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. He is best known for the pithy, humorous songs he recorded in the 1950s and '60s.
His work often parodies popular song forms, though he usually creates original melodies when doing so. A notable exception is "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 early work typically dealt with non-topical subject matter and was noted for its black humor 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 television show That Was the Week That Was. Despite their of-the-moment subject matter and references, the popularity of these songs has endured; Lehrer quoted a friend's explanation: "Always predict the worst and you'll be hailed as a prophet."
In the early 1970s, he mostly retired from public performances to devote his time to teaching mathematics and music theatre at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
Lehrer was born in 1928 to a Jewish family and grew up in Manhattan's Upper East Side. Although he was raised Jewish, Lehrer became an agnostic. He began studying classical piano at the age of seven, but was more interested in the popular music of the age. Eventually, his mother also sent him to a popular-music piano teacher. At this early age, he began writing show tunes, which eventually helped him as a satirical composer and writer in his years of lecturing at Harvard University noting the influence one of his professors Irving Kaplansky, and later at other universities.
Lehrer attended the Horace Mann School in Riverdale, NY. He also attended Camp Androscoggin, both as a camper and a counselor. Lehrer was considered a child prodigy and entered Harvard College at the age of 15 after graduating from Loomis Chaffee School. As a mathematics undergraduate student at Harvard College, he began to write comic songs to entertain his friends, including "Fight Fiercely, Harvard" (1945). Those songs were later named The Physical Revue, a joking reference to a leading scientific journal, The Physical Review.
Academic and military career
Lehrer earned his AB (Bachelor of Arts) in mathematics (magna cum laude) from Harvard University in 1946. He received his MA degree the next year, and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa. He taught classes at MIT, Harvard, Wellesley, and the University of California, Santa Cruz.
He remained in Harvard's doctoral program for several years, taking time out for his musical career and to work as a researcher at the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory. He served in the U.S. 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.) These experiences became fodder for songs, e.g., "Fight Fiercely, Harvard", "The Wild West Is Where I Want To Be" and "It Makes a Fellow Proud to Be a Soldier".
Despite holding a master's degree in an era when American conscripts often lacked a high school diploma, Lehrer served as an enlisted soldier, achieving the rank of Specialist Third Class (later retitled "Specialist-4" and currently "Specialist"), which he described as being a "corporal without portfolio." In 1960, Lehrer returned to full-time studies at Harvard, but in 1965 gave up on his mathematical dissertation about the subject of modes in statistics, after working on it intermittently for 15 years.
From 1962, he taught in the political science department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (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 mathematics class (on the topic of infinity) and retired from academia. He has remained in the area, and in 2003 said he still "hangs out" around the University of California, Santa Cruz.
The American Mathematical Society database lists him as co-author of two papers:
- R. E. Fagen and T. A. Lehrer, "Random walks with restraining barrier as applied to the biased binary counter," Journal of the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, vol. 6, pp. 1–14 (March 1958) MR
- T. Austin, R. Fagen, T. Lehrer, and 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) MR
Lehrer was mainly influenced by musical theater. According to Gerald Nachman's book Seriously Funny, the Broadway musical Let's Face It! (by Cole Porter) made an early and lasting impression on him. Lehrer's style consists of parodying various forms of popular song. For example, his appreciation of list songs led him to write "The Elements", which lists the periodic table 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 he 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 [the song was likely "I Got It From Sally (in later versions 'Agnes')"]. 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."
In 1953, inspired by the success of his performances, Lehrer paid $15 for some studio time to record Songs by Tom Lehrer. The initial pressing was 400 copies. At the time, radio stations would not give Lehrer air time because of his controversial subjects. He sold his album on campus at Harvard for $3 (equivalent to $27.00 today), while "several stores near the Harvard campus sold it for $3.50, taking only a minimal markup as a kind of community service. Newsstands on campus sold it for the same price." After one summer, he started to receive mail orders from all parts of the country (as far away as San Francisco, after The Chronicle wrote an article on the record). Interest in his recordings 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. Lehrer later recalled, "Lacking exposure in the media, my songs spread slowly. Like herpes, rather than ebola."
