “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” from Cinderella; “I Ain’t Down Yet” from The Unsinkable Molly Brown; “When You Wish Upon a Star” from Pinocchio; “Lavender Blue (Dilly, Dilly)” from So Dear to My Heart; “I’m Flying” from Peter Pan; “How Can Anyone Keep from Singing.”
Jimmy Johnson recalls this as the very first album with songs from Mary Poppins. That’s enough to make it of historic interest, but the other reason it’s important is because stage superstar Mary Martin sings “A Spoonful of Sugar” and “Feed the Birds”—two songs she might have sung on screen had she played the role.
Both Bette Davis and Mary Martin were under consideration for the title role of Mary Poppins. According to some sources, she did not wish to return to films and turned it down. Many stage performers don’t enjoy the slower pace of filmmaking and the absence of audience energy. Martin was at a point in the early ’60s when she had nothing to prove after decades of triumph in such Broadway landmarks as South Pacific and The Sound of Music.
At the time of Poppins, she had become an icon, making occasional TV variety appearances and in regular presentations of the 1960 color version of Peter Pan–a perennial favorite on NBC. As Poppins set box office records in theaters, Martin was in London starring in Hello Dolly. Her relationship with Disney remained strong—especially due to her long association with Tutti Camarata, who released her fourth and fifth Disney albums during this period: Songs from The Sound of Music and The Story of The Sound of Music.
The Do-Re-Mi Children’s Chorus was one of many kid’s singing groups formed by Richard Wolfe. The chorus had a very distinctive sound, with children who belted like Ethel Merman with pronounced vibratos. The musical accompaniment stressed bells, banjos and brightness, much like the music of a Mummers’ parade. Over a dozen of their albums appeared on Kapp Records between 1961 and 1970, with several reissues later in the next two decades on MCA Coral Records.
The Mary Poppins LP had two cover designs and two different track listings. After the film won the Oscar for “Chim Chim Cheree,” a second cover was created to feature the name of the song prominently. The Poppins songs were all moved to Side One instead of being spread throughout the album.
GIVE A LITTLE LISTEN
“Feed the Birds” – Mary Martin & The Do-Re-Mi Children’s Chorus
Martin’s stirring contralto is a contrast to Julie Andrews’ ethereal soprano, but her interpretation is touching—and gives an idea as to how the legendary performer might have approached the role of Mary Poppins, at least musically.