Thomas Andrew "Tom" Lehrer (born April 9, 1928) is an American singer-songwriter, satirist, pianist, and mathematician. He has lectured on mathematics and musical theater. Lehrer is best known for the pithy, humorous songs he recorded in the 1950s and 60s.
His work often parodied popular song forms, such as in "The Elements", where he sets the names of the chemical elements to the tune of the "Major-General's Song" from Gilbert and Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance. Lehrer's earlier work normally dealt with non-topical subject matter and was noted for its black humor, seen in songs such as "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park." In the 1960s, he produced a number of songs dealing with social and political issues of the day, particularly when he wrote for the U.S. version of the TV show That Was The Week That Was.
Born in 1928 to a Jewish-American family, Tom Lehrer began studying classical piano music at the age of 7. However, he was more interested in the popular music of the age. Eventually, his mother found him a popular-music piano teacher. At this early age, he began writing his own show tunes that would eventually help him in his future adventures as a satirical composer/writer in his years at Harvard and beyond.
Lehrer graduated from the Loomis Chaffee School in Windsor, Connecticut. As an undergraduate student at Harvard University, studying mathematics, he began to write comic songs to entertain his friends, including "Fight Fiercely, Harvard" (1945). Those songs later became The Physical Revue, a joking reference to a leading scientific journal, The Physical Review.
Lehrer earned his BA in mathematics (magna cum laude) from Harvard University in 1947, when he was 18. He received his MA the next year, and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa. He taught classes at MIT, Harvard, and Wellesley.
He remained in Harvard's doctoral program for several years, taking time out for his musical career and to work as a researcher at Los Alamos, New Mexico. He served in the Army from 1955 to 1957, working at the National Security Agency. (Lehrer has stated that he invented the Jell-O Shot during this time, as a means of circumventing liquor restrictions.) All of these experiences eventually became fodder for songs: "Fight Fiercely, Harvard", "The Wild West Is Where I Want To Be" and "It Makes a Fellow Proud to Be a Soldier", respectively. Despite holding a master's degree in an era when American conscripts often lacked even a high school diploma, Lehrer served as an enlisted soldier, achieving the rank of Specialist Third Class , which he described as a "corporal without portfolio".
In 1960, Lehrer returned to full-time studies at Harvard; however, he never completed his doctoral studies in mathematics. From 1962, he taught in the Political Science department at MIT. In 1972, he joined the faculty of the University of California, Santa Cruz, teaching an introductory course entitled "The Nature of Mathematics" to liberal arts majors ? "Math for Tenors", according to Lehrer. He also taught a class in musical theater. He occasionally performed songs in his lectures, primarily those relating to the topic.
In 2001, Lehrer taught his last math class (on the topic of infinity) and retired from academia. He has remained in the area, and still "hangs out" around the University of California, Santa Cruz.
The American Mathematical Society database lists him as co-author of two papers:
RE Fagen & TA Lehrer, "Random walks with restraining barrier as applied to the biased binary counter," Journal of the Society for Industrial Applied Mathematics, vol. 6, pp. 1-14 (March 1958) MR0094856
T Austin, R Fagen, T Lehrer, W Penney, "The distribution of the number of locally maximal elements in a random sample," Annals of Mathematical Statistics vol. 28, pp. 786-790 (1957) MR0091251
Influenced mainly by musical theater, Lehrer's style consists of parodying various forms of popular song. For example, his appreciation of list songs led him to set an unordered list of the chemical elements to the tune of Gilbert and Sullivan's "Major-General's Song".
Author Isaac Asimov recounted in his second autobiographical volume In Joy Still Felt seeing Lehrer perform in a Boston nightclub on October 9, 1954, during which Lehrer sang very cleverly about Jim getting it from Louise, and Sally from Jim, "and after a while you gathered the 'it' to be venereal disease . Suddenly, as the combinations grew more grotesque, you realized he was satirizing every perversion known to mankind without using a single naughty phrase. It was clearly unsingable (in those days) outside a nightclub." Asimov also recalled a song that dealt with the Boston subway system, making use of the stations leading into town from Harvard, observing that the local subject-matter rendered the song useless for general distribution. Lehrer subsequently granted Asimov permission to print the lyrics to the subway song in his book. "I haven't gone to nightclubs often," said Asimov, "but of all the times I have gone, it was on this occasion that I had by far the best time."