The album—which included the macabre "I Hold Your Hand in Mine", the mildly risqué "Be Prepared", and "Lobachevsky" (regarding plagiarizing mathematicians)—became a cult success via word of mouth, despite being self-published and without promotion. Lehrer embarked on a series of concert tours and in 1959 recorded a second album, which was released in two versions: the songs were the same, but More of Tom Lehrer was studio-recorded while An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer was recorded live in concert. In 2013, Lehrer recalled the studio sessions:
- "The copyist arrived at the last minute with the parts and passed them out to the band... And there was no title on it, and there was no lyrics. And so they ran through it, 'what a pleasant little waltz'... And the engineer said, '"Poisoning Pigeons in the Park,' take one," and the piano player said, '"What?"' and literally fell off the stool."
Lehrer's major breakthrough in the United Kingdom came with the doctor of music honoris causa, which the University of London conferred to Princess Margaret on 4 December 1957 "in the full knowledge", as the public orator Professor J.R. Sutherland stated, "that the Princess is a connoisseur of music and a performer of skill and distinction, her taste being catholic, ranging from Mozart to the calypso and from opera to the songs of Miss Beatrice Lillie and Tom Lehrer.“ This prompted significant interest in Lehrer's works and helped secure distributors for his material in the UK. It was there that 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 United States). By the end of the 1950s, Lehrer had sold 370,000 records.
In 1960, Lehrer essentially retired from touring in the US. In the early 1960s, he was employed as the resident songwriter for the U.S. edition of That Was The Week That Was (TW3), a satirical television 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", the tune based on the 1910 song the Spaghetti 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 worked for Nazi Germany before working for the United States. ("'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; his songs were performed by a female vocalist, and his lyrics were often altered by the network censors. Lehrer later performed the songs on the album That Was The Year That Was (1965), so that, in his words, people could hear the songs the way they were intended to be heard. In 1966, for David Frost's further BBC television programme The Frost Report Lehrer was invited to contribute some of his classic compositions. The Frost Report was transmitted live, and he pre-recorded all his segments at one performance. Though Lehrer was not featured in every edition, they were slotted in at an appropriate part of each show. At least two of his offerings were songs not included on any of his LPs: a reworking of Noël Coward’s "That is the End of the News" (with some new lyrics) and a comic explanation of how Britain might adapt to the coming of decimal currency.
In 1967, Lehrer was persuaded to make a short tour in Norway and Denmark, where he performed some of the songs from the television program. The performance in Oslo, Norway, on September 10 was recorded on video tape and aired locally later that autumn; this program was released on DVD some 40 years later. On that tour, a concert at the "Studenterforeningen" (student association) in Copenhagen, Denmark, where a prominent international guest was invited annually, was also televised; Lehrer commented onstage that he might be America's "revenge for Victor Borge."
Also around 1967, Lehrer composed and performed on piano original songs in a Dodge automobile "industrial" film that was distributed primarily to automobile dealers and shown at promotional events. Set in a fictional American wild west town, the full title appears to be The Dodge Rebellion Theatre presents Ballads For '67. Since the film is introducing 1967 model automobiles, it was possibly produced in late 1966.
The record deal with Reprise Records for the That Was The Year That Was album also gave Reprise distribution rights for his 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. The [live] recording included bonus tracks "L-Y" and "Silent E", two of the ten songs that 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. The album liner notes (and Lehrer himself in one routine) promote his songs using reverse psychology, by quoting negative reviews. ("I know it's very bad form to quote one's own reviews, but there is something the New York Times said about me [in 1958], that I have always treasured: 'Mr. Lehrer's muse [is] not fettered by such inhibiting factors as taste.")
Departure from the music scene
In the 1970s, Lehrer concentrated on teaching mathematics and musical theater, although he also wrote ten songs for the educational children's television show The Electric Company. His last public performance took place in 1972, on a fundraising tour for Democratic US presidential candidate George McGovern.
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 comment that awarding the prize to Kissinger made political satire obsolete, but has denied that he stopped creating satire as a form of protest, asserting that he had stopped several years prior. Another mistaken belief is that he was sued for libel by Wernher von Braun, the subject of one of his songs, and forced to relinquish his royalties to von Braun. Lehrer denied this in a 2003 interview.
When asked about his reasons for abandoning his musical career in an interview in the book accompanying his CD box set (released in 2000), he cited 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 was not, he did not, and that after a while he simply lost interest. Although Lehrer was "a hero of the anti-nuclear, civil rights left", covering its political issues in many of his songs, and even though he shared the New Left's opposition to the Vietnam war, he disliked the aesthetics of 1960s counterculture and stopped performing as the movement gained momentum.
