A recent Entertainment Weekly issue posted an article listing their top Disney related songs of all-time and while they got a few correct by this blogger’s standards, they blew it on some others. This, of course, got my hackles up and so I went through literally every Disney show from the 30s till now listening to songs (many previously unheard by this oversized kid). What follows is an admittedly biased list of my faves from the movie side of Disney. This means leaving out great songs like “Davy Crockett” (as it was mostly a TV show that was cobbled together for a movie), “Yo Ho (A Pirate’s Life)” (from a Disney ride) and “Who’s Afraid Of The Big Bad Wolf” (from a 1933 cartoon short). The bias here is that, as a 60+ year old white male, the music is skewed away from the more recent movie songs like “Let It Go” from Frozen that did nothing for me but would have likely been my #1 if I were a 12 year old girl. So be it – it’s my list. Here we go!
1.When You Wish Upon A Star – Pinocchio
The first Disney song to win an Oscar (1940 – Best Original Song), this is essentially the Disney theme song. The original (sung by Cliff Edwards as Jiminy Cricket) is guaranteed to bring a lump in the throat to this hard-bitten old Dentist every time. It was written by Leigh Harline (who helped score many Disney movies) & Ned Washington (a lyricist involved with some great tunes like “Town Without Pity” and “Rawhide”). Cliff Edwards was known as Ukulele Ike and was a popular performer before starting a long string of movie appearances (1929 – 1965). Over the years it has been covered by a wide range of artists including Glenn Miller, Brian Wilson, Linda Ronstadt and curiously Gene Simmons of Kiss.
2.Zip A Dee Doo Dah – Song Of The South
Another Oscar winning original song (at the 1947 Academy Awards), this song was sung by James Baskett in his role as Uncle Remus. Baskett was only 44 when he passed away in 1948, but won the first Oscar given to a black male (honorary in his case) for this role. The movie has been the subject of racial debate over the years, but this is still a great song that was a hit for Johnny Mercer (1947) and for the Phil Spector studio creation Bob B. Soxx & The Blue Jeans (1963).
3.A Spoonful Of Sugar – Mary Poppins
Us baby boomers all remember getting our polio vaccine in school on a lump of sugar – an event that supposedly inspired lyricist Robert Sherman’s idea for this song. Robert and his brother Richard were responsible for an amazing amount of film music and are perhaps most linked to Disney films and their other projects such as “It’s A Small World”. They also composed the rock hit “You’re Sixteen” which was big for Johnny Burnette and Ringo Starr. Julie Andrews sang this catchy number while trying to get Jane and Michael to tidy things up.
4.Heigh Ho – Snow White & The Seven Dwarfs
With the mass success of Disney animated features over the past 80 years, one forgets what a big gamble this (his first full-length cartoon – 1937) was at the time. Thank you Walt (for taking the risk) and for all the great animators, etc. who created a new genre that is frankly my favorite style of movie (and no doubt for all the other kids-at-heart like me). This was sung by the dwarfs after a hard day of digging jewels at their mine. It was written by Frank Churchill and Larry Morey. Churchill composed some great music for Disney (including “Who’s Afraid Of The Big Bad Wolf”) before taking his own life at the age of 40. Lyricist Morey went on to compose “Lavender Blue (Dilly Dilly)” (a Burl Ives hit) with Eliot Daniel.
5.You’ll Be In My Heart – Tarzan
Drummer and singer Phil Collins of Genesis seemingly owned the radio in the 80s but by 1999 when this song came out his chart success was winding down (this song placed at #21 – his last top 40 U.S. hit to date). This up-ballad from Tarzan’s adoptive gorilla mom is meant to soothe her human baby and reassure him that she will always love him. Over the years Disney songs have done very well at the Academy Awards and this song did win the Oscar that year for best original song.
6.Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo – Cinderella
Not really much of a song, I admit, but it is catchy and was a big hit on the charts back in 1949/50 for artists like Perry Como and Jo Stafford. Amazingly it took three well-known songwriters to create this mostly nonsense song – Al Hoffman, Jerry Livingston and Mack David (not to be confused with his brother Hal David – also a songwriter). These composers in various combinations were also involved in writing such hits as “Mairzy Doats”, “Baby It’s You”, “(Beware Of) The Blob”, “Hot Diggity (Dog Ziggity Boom)”, etc. This song was sung by Cinderella’s fairy Godmother (sung by Verna Felton but voiced by Clair Du Brey) while waving her wand to create all the magic that would make mice into horses to pull a pumpkin changed into a carriage among other spells.
