Lehrer, Tom (Contemporary Musicians)
"When Tom Lehrer's songs first surfaced in the 1950s, they seemed the last word in witty naughtiness," critic Frank Rich declared in the New York Times. The singer-songwriter has gifted audiences with famed novelty hits such as "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park," "The Masochism Tango," and the controversial "Vatican Rag." Despite the fact that Lehrer more or less retired from performing in the mid-1960s, he experienced a resurgence in popularity during the late 1970s and early 1980s primarily due to the efforts of nationally syndicated novelty disc jockey Dr. Demento. This new exposure for Lehrer's classics led to the adaptation of his work for an extremely successful stage review, "Tomfoolery."
Born Thomas Andrew Lehrer on April 9, 1928, in New York, New York, he took piano lessons from the age of eight. His parents decreed that he would focus solely on classical music, but he developed a taste for theater musicals in spite of this. But Lehrer also had more serious interests; he earned his bachelor's degree in mathematics from Harvard University by the time he was 18 and his master's degree, from the same institution, followed when he was 19. Nevertheless, Lehrer found time during his years at Harvard to amuse himself and his friends with his satirical songs. One of them, a sports fight song poking fun at his alma mater's upper-class reputation called "Fight Fiercely, Harvard," he eventually recorded.
Lehrer continued his education, completing everything towards his doctorate except the dissertation, and became a lecturer. He also spent time working for the Atomic Energy Commission at Los Alamos, and for Baird-Atomic, Inc. But he was unable to abandon his musical interests, and wrote clues in song form for a television quiz show in 1951. About the same time, friends began encouraging him to record his musical satires. Though the record companies Lehrer tried were not receptive, his acquaintances continued to egg him on, and he produced and recorded his first album independently.
From Mathematics to Music
The result, aptly titled Songs by Tom Lehrer, included spoofs on such varied subjects as the American SouthI Wanna Go Back to Dixie"aded love affairsI Hold Your Hand in Mine," and the Boy ScoutsBe Prepared." Another of the tracks, "The Hunting Song," chronicles the misadventures of a sportsman who manages to kill everything in the area except the deer he sought. Yet another, "The Old Dope Peddler," Lehrer has conceded to be somewhat politically incorrect now that over thirty years have passed since its composition, but he originally intended it as a parody of nostalgic songs. With such content, Songs by Tom Lehrer quickly made a market for itself by word of mouth. It also brought about a demand for performance, and Lehrer made his professional singing debut at a nightclub called the Blue Angel in New York City. From this well-received start, he went on to play in clubs in Boston, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.
After a two-year hitch in the U.S. Army during the mid-1950s, Lehrer resumed his satiric musical efforts. He prepared new songs, and recorded a live performance of them in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for an album called An Evening Wasted With Tom Lehrer. Typical samplings from this disc include titles such as "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park" and the playfully kinky "Masochism Tango."
Also on the album are "The Elements," which celebrates the atomic periodic table to the tune of Gilbert and Sullivan's "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General"; and "We Will All Go Together When We Go," which points out the advantage of nuclear waro one is left to grieve over loved ones. Lehrer recorded a studio version of these songs, called More of Tom Lehrer, in addition to a live version of his first album entitled Tom Lehrer Revisited, but neither of these is now available in the United States. Then, shortly after the release of An Evening Wasted With Tom Lehrer, the songwriter dropped from public view for a time, furthering his career as a mathematics lecturer.
Lehrer resurfaced in 1964 and began writing tunes for a television news satire program, That Was the Week That Was. Though Lehrer did not perform on the show, he used some of his creations for it in a concert at the legendary hungry i club in San Francisco. The concert was recorded and became That Was the Year That Was. Lehrer's sense of satire was as apt as ever in cuts such as "National Brotherhood Week," which mocks hypocrisy about racism, and "Wernher von Braun," concerning the divorce of science and ethics.
But Lehrer found himself in the midst of controversy for "The Vatican Rag," a song that makes light of Roman Catholic ritual. Priests, ministers, and school boards called for the banning of Lehrer's record, but the composer contended that he had not intended to offend the religion, though he did confess to taking aim at the religion's ritual. Lehrer answered charges of sacrilege by arguing that war songs that imply that God favors one side killing another seem much more sacrilegious to him.
After the controversy died down Lehrer again retired to concentrate on teaching. He teaches at the University of California at Santa Cruz during half the year, and maintains a residence in Cambridge during the other half. During the 1970s, he contributed songs to the children's educational television program The Electric Company. In addition to instructing students in mathematics, Lehrer introduced a course in stage musicals. He inadvertently became popular again, however, when disc jockey Dr. Demento's nationally syndicated radio novelty show introduced his work to a whole new generation of listeners.
Coupling that phenomenon with Lehrer's own explanation in the Washington Post that completely original musical theater productions were on the decline may explain the fact that in 1980 Cameron Mackintosh and Robin Ray adapted much of Lehrer's repertoire into a musical revue, "Tomfoolery." Citing revues of other songwriters' works, such as those of Duke Ellington and Jacques Bret, Lehrer joked: "It was inevitable .. . that someone would peer into the almost empty barrel and notice me down there." Variety called "Tomfoolery" "a charming and witty revival" of a "special brand of lunacy."
The showuccessful on both the West End and offBroadwayrovoked speculation on whether Lehrer would take up his piano again. Reports varied; Newsweek quoted him as saying: "I don't want to perform, I have no desire for anonymous affection." Gail Jennes in People claimed, however, that "Lehrer has no trouble with the thought of performing again." Whatever the case, satire is doubtfule told Jennes that his "mind doesn't run that way anymore."
Songs by Tom Lehrer (includes "The Irish Ballad," "The Wiener Schnitzel Waltz," "Be Prepared," "I Wanna Go Back to Dixie," "The Hunting Song," "My Home Town," "I Hold Your Hand in Mine," and "The Old Dope Peddler"), Reprise, 1953.
An Evening Wasted With Tom Lehrer (includes "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park," "The Masochism Tango," "A Christmas Carol," "The Elements," "She's My Girl," and "We Will All Go Together When We Go"), Reprise, 1959.
More of Tom Lehrer, Decca, 1959.
Tom Lehrer Revisited, Decca, 1960.
That Was the Year That Was (includes "National Brotherhood Week," "Smut," "So Long Mom: A Song for World War III," "Wernher von Braun," and "The Vatican Rag"), Warner Bros., 1965.
(With others) Dr. Demento Presents the Greatest Novelty Records of All Time, Rhino Records, 1986.
Esquire, February 1986.
Newsweek, November 23, 1981.
New York Times, December 15, 1981.
People, January 11, 1982.
Variety, June 18, 1980.
Washington Post, January 3, 1982.
Washington Post Book World, December 12, 1981.