Profile: Tom Lehrer

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Published on 11 April 2024 by Andrew Owen (5 minutes)

In a monologue preceding one of his songs, Tom Lehrer once said: “I wonder how many people here tonight remember Hubert Humphry, he used to be a senator. Every now and then you read something about him in one of those ‘where are they now’ columns. This became quite an issue last winter at the time of Winston Churchill’s funeral, when President Johnson was too ill to go and somebody suggested that he send Hubert. And he said, ‘Hubert who?’” Now people who are younger than me ask: ‘Tom who?’

Lehrer was born on April 9, 1928. He grew up in a secular Jewish family on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. He had an early love of show tunes, which he began composing soon after he started learning the piano at the age of seven. A child prodigy, he entered Harvard College at the age of 15 where he wrote songs to entertain his friends.

He recorded 37 songs between 1953 and 1965, many of which were considered unfit to be played on the radio at the time. He was considered the epitome of satirical bad taste. But by the 1990s, his first three albums had sold over 1.8 million copies in total. He was particularly popular in Britain during the 1960s, when playing one of his records at a late night party was considered a sure sign of intellectual maturity.

Between 1946 and June 1953, he was a teaching fellow in mathematics as a graduate student at Harvard University. During that time, if you believe the album notes, he “supplemented his meager income by regaling local degenerates with songs of his own devising.” He never received his PhD, and would be a graduate student today “if it wasn’t for those silly rules.”

After spending two years in the army as an enlisted man, in 1957 he returned to academic life. However, having already released his first record, he found he was in demand for engagements in “hot, fetid, smoky, and uncomfortable” nightclubs. At this time he also performed a number of one-man show in concert halls and theaters.

In 1960, after a four-month concert tour of Australia, New Zealand, and Britain, he retired from performing and returned to academic life. Again, he was brought out of musical retirement for NBC’s version of “That Was the Week That Was”, which he thought would be a perfect outlet for his musical work. He has since also appeared in Canada, New Zealand, Germany, Denmark and Norway.

He gave up writing songs in the late 1960s, later saying: “Political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. How do you top that?” But he was coaxed back to do some non-satirical songs for the Children’s Television Workshop, producers of Sesame Street. That was in 1972 for a program called “The Electric Company", which was designed to teach children to read. “It’s always exciting to do something quite different,” he said.

After this brief ‘come back’, he went through a further revival in the 1980s with the launch of the London West End production “Tomfoolery”, a collection of some of his best known songs performed by an all English cast. That show has since gone on to see nearly 200 productions around the world. As a student journalist, I managed to get hold of his home telephone number. Even in the early 1990s, this caused quite a stir with some of my fellow students.

Lehrer hates to give interviews, “unless I’ve got something to plug” and tells journalists: “Make it up, you do that anyway don’t you?” adding: “It’s okay, I won’t sue.” Though he grew up in New York, he has spent most of his life in Cambridge, Massachusetts and by the 1990s had has lived in his house there for over 30 years. If he is still there, it’s 60 years now.

With titles such as “Poisoning Pigeons In The Park”, a song about the joys of spring, he has always appealed to something of a select audience. The New York Times said: “Mr. Lehrer’s muse (is) not fettered by such inhibiting factors as taste” and the London Evening Standard called him “obvious, jejune, and remarkably unsophisticated.” He says he has not been spoiled by this critical acclaim. Indeed, he once remarked: “If, after hearing my songs just one human being is inspired to say something nasty to a friend, or perhaps strike a loved one, it will all have been worth the while.”

Speaking many years ago on BBC Radio 4, Lehrer recalled a performance of a song he wrote about the Boy Scouts called “Be Prepared”: “I sang it in a nightclub and this marine came up afterward, and speaking in his native language, Neanderthal, he said, ‘You shouldn’t make fun of the Boy Scouts, they’re the marines of tomorrow.’ And he was perfectly right.”

Ask his health, and he replies: “Actually this is a recording, I passed away some time ago.” He sounds like the record, and for half a second you believe him. In a 1994 article in Harvard Magazine he said: “The main thing is my mind has deteriorated,” adding “Twenty-two years in California have turned my mind to Jell-O, imitation flavor at that. And my attention span has atrophied. I used to have a long attention span, but it was shot off in the war.”

In October 2020 he placed the music and lyrics for all his songs into the public domain. In November 2022 he formally relinquished the copyright and performing/recording rights on his songs, making them available to download for free use by anyone. At the time he wrote: “This website will be shut down at some date in the not too distant future, so if you want to download anything, don’t wait too long.”