Inspired by the success of his performances of his own songs, he paid for some studio time to record Songs by Tom Lehrer. Radio stations at the time would not give Lehrer radio time because of the controversial subjects he sang about. Instead, he sold his album on campus at Harvard for $3, while "supportive record merchants and dorm newsstands bought copies?and marked them up 50 cents." After one summer, he also started to receive mail orders from all over the country (as far as San Francisco after The Chronicle wrote an article on the record). This interest was spread by word of mouth, friends and supporters brought their records home and played them for their friends, who then also wanted a copy.
Self-published and unpromoted, the album ? which included the macabre "I Hold Your Hand in Mine", the mildly risqu? "Be Prepared", and "Lobachevsky" (regarding plagiarizing mathematicians) ? became a cult success via word of mouth. Lehrer then embarked on a series of concert tours and recorded a second album, which was released in two versions: the songs were the same but More Songs by Tom Lehrer was studio-recorded, while An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer was recorded live in concert.
Lehrer's major breakthrough in the United Kingdom came as a result of the citation accompanying an honorary degree given to Princess Margaret, where she cited musical tastes as "catholic, ranging from Mozart to Tom Lehrer". This prompted significant interest in his works, and helped secure distributors for his material. It was in the UK where his music achieved real popularity, as a result of the proliferation of university newspapers referring to the material, and the willingness of the BBC to play his songs on the radio (something that was a rarity in the USA).
By the early 1960s, Lehrer had retired from touring (which he intensely disliked) and was employed as the resident songwriter for the U.S. edition of That Was The Week That Was (TW3), a satirical TV show. An increased proportion of his output became overtly political, or at least topical, on subjects such as education ("New Math"), the Second Vatican Council ("The Vatican Rag"), race relations ("National Brotherhood Week"), air and water pollution ("Pollution"), American militarism ("Send the Marines"), World War III "pre-nostalgia" ("So Long, Mom", premiered by Steve Allen), and nuclear proliferation ("Who's Next?" and "MLF Lullaby"). He also wrote a song that famously satirized the alleged amorality of rocket scientist Wernher von Braun who had previously worked for Nazi Germany. ("'Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? That's not my department', says Wernher von Braun.") Lehrer did not appear on the television show himself (his songs were performed by a female vocalist), and his lyrics were often altered by the network censors. Lehrer later performed the songs himself on the album, That Was The Year That Was, so that, in his words, people could hear the songs the way they were intended to be heard. In 1967, Lehrer was persuaded to make a short tour in Norway and Denmark, where he performed some of those songs. The performance in Oslo, Norway, on September 10 was recorded to video tape and aired locally later that autumn.
The record deal with Reprise Records for the That Was The Year That Was album also gave Reprise distribution rights for Lehrer's earlier recordings, as Lehrer wanted to wind up his own record imprint. The Reprise issue of Songs by Tom Lehrer was a stereo re-recording. This version was not issued on CD, but the songs were issued on the live Tom Lehrer Revisited CD instead. "The live also included bonus tracks 'L-Y' and 'Silent E,' which Lehrer wrote for the PBS children's educational series ?The Electric Company.?" Lehrer later commented that worldwide sales of the recordings under Reprise surpassed 1.8 million units in 1996. That same year, the album "That Was The Year That Was" went gold.
Departure from the scene
There is an urban legend that Lehrer gave up political satire when the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Henry Kissinger in 1973. He did say that the awarding of the prize to Kissinger made political satire obsolete, but has denied that he stopped doing satire as a form of protest, and asserts that he had actually stopped several years earlier. Another mistaken belief is that he had been sued for libel by Wernher Von Braun, the subject of one of his songs, and been forced to relinquish all of his royalty income to Von Braun. However, Lehrer firmly denied this in a 2003 interview.
When asked about his reasons for abandoning his musical career, he cited (in an interview in the 2000 CD box set's accompanying book) a simple lack of interest, a distaste for touring, and boredom with performing the same songs repeatedly. He observed that when he was moved to write and perform songs, he did, and when he wasn't, he didn't, and after a while he simply lost interest. It has frequently been observed that, though many of Lehrer's songs satirized the Cold War political establishment of the era, he stopped writing and performing just as the 1960s counterculture movement gained momentum.
Lehrer's musical career was brief; in an interview in the late 1990s, he pointed out that he had performed a mere 109 shows and written 37 songs over 20 years. Nevertheless, he developed a significant cult following both in the U.S. and abroad.
