Return to Tom Lehrer (person)

Tom Lehrer is a cool guy. He was born April 9, 1928, to some unlucky couple. He learned to play piano during childhood and began writing his little ditties possibly as early as seven years of age.

Beyond that, he might as well have been cryogenically frozen and thawed in 1944 which is when he discovered himself in Cambridge, Massachusetts at Harvard University. While riding on the T, he wrote "The Subway Song", after discovering that the first letters of the subway stops formed the most fascinating word HCKCPW!

He earned his BA in Mathematics in 1946 (Magna cum laude) and then his Masters in 1947. He hung out at Harvard as a graduate student until 1953 doing what he did during those years which watered down to writing a slew of academic thingies (parodies? songs?) which he compiled into "The Physical Revue". The revue played at Harvard twice in January of 1951, then was updated and played in May of 1952.

His friends decided they had enough of his tripe and that the world should suffer too--they encouraged him to record his works. On January 23, 1953, he went to a local studio and produced his first album entitled Songs By Tom Lehrer.

Folks bought the album and word began to get around about his vulgar use of that music thing. Tom had to get more records pressed and hired a company to handle distribution. Stores began carrying them across the country. The children stopped studying. The downfall of America had started. Tom also had an underground hit.

Tom left Harvard and was eventually snatched up by the Army in January of 1955. His reason for joining was "I figured I'd better do it while there was a hiatus between wars." He served the standard two-year term where he worked for the NSA, wrote the song "It Makes a Fellow Proud To Be A Soldier", and developed vodka Jell-O to circumvent restriction of alcoholic beverages on base (Jell-O is not a beverage).

After the Army thing, Tom hung around Cambridge doing performances at night clubs and auditoriums. He did a bit of touring in other cities as well. His performances were disliked by the critics (who never seem to have a sense of humor, anyhow).

He recorded two of his performances at Harvard's Sanders Theater in March of 1959 which were combined into the album An Evening Wasted With Tom Lehrer.

By this time, his fame had spread overseas, where Decca Records in England released the three albums. He was also lured to England for a tour in 1960, and while he was at it took in (or did in) Germany and Australia as well, among others. He recorded two of the concerts in Australia, which, combined with another concert recorded at MIT in November of the previous year, constitued Tom Lehrer Revisited, a live version of the same songs that were on Songs By Tom Lehrer.

After some difficulties, Tom decided he had had enough of show business, and went back to teaching. He returned to Harvard for his Ph.D. He was happy until someone roused him out of retirement several years later to write some tunes for That Was The Week That Was which was a very short-lived tv show from 1964 to 1965.

After the show died, Tom recorded another album, taking many of the songs he wrote for TW3 and fixing them back to the way he originally wrote them. Warner/Reprise took on the role of distributing all his past albums including this new one.

So they released That Was The Year That Was in 1965, followed by An Evening Wasted (with two minutes of applause edited out by the ever-modest Lehrer himself) and Songs By in 1966. For Songs By, they were not crazy about the sound quality on the original 1953 record. So, they had Tom come into their studios and re-record the album in state-of-the-art stereo. In the process, Tom also made several lyric changes in the songs to bring them up to date. He has since regretted making those changes. Those interested can find a comprehensive list of those differences, as well as lyric variations in other recordings of Tom's songs on the Internet somewhere because there's at least 1 dude out of 6 billion dudes on the planet who has put up a web-site devoted to lyric variations in Tom's work.

Tom retired again and then came out in 1972 to write eleven songs for PBS's "The Electric Company". The songs were mostly performed by members of the cast or various celebrities, including Bill Cosby and Rita Moreno. However, four songs did feature Tom on vocal. Tom went back to teaching afterwards.

Several years later, British producer Cameron Mackintosh created a revue of Tom's songs entitled somewhat appropriately "Tomfoolery." The revue opened in London in 1980 and bounced around many countries of the world. Tom changed some of the songs a bit--adding lyrics and scrubbing some away to update them. One such song was the highly controversial but wonderful "I Got It From Sally" which became "I Got It From Agnes".

He wrote a few songs for Garrison Keillor, and Dr. Demento and various PBS shows. His song "That's Mathematics" was altered slightly and used for the videotape comemorating Andrew Wiles having proved Fermat's Last Theorem.

Tom still happily splits his time between Massachusetts and California, spending summer and fall in the former and winter and spring in the latter. He is very content in doing what he does, which is teaching half the year and goofing off the other half. He never intended show business as a permanent career. "That's not a life...for me." He never plans to issue another album. He has never been married, nor does he have any children. "Not guilty on both counts."


sources:
Cool and Strange Music! Magazine issue #2 (Summer 1996)
and random web-sites filled with random things
and some of the albums themselves

albums:

  • Songs By Tom Lehrer
  • More Of Tom Lehrer
  • An Evening Wasted With Tom Lehrer
  • Tom Lehrer Revisited
  • That Was The Year That Was
  • Tom Lehrer Revisited British version
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