Tom Lehrer Biography

This is a brief biography of Tom Lehrer by Jeff Morris. It was published in Cool And Strange Music! Magazine Issue #2 (Summer 1996) as "An Article (Wasted) With Tom Lehrer". An expanded version of this biography is in the works, and will replace this file eventually.

For more information on Cool And Strange Music! Magazine send e-mail to

The information contained herein was gathered largely from exclusive interviews with Tom conducted by Jeff Morris. The text may not be reproduced without first consulting Jeff via the e-mail link on the Demented Music Database homepage. If you use information from this article, please credit your source.

Tom Lehrer was born April 9, 1928, presumably to human parents, though this has yet to be confirmed. Little is known about his childhood, except for the fact that he learned to "play the piano acceptably." He also began writing song parodies, possibly as early as age seven.

Discounting that, it's entirely possible that he slept his way from 1928 to 1944, which is when he ventured from New York City to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to find his fortune, or at least to find Harvard University. As he took the subway ride from Cambridge into Boston for the first time, he wrote "The Subway Song," after realizing that the first letters of the subway stops formed an interesting word - HCKCPW!

He majored in math at Harvard, earning a BA in 1946 and an MA in 1947. (No, he is not "Professor Lehrer," nor is he "Dr. Lehrer." "Mr. Lehrer" will suffice, as will "The Almighty.") He remained at Harvard as a graduate student until 1953.

During this time, he wrote "The Physical Revue," a collection of academic song parodies, such as "A Liter And A Gram" ("A Bushel And A Peck"), "The Derivative Song" ("There'll Be Some Changes Made"), and "The Elements" ("The Major-General's Song" from The Pirates Of Penzance). The revue was staged at Harvard twice in January, 1951, and was updated and staged again in May, 1952.

After hearing these songs, and others that he would sometimes play at parties when things took a turn for the worse, his friends encouraged him to record them. So, on January 23, 1953, he went into a local studio and walked out $15 poorer, but one master tape richer. This he had pressed up on 400 10" LP's, which he sold to people around Harvard. Songs By Tom Lehrer - his music, his lyrics, his so-called voice, and his piano.

Those who bought the album were gradually disseminated across the country, and word began to get around about this depraved individual. Orders started to pour in, so Tom had to get more records pressed, and hired a company in town to handle the distribution for him. It wasn't long before stores across the country began to carry the album. It eventually sold about 350,000 copies - the underground hit of the decade! Tom tried to interest labels such as RCA, Decca, and Capitol, but met with various degrees of non-success.

After leaving Harvard, Tom worked at Baird Atomic in Cambridge for about a year in order to avoid the draft, but evetually surrendered and was inducted into the Army in January, 1955. He served a standard two-year term, the only apparent fruits of which were a recipe for vodka Jell-O, the song "It Makes A Fellow Proud To Be A Soldier," and the preservation of America as a free country.

After escaping from the Army (or, as they called it, being "honorably discharged"), Tom hung around Cambridge, occasionally doing performances at night clubs and auditoriums. He did tour a bit to other cities also. His performances were often panned by the critics. (Yes, those quotes on the back of An Evening Wasted are all real.) Did this bother Tom? "Oh no. The concert sells out, the audience loves it, so who cares what the paper says? I enjoyed the bad reviews; they didn't have any effect on my morale."

By 1959, he had enough material to record a new album. He recorded two performances at Harvard's Sanders Theater in March, 1959, which were used to make the album An Evening Wasted With Tom Lehrer. (The same set of songs was also recorded without an audience at RCA Studios in New York, around July, 1959, and released simultaneously under the title More Of 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. (Decca in England used only tracks recorded at MIT for their version of Revisited, as the Australian recordings were of lower technical quality.)

After some controversy surrounding his concerts in Australia, as well as various other difficulties, Tom decided he had had enough of show business, and went back to his first love, teaching. At this he was quite happy until someone roused him out of "retirement" four years later to write songs for the short-lived NBC-TV satire "That Was The Week That Was" (a/k/a TW3), which ran from January, 1964, to May, 1965.

Tom was not always pleased with the portrayal of his songs on the show. Often they were sung by the less-than-cognizant Nancy Ames, who never seemed to get the joke. Also, they were generally edited by the TW3 folks who changed or removed lines which might be considered offensive. "So much for satire," says Tom.

After the show's demise, Tom decided to record another album, to put the TW3 songs back the way they were supposed to be. He included nine songs from TW3 on that album, plus five others he had written recently. And he was finally able to interest a major record label: Warner/Reprise. The catch was, they had to also take over his back catalog, as he was tired of tending to that.

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, in the LYRICS: LEHRER.DIFF file at the FAQ site (see below).

After this, Tom again retired from show business. Again, he was temporarily brought out of retirement in 1972, this time to write eleven songs (ten of which were used) for the PBS children's TV show "The Electric Company." These 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.

This same year, he also began his annual treks to the west coast to lecture at the University Of California at Santa Cruz, teaching two subjects, The American Musical and The Nature Of Math.

Several years later, his past came back to haunt him again when British producer Cameron Mackintosh staged a revue of his songs entitled "Tomfoolery." This opened in London in 1980, and has since been performed in many countries around the world. The London and Canadian casts have released albums of their performances. For the show, Tom wrote alternate lyrics for some of the songs, and even revived an old "party" song of his, "The Hospital Song" a/k/a "I Got It From Sally" (which he never recorded), updating and perverting it to "I Got It From Agnes."

He hasn't completely quit writing songs. He has written a few songs for Garrison Keillor's "American Radio Company" radio show, including "Everybody Eat," "We Gather Together," and "Hanukkah In Santa Monica." He also wrote "That's Mathematics" as the theme for a children's TV show about math, which eventually was entitled "Square One TV." However, the producers declined using his song. One of the reasons was that it was to the tune of "That's Entertainment," and the producers wanted to avoid any legal complications.

The song did not go unused, however, for in 1993 when the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute asked Tom for music to contribute to their Fermat Fest (to celebrate Andrew Wiles having proven Fermat's Last Theorem, which had gone unverified for centuries), he sent them a tape of "That's Mathematics" (the tune slightly altered so as not to infringe on copyright, and the lyrics updated to include a verse about Wiles), which they played over the closing credits to a videotape commemorating the event. (The videotape also includes Morris Bobrow performing an earlier Lehrer mathematical composition, "There's A Delta For Every Epsilon.") An alternate take of "That's Mathematics" was released in 1995 on a Dr. Demento compilation available only to members of The Demento Society.

And just this year, Tom received a gold record award. His album That Was The Year That Was has sold over 500,000 copies, and it only took just over thirty years to do so! A display containing gold LP, cassette, and CD now hangs at Tom's house in Massachusetts. (Trivia: the album was never released on cassette, though it was on 8-track for a while.)

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."

This article has been a preliminary step in writing a Tom Lehrer biography for the web site. The biography will hopefully be ready by the end of 1997. [ed: Would you believe "by the end of my life"?] If you have any questions or contributions, please e-mail them to Jeff Morris via the e-mail link on the Demented Music Database homepage.

Here is a brief listing of the most significant American releases of Lehrer material:

The following are still available (CD Only) on Reprise: A comprehensive discography of Lehrer releases is available in the LEHRER.DISCO file.