Return to music
In the 1970s, Lehrer concentrated on teaching mathematics and musical theater, although he also wrote 10 songs for the children's television show The Electric Company (Harvard schoolmate Joe Raposo was the show's musical director for its first three seasons). In the early 1980s, Tom Foolery, a revival of his songs on the London stage, was a hit. Although not its instigator, Lehrer eventually gave it his full support and updated several of his lyrics for the production. Tom Foolery contained 27 Lehrer songs and led to more than 200 productions.
On June 7 and 8, 1998, Lehrer performed in public for the first time in 25 years at the Lyceum Theatre, London as part of the gala show Hey, Mr. Producer! celebrating the career of impresario Cameron Mackintosh (who had been the producer of Tom Foolery). The June 8 show was his only performance before Queen Elizabeth II. Lehrer sang "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park" and an updated version of the nuclear proliferation song "Who's Next?". The DVD of the event includes the former song.
In 2000, a CD box set, The Remains of Tom Lehrer, was released by Rhino Entertainment. It included live and studio versions of his first two albums, That Was The Year That Was, the songs he wrote for The Electric Company, and some previously unreleased material. It was accompanied by a small hardbound book containing an introduction by Dr. Demento and lyrics to all the songs.
Lehrer has commented that he doubts his songs had any real effect on those not already critical of the establishment: "I don't think this kind of thing has an impact on the unconverted, frankly. It's not even preaching to the converted; it's titillating the converted... I'm fond of quoting Peter Cook, who talked about the satirical Berlin cabarets of the '30s, which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the Second World War."
In 2003 he commented that his particular brand of political satire is more difficult in the modern world: "The real issues I don't think most people touch. The Clinton jokes are all about Monica Lewinsky and all that stuff and not about the important things, like the fact that he wouldn't ban land mines... I'm not tempted to write a song about George W. Bush. I couldn't figure out what sort of song I would write. That's the problem: I don't want to satirise George Bush and his puppeteers, I want to vaporise them." In a phone call to Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post in February 2008, Lehrer instructed Weingarten to "Just tell the people that I am voting for Obama."
A play, Letters from Lehrer, written by Canadian Richard Greenblatt, was performed by him at CanStage, from January 16 to February 25, 2006. It followed Lehrer's musical career, the meaning of several songs, the politics of the time, and Greenblatt's own experiences with Lehrer's music, while playing some of Lehrer's songs. There are currently no plans for more performances, although low-quality audio recordings have begun to circulate around the internet.
Lehrer was praised by Dr. Demento as "the best musical satirist of the 20th century". Other artists who cite Lehrer as an influence include "Weird Al" Yankovic, whose work generally addresses more popular and less technical or political subjects. Educator and scientist, H. Paul Shuch, who tours under the stage name Dr. SETI, calls himself "a cross between Carl Sagan and Tom Lehrer: he sings like Sagan and lectures like Lehrer." More stylistically influenced performers include American political satirist Mark Russell, and the British duo Kit and The Widow. British medical satirists Amateur Transplants acknowledge the debt they owe to Tom Lehrer on the back of their first album, "Fitness to Practice". Their songs "The Menstrual Rag" and "The Drugs Song" are to the tune of "Vatican Rag" and "The Elements" respectively. Their second album, "Unfit to Practise", opens with an update of Lehrer's "Masochism Tango", called simply "Masochism Tango 2008".
Reviews selected by Lehrer for his liner notes
"Mr. Lehrer's muse is not fettered by such inhibiting factors as taste." ? New York Times (9 February 1959)
"More desperate than amusing" ? New York Herald Tribune
"He seldom has any point to make except obvious ones" ? Christian Science Monitor
"Plays the piano acceptably" ? Oakland Tribune
Songs by Tom Lehrer (1953)
More of Tom Lehrer (1959)
An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer (1959)
Tom Lehrer Revisited (1960) (1990 CD reissue includes 1971 studio recordings of "Silent E" and "L-Y")
Tom Lehrer Discovers Australia (And Vice Versa) (1960; Australia-only)
That Was the Year That Was (1965)
Tom Lehrer in Concert (1994; UK compilation)
Songs & More Songs by Tom Lehrer (1997)
The Remains of Tom Lehrer (2000)
Many Lehrer songs are also performed (but not by Lehrer) in That Was The Week That Was (Radiola LP, 1981)
The sheet music to many of Lehrer's songs is published in The Tom Lehrer Song Book (Crown Publishers, Inc., 1954) Library of Congress Card Catalog Number 54-12068 and Too Many Songs by Tom Lehrer: with not enough drawings by Ronald Searle (Pantheon, 1981, ISBN 0-394-74930-8).