Tom Lehrer

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Tom Lehrer
Tom Lehrer - Southern Campus 1960.jpg
Lehrer performing in 1960
Background information
Birth nameThomas Andrew Lehrer
Born(1928-04-09) April 9, 1928 (age 85)
New York City, New York, United States
GenresSatire, comedy, science
Occupationsmathematician, teacher, lyricist, pianist, composer, singer/songwriter
Years active1945–71, 1980, 1998
LabelsReprise/Warner Bros. Records
Rhino/Atlantic Records
Shout! Factory
Associated actsJoe Raposo
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Tom Lehrer
Tom Lehrer - Southern Campus 1960.jpg
Lehrer performing in 1960
Background information
Birth nameThomas Andrew Lehrer
Born(1928-04-09) April 9, 1928 (age 85)
New York City, New York, United States
GenresSatire, comedy, science
Occupationsmathematician, teacher, lyricist, pianist, composer, singer/songwriter
Years active1945–71, 1980, 1998
LabelsReprise/Warner Bros. Records
Rhino/Atlantic Records
Shout! Factory
Associated actsJoe Raposo

Thomas Andrew "Tom" Lehrer (/ˈlɛr.ər/; 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 1960s.

His work often parodies popular song forms, though Lehrer usually creates original melodies when doing so. A notable exception is his song "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 typically 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 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."[1]

In the early 1970s, he retired from public performances to devote his time to teaching mathematics and music theatre at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He did two additional performances in 1998 at a London gala show celebrating the career of impresario Cameron Mackintosh.[2]

Early life[edit]

Lehrer was born in 1928 to a Jewish family in Manhattan. Although he was raised Jewish, Lehrer later on became an agnostic atheist.[3] Lehrer began studying classical piano at the age of seven. He was more interested in the popular music of the age, however. Eventually, his mother also sent him to a popular-music piano teacher.[4] At this early age, he began writing his own show tunes, which eventually helped him in his future adventures as a satirical composer and writer in his years of lecturing at Harvard University, and later at other universities.[5]

Lehrer graduated from the Horace Mann School in Riverdale, NY.[6] He attended Camp Androscoggin, both as a camper and a counselor.[7] While studying mathematics as an 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,[8] a joking reference to a leading scientific journal, The Physical Review.

Mathematics career[edit]

Lehrer earned his AB in mathematics (magna cum laude) from Harvard University in 1946, when he was nineteen.[9] He received his MA degree 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 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.)[10] All of these experiences eventually 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".[11] In 1960, Lehrer returned to full-time studies at Harvard, but he never completed his doctoral studies in mathematics.

From 1962, he taught in the political science department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).[12] 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 topics of his talks.[13]

In 2001, Lehrer taught his last mathematics class (on the topic of infinity) and retired from academia.[14] He has remained in the area, and in 2003 said he still "hangs out" around the University of California, Santa Cruz.[15]

Mathematical publications[edit]

The American Mathematical Society database lists Lehrer as co-author of two papers:

Musical career[edit]

Lehrer was mainly influenced by musical theater. According to Gerald Nachman's book Seriously Funny, the Broadway musical Let's Face It (lyrics by Sylvia Fine; music by Cole Porter) made an early and lasting impression. 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 of 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 [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."[16]

Lehrer was inspired by the success of his performances of his own songs, so he 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. Instead, he sold his album on campus at Harvard for three dollars, 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."[17] After one summer, he also 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.[18]

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 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 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."[19]

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 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 early 1960s, Lehrer had retired from touring and 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[speculation?][20][21]), 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 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, 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 being transmitted live, 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 Noel 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."[22]

Also around 1967, Lehrer composed and performed on piano original songs in a Dodge automobile "industrial" film that was distributed primarily to Dodge automobile dealers. It was also shown at promotional events organized by Dodge. Set in a fictional American wild west town, the full proper title of the film 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 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] recording also included bonus tracks "L-Y" and "Silent E", two of the ten songs which Lehrer had written 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.[18] The album liner notes (and Lehrer himself in one routine) promote Tom Lehrer's songs using reverse psychology, by deliberately quoting his 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[edit]

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,[23] but has denied that he stopped creating satire thereafter as a form of protest, asserting that he had stopped several years prior to the award.[24] Another mistaken belief is that he was sued for libel by the estate of Wernher von Braun, the subject of one of his songs, and forced to relinquish all of his royalty income to von Braun. Lehrer firmly denied this in a 2003 interview.[15]

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 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 following both in the United States and abroad.

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— Lehrer's Harvard schoolmate Joe Raposo was the show's musical director for its first three seasons. He did a short concert tour in the fall of 1972, helping raise money for the presidential campaign of Sen. George McGovern.

Revivals and discographic reissues[edit]

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 the stage production his full support and updated several of his lyrics for the production (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 Lehrer songs and led to more than 200 productions,[18] including an Off-Broadway production at the Village Gate, which ran for 120 performances in 1981.[25]

In conjunction with the Tom Foolery premiere in 1980 at Criterion Theatre in London, Lehrer made a rare TV appearance on BBC's Parkinson show, where he sang "I Got It from Agnes".[26][27]

In 1993, Lehrer wrote a new song, "That's Mathematics," for a Mathematical Sciences Research Institute video celebrating the solving of Fermat's Last Theorem.