7.You’ve Got A Friend In Me – Toy Story (1,2,3)
Randy Newman is an American treasure seemingly able to write in every style of music successfully. In my collection I have a 1962 45 of his first flop “Golden Gridiron Boy” not to mention later novelty hits “I Love L.A.” and “Short People”. As a songwriter his biggest hit was for Three Dog Night – “Mama Told Me Not To Come”. One of his best songs is his Emmy award winning theme-song to the TV show Monk which I don’t believe is available on CD, maddeningly. His film scores have been his strongest works, however, including Ragtime and my favorite The Natural which recalls classic film music of the golden age by people like Elmer Bernstein. You can quibble that this isn’t pure Disney since it is Pixar but there is no dispute that is a great song that has meaning beyond simply Buzz and Woody (from 1995, 1999, 2010).
8.The Bare Necessities – The Jungle Book
In the year of Sgt. Pepper and the summer of love (1967) came this cute Kipling adaptation less than a year after Walt’s passing. Terry Gilkyson wrote the song and Phil Harris brought it to life in the guise of Baloo the bear. It may have seemed old-fashioned at the time, but it has held up better than many of the psychedelic tunes from that year and got a nice update in the 2016 excellent live-action remake. Gilkyson also was responsible for the 1956 Easy Riders hit “Marianne”.
9.The Circle Of Life – The Lion King
Mixing the music of a performer who has sold more than 300 million records with the lyrics of one of the greats of musical theater is a no-brainer. Those masters (Elton John and Tim Rice) came up with music that seemed to dominate radio in 1994. This song opened the movie to a feeling of grandeur that befitted the quality of the whole film. It was nominated for an Academy Award but lost to our #14 song.
10.Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious – Mary Poppins
1964 to us baby boomers will always stand as the year the Brits invaded the U.S. airwaves filling our transistor radios with Beatles and Dave Clark 5 songs (among others). In late summer of that year, another Brit invaded our cinemas in the person of 28 year old Julie Andrews alongside American comic actor Dick Van Dyke (10 years her senior). Mary Poppins earned the studio its most Academy Award nominations (13) winning five for the folks at Disney (including Julie Andrews as best actress). The Sherman brothers remembered this silly word from their childhoods and used it as an uptempo dancing duet betwixt the stars.
11.Whistle While You Work – Snow White & The Seven Dwarfs
Twenty one year old Adriana Caselotti came from a musical family (her mom and sister sang opera while her dad was a voice coach). She was ostensibly paid $970 for her voice work as Snow White in what was at first being called “Disney’s Folly”, however her work was uncredited as they wanted to keep Snow White an illusion. The song was sung by Snow White to help take the drudgery out of housework (in a very similar vein to “A Spoonful Of Sugar” so you make your choice – eat sweets or whistle). Frank Churchill and Larry Morey again composed the main songs for this 1937 groundbreaker.
12.Under The Sea – The Little Mermaid
1989’s Little Mermaid returned a mark of quality to Disney animation with a great story and cartooning not to mention a soundtrack chock-a-block with memorable tunes. Ariel wants to go on land and be with people and, so, her crab friend Sebastian (Samuel E. Wright) sings this cautionary calypso urging her to stay in the briny. The songs to this movie and Beauty & The Beast were composed by the late Howard Ashman & Alan Menken. This won an Oscar for best original song and is pretty much ubiquitous in Disney parks and cruises today.
13.Winnie The Pooh Theme Song – Winnie The Pooh & The Honey Tree (etc.)
You’re probably crying foul right about now as most of the uses of this song were in featurettes but it has been in so many movies that were at least an hour long that I decided it qualifies (and it’s my list). The first use of this song was in 1966 after being composed by the Sherman brothers who might be the most underappreciated popular songwriters ever. The mind of A. A. Milne was responsible for this “tubby little cubby all stuffed with fluff”; first appearing in 1926. Milne wrote the stories for his son Christopher Robin Milne using his stuffed animals as a template for the characters. Since then the marketing has been unstoppable including a song written by Kenny Loggins (House At Pooh Corner) that appeared on one of the great Americana albums – Uncle Charlie & His Dog Teddy – The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (1970).
