Thomas Andrew 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.
Lehrer was born 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, and later at other universities.
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.
Lehrer earned his AB 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, 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.) 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.
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”.
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 $26.00 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
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 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.”)
In 1967, Lehrer was persuaded to make a short tour in Norway and Denmark. 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.”
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.
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.
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.
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”.
Lehrer was praised by Dr. Demento as “the best musical satirist of the twentieth century.”
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… “
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.”
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.”