In 2009 I hosted an on-stage event with Disney legend Richard Sherman.
The co-writer (with his brother Robert) of classic songs like It’s a Small World (After All), Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious and the Oscar winning Chim Chim Cher-ee, was seated behind a piano and after regaling us with stories from his career, asked if anyone had any song requests.
I took advantage of my position as host and butted in, asking if he’d sing the hippest children’s song ever written, I Wan’na Be like You (The Monkey Song) from The Jungle Book.
As his fingers danced across the keyboard, he began, “Now, I’m the King of the Swinger’s Ball, a Jungle V.I.P…” and I was transported back to being a kid, wearing the grooves off the soundtrack record, playing it over and over. I was reminded of that memorable moment earlier this week as I watched the new, updated version of The Jungle Book. The song gets a remake, this time sung by Christopher Walken, but the magic is still there.
In the animated 1967 original, Louis Prima — playing the raucous orangutan King Louie — sang the upbeat tune but Richard Sherman says when they wrote the song they didn’t have Prima in mind.
Walt Disney hired them to help “Disnify” Rudyard Kipling’s original stories about a feral child raised in the jungle by wolves.
“Our assignment was to find crazy ways of having fun with it,” says Sherman.
For King Louie’s big moment the brothers went with a New Orleans inspired musical arrangement, complete with scat-singing.
They played the swingin’ song at a story conference and it was decided the singer should be the most swingin’ jazz act in the country. “When we first got an idea for I Wan’na Be Like You, we said an ape swings from a tree, and he’s the king of apes. We’ll make him ‘the king of the swingers.’ That’s the idea, we’ll make him a jazz man.”
The brothers presented the song to Prima who reportedly said, “You want to make a monkey out of me? You got me!”
It was a perfect marriage of performer to character, so much so that Disney animators filmed Prima live on a soundstage as a guide to animate his movements in the movie.
The I Wan’na Be like You (The Monkey Song) sequence is a standout in a film filled with great songs and has made a lasting impression on a generation or two of musicians.
Everyone from Phish and Voodoo Glow Skulls to Los Lobos and Fall Out Boy have covered the song. There’s a Hungarian version called Egy ilyen majom embernek való by Gyula Bodrogi & László Csákányi. And O Rei do Iê-Iê-Iê was a hit in Brazil for Márcio Simões & Mauro Ramos.
Of all the covers, Sherman says he likes the version by Smash Mouth featured in The Jungle Book 2. Almost 50 years after he originally co-wrote the song Richard Sherman revisited the tune. On the red carpet at The Jungle Book’s premier last week Sherman said he wrote new lyrics, “because it’s not the King Louie you saw in the first movie. This is a gigantopithecus, the greatest ape there ever was.”
Louis Prima’s version will always be the classic, at least for me, but Sherman says, “Chris Walken does a great job (on the song).”