14.Can You Feel The Love Tonight – The Lion King
This song is originally used in the movie as Simba and Nala are falling for each other while the version over the end titles is performed by one of its composers, Elton John (Tim Rice wrote the lyrics). It won the 1994 Academy Award for best original song and also earned Reg Dwight a male vocal Grammy (would Elton John have been a success under his real name?). This was the biggest chart hit from the movie hitting #4 in the U.S.
15.Chim Chim Cher-ee – Mary Poppins
Yet another winner at the Oscars for best original song, the Sherman brothers made the Mary Poppins soundtrack one of the best from any Disney film ever. The story goes that the composers saw one of the chimney sweep drawings when the film was being planned and were told that there is a tale in British lore that shaking hands with a sweep can bring good luck. Bert the sweep is played by Dick Van Dyke who in 1964 was in the middle of a successful run playing Rob Petrie on his self-titled hit TV series.
16.The Monkey’s Uncle – The Monkey’s Uncle
Disney studios put out a series of low-budget pleasantly forgettable live-action movies that at times were decent hits (The Absent-Minded Professor, The Love Bug, etc.). This 1965 movie starred Tommy Kirk as Merlin Jones and likable Mouseketeer turned zaftig singing star Annette Funicello. The brothers Sherman wrote a string of innocuous pre-Beatles hits for Annette including “Tall Paul” and “Pineapple Princess” and tried to make this a hit as well. By 1965 in the face of another year of the British Invasion and burgeoning folk-rock, a nice silly pop song sung by Annette with backing from the Beach Boys wasn’t going to dent the charts (which is too bad as it has always been one of my guilty pleasures). The lyrics are a series of puns including “I love the monkey’s uncle and the monkey’s uncle’s ape for me” and “what a nutty family tree, a bride – a groom – a chimpanzee” – genius!?
17.A Whole New World – Aladdin
Howard Ashman and Alan Menken began the songwriting for what would have been their third Disney collaboration, but with Ashman’s passing Menken teamed with veteran composer Tim Rice to complete the songs. This Menken/Rice composition was by far the most memorable of the new songs and is used twice in the 1992 cartoon . The first version is a duet with Jasmine (sung by Lea Salonga and voiced by Linda Larkin) and Aladdin (sung by Brad Kane with Scott Weigner speaking). The version over the end credits is the familiar #1 hit version (1993) by Peabo Bryson and Regina Belle. This ended up winning Disney yet another Oscar for best original song plus it also won a song of the year Grammy.
18.I’ve Got No Strings – Pinocchio
The second Disney feature cartoon was based on the Carlo Collodi children’s story about a puppet who longs to be a real boy. While today many consider it to be one of the greatest animated movies ever, it was a surprising flop at the box office the first time around in 1940 – or maybe it wasn’t a surprise considering much of Europe was at war meaning little or no foreign revenue. All the subsequent re-releases finally earned to money and acclaim it was entitled to. This cheerful song was mostly sung by Dickie Jones as the title character interacting with various nationalities of puppets. Leigh Harline and Ned Washington were the composers. NSYNC fans will recall that their 2000 album No Strings Attached had a puppet themed cover so this song was used to begin their concerts at the time.
19.Hakuna Matata – The Lion King
The rough translation in Swahili is supposed to be ‘no worries’ and was apparently heard from a native guide while the production team were in Kenya to gain background for use in the movie. Timon the meerkat (Nathan Lane) and Pumbaa the warthog (Ernie Sabella) are the main performers here telling Simba to move on from the death of his father (Mufasa). The song plays while Simba grows in to an adult. The Elton John/Tim Rice composition was the third song from the 1994 movie to be nominated for the best original song Academy Award. As we saw earlier, this song and “Circle Of Life” lost to “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” that year.
20.Colors Of The Wind – Pocahontas
The movie Pocahontas was a heavily fictionalized story supposedly about the relationship of the native American female lead and the Jamestown colonist John Smith. For this 1995 feature, Alan Menken again composed the music, but his time was paired with lyricist Stephen Schwartz (Godspell, Pippin, etc.) who wrote of respecting nature. Judy Kuhn sang the song as Pocahontas in the film (Irene Bedard voiced the character), but Vanessa Williams had the #4 U.S. hit. Remarkably this song was yet another Disney Academy Award winner for best original song.