Lehrer's musical career was brief; he pointed out that he had performed a mere 109 shows and written 37 songs over 20 years. Nevertheless, he developed a significant following in the United States and abroad.
Revivals and discographic reissues
In 1980 Tom Foolery, a revue of his songs created and produced by Cameron Mackintosh, was a hit on the London stage. Although not its instigator, Lehrer eventually gave the stage production his full support and updated several of his lyrics for the show (such as "Who's Next", in which Neiman-Marcus [or in the San Francisco production, J.C. Penney], not Alabama, gets the bomb). Tom Foolery contained 27 songs and led to more than 200 productions, including an Off-Broadway production at the Village Gate, which ran for 120 performances in 1981.
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 to date 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 boxed set of CDs, 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 for all the songs.
In 2010, Shout! Factory launched a reissue campaign, making his long out-of-press albums available digitally. They also issued a CD/DVD combo called The Tom Lehrer Collection, which includes his best-loved songs, plus a DVD featuring an Oslo concert.
Sardonic composer Randy Newman said of Lehrer, "He's one of the great American songwriters without a doubt, right up there with everybody, the top guys. As a lyricist, as good as there's been in the last half of the 20th century." Singer and comedian Dillie Keane has acknowledged Lehrer's influence on her work, and Lehrer has recognised hers; his styles of piano-playing and lyric rhyming are very recognisable in some of her work.
Lehrer was praised by Dr. Demento as "the best musical satirist of the twentieth 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, and educator and scientist H. Paul Shuch, who tours under the stage name Dr. SETI and calls himself "a cross between Carl Sagan and Tom Lehrer: he sings like Sagan and lectures like Lehrer."
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 kabaretts of the 1930s, 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 vaporize them."
Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post interviewed Lehrer off the record in a February 2008 phone call. When Weingarten asked if there was anything he could print for the record, Lehrer responded, "Just tell the people that I am voting for Obama."
The play Letters from Lehrer by Canadian Richard Greenblatt was performed by him at CanStage in Toronto, 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 been on the internet.
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 Lehrer on the back of their first album, Fitness to Practice. Their songs "The Menstrual Rag" and "The Drugs Song" are to the tunes of Lehrer's "The Vatican Rag" and "The Elements" (the tune of the "Major-General's Song" from The Pirates of Penzance by Gilbert and Sullivan) respectively. Their second album, Unfit to Practise, opens with an update of Lehrer's "The Masochism Tango" and is called "Masochism Tango 2008".
In 1967, Swedish actor Lars Ekborg, outside Sweden most known for his part in Ingmar Bergman's Summer with Monika, made an album called "I Tom Lehrers vackra värld" ("In the beautiful world of Tom Lehrer"), with 12 of Lehrer's songs interpreted in Swedish. Lehrer wrote in a letter to the producer Per–Anders Boquist that "not knowing any Swedish, I am obviously not equipped to judge, but it sounds to me as though Mr Ekborg is perfect for the songs." He has also said that he especially loved how Ekborg did the song "Smut" (in Swedish "Porr"). The album stirred some debate about "sick comedy" in Sweden, but was quite popular and still has cult status.
Lehrer's song "The Old Dope Peddler" is sampled in rapper 2 Chainz's song "Dope Peddler", on his 2012 debut album, Based on a T.R.U. Story. The following year, Lehrer said he was "very proud" to have his song sampled "literally sixty years after I recorded it." Lehrer went on to describe his official response to the request to use his song: "As sole copyright owner of 'The Old Dope Peddler', I grant you motherfuckers permission to do this. Please give my regards to Mr. Chainz, or may I call him 2?"
Lehrer has said of his musical career, "If, after hearing my songs, just one human being is inspired to say something nasty to a friend, or perhaps to strike a loved one, it will all have been worth the while."
- Solo discography
- Songs by Tom Lehrer (1953)
- More of Tom Lehrer (1959)
- An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer (1959)
- 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)
- Songs by Tom Lehrer (1966 re-recording)
- Tom Lehrer in Concert (1994; UK compilation)
- Songs & More Songs by Tom Lehrer (1997; US compilation of his first two studio albums with additional songs)
- The Remains of Tom Lehrer (2000)
- The Tom Lehrer Collection (2010)
Many songs are performed (but not by Lehrer) in That Was The Week That Was (Radiola LP, 1981)
The sheet music of many 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; Methuen, 1999, ISBN 978-0-413-74230-8). A second song book, Tom Lehrer's Second Song Book, is out of print, ISBN 978-0517502167.