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.[28]

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 to 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.[29]

Musical legacy[edit]

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."[19]

Lehrer has been 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,[30] 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."[24]

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."[15]

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."[31]

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.

Some of his songs ("I Hold Your Hand in Mine" and "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park") were reworked into German by the Austrian-Jewish singer satirist Georg Kreisler who lived in the United States from 1938 until 1955. Other stylistically influenced performers include American political satirist Mark Russell,[32] and the British duo Kit and The Widow.[citation needed] 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 tunes of Lehrer's "The Vatican Rag" and "The Elements" (itself set to 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 simply "Masochism Tango 2008".

In 1967 Swedish actor Lars Ekborg, outside Sweden most known for his part in Ingmar Bergman's "Summar 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 also quite popular and still has cult status.[citation needed]

Lehrer's song "The Old Dope Peddler" is sampled in rapper 2 Chainz's song "Dope Peddler", taken from 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?"[19]

Lehrer was described by Daniel Radcliffe, the actor who played Harry Potter in the films, as "the cleverest and funniest man of the twentieth century" on the BBC's Graham Norton Show (series 8 episode 4), before Radcliffe launched into his own rendition of "The Elements".

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."[4]

Music lists[edit]

Reviews selected by Lehrer for his liner notes[edit]

Solo discography[edit]

Many Lehrer songs also are 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; Methuen, 1999, ISBN 978-0-413-74230-8). There is also a second song book, called Tom Lehrer's Second Song Book, which is out of print and has no ISBN.

Lehrer wrote "The SAC Song," which was sung in the 1963 film A Gathering of Eagles.[33]


  1. ^ Ford, Andrew (July 8, 2006). "Tom Lehrer". The Music Show. Interview transcript. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Radio National.
  2. ^ "Tom Lehrer talks – interview – a CD/DVD is out in the U.S.". YouTube. 2010-04-08. Retrieved 2012-04-14. 
  3. ^ Warren Allen Smith (2002). "Tom Lehrer". Celebrities in hell. chelCpress. p. 72. ISBN 9781569802144. "He responded: No one is more dangerous than someone who thinks he has The Truth. To be an atheist is almost as arrogant as to be a fundamentalist. But then again, I can get pretty arrogant." 
  4. ^ a b Liner notes, Songs & More Songs By Tom Lehrer, Rhino Records, 1997.
  5. ^ Tom Lehrer: The Political Musician That Wasn't. By Jeremy Mazner.
  6. ^ Toobin, Jeffrey R (1981-11-09). "Tom Lehrer". The Harvard Crimson. Retrieved 2012-04-14. 
  7. ^ "The Elements by Tom Lehrer". Archived from the original on 2012-02-01. Retrieved 2013-05-23. 
  8. ^ "The Physical Revue" songs
  9. ^ Tom Lehrer Biography
  10. ^ Boulware, Jack (2000-04-19). "That Was the Wit That Was". San Francisco Weekly. Retrieved 2013-05-23. 
  11. ^ Monologue self-introduction on Tom Lehrer Revisited.
  12. ^ Longley, Eric. "Tom Lehrer". St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture. CBS Interactive Resource Library. Archived from the original on July 9, 2012. 
  13. ^ Internet Archive: Details: Tom Lehrer.
  14. ^ I hope Tom doesn't read this. He doesn't like the attention.
  15. ^ a b c Interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, February 28, 2003.
  16. ^ Asimov, Isaac, In Joy Still Felt: The Autobiography of Isaac Asimov, 1954–1978. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1980, p. 15.
  17. ^ Dr. Demento (2000), Too many Facts about Tom Lehrer, The Remains of Tom Lehrer, Warner Bros Records 
  18. ^ a b c Jim Bessman. "Rhino Reissues Lehrer's Seminal 'Songs' Albums." Billboard. June 21, 1997.
  19. ^ a b c "BBC Radio 4 – Tom Lehrer at 85". The British Broadcasting Corporation. 2013-04-06. Retrieved 2013-05-23. 
  20. ^
  21. ^ "University of Colorado Digital Sheet Music Collection: Spaghetti Rag". Retrieved 7 June 2013. 
  22. ^ Tom Lehrer, performing in Copenhagen, at Retrieved July 5, 2007.
  23. ^ Rapture, Johnny (October 29, 2008). "Tom Lehrer supports Obama ! Who..? Tom Lehrer..Who..? Tom Lehrer". Daily Kos. Retrieved November 29, 2013. 
  24. ^ a b Interview with the Onion AV Club, May 24, 2000.
  25. ^ Tomfoolery at the Internet off-Broadway Database
  26. ^ DVDTalk: The Tom Lehrer Collection
  27. ^ Tom Lehrer: I Got It From Agnes on YouTube—from "Parkinson" 1980
  28. ^ Poisoning Pigeons in the Park (original version) at Retrieved March 25, 2008.
  29. ^ Bianculli, David, Tom Lehrer: '60s Satirist Still Strikes A Chord—NPR review of new release aired on 2010.04.30
  30. ^ "Weird" Al Yankovic. "Weird Al's FAQs". Retrieved June 12, 2009. 
  31. ^ "Chatalogical Humor", February 12, 2008.
  32. ^ "NewsHole". 2000-03-05. Retrieved June 12, 2009. 
  33. ^ A Gathering of Eagles (1963) – Full cast and crew

External links[edit]