The greatest satirical songwriter ever to grace the planet prefers to count his age in Centigrade. In Farenheit, he's 82.
On April 9, 1928, little Thomas Lehrer was born in Manhattan, and...
...began studying classical piano music 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 his own show tunes, which eventually would help him in his future adventures as a satirical composer and writer in his years at lecturing at Harvard University and later at other universities.
I was privileged to see and hear the Master in a living room concert in the early part of 1968. I was nine, and it was a fundraiser for Eugene McCarthy. He sang and played all of his best-known material, and delivered "Whatever Became of You, Hubert?" with an air of great mockery. As a special part of the fundraising, a bottle of French wine labeled "Chateau Maccarthy" and autographed by Lehrer was auctioned off; my father bought it. I wonder where that bottle is now.
In 1951 and 1952 he was part of a musical revue at Harvard University:
In the fall of 1951, the physics course for potential physics concentrators at Harvard, Physics 11A, was taught by Dr. Lewis Branscomb. He told his students that the last class would be a review session for the final exam. Imagine their surprise when they walked into the lecture hall and saw a piano there! (This was Tom Lehrer's upright piano, which he and friends had wheeled down the street from the graduate dormitory, Conant Hall.) Tom Lehrer (then a graduate student in math at Harvard), Dr. Branscomb, and several of Tom's other friends then proceeded to put on a show of songs about physics, math, science, and life at Harvard.
As Dr. Branscomb puts it, the students "were, of course,both surprised and very pleased....after the thunderous applause died down I wished the students good luck on the exam, hoped they would take Physics 11B ... and then sprayed the audience with a CO2 fire extinguisher which made great snow flakes."
Some songs from that show were recorded on a wire recorder, and are now available online:The First Recordings of Tom Lehrer.
In 1953 he took up performing in night clubs and on the Ed Sullivan Show. It was also in 1953 that he took advantage of a new technology, the long playing record, to launch himself on an unsuspecting world (this he did at his own expense).
During the 50's he worked at the Los Alamos scientific laboratory in New Mexico. Despite the fact that many of his songs had been quite critical of the work being done there, he was still able to get security clearance (Joseph Mc Carthy missed this one). In 1955 he joined the army, His reason for joining goes as follows "I figured I'd better do it while there was a hiatus between wars." While in the army he worked for the National Security Agency where he developed vodka Jell-O (my source for this is the Boston Globe January 1, 1984, I am not making it up). This was done as a way to circumvent a restriction on alcoholic beverages on base (Jell-O is not a beverage).
Among other distinctions, Tom Lehrer was apparently the very first self-produced singer-songwriter; his first 10" lp was recorded in 1953 and features great songs like "An Irish Ballad" and "The Old Dope Peddler." I have a copy, of course.
His subsequent album, "An Evening Wasted With Tom Lehrer," was recorded live in concert, and featured gems like "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park," "The Masochism Tango," "The Elements," and his paean to nuclear destruction, "We Will All Go Together When We Go."
In the 1960s he embraced political satire. Many of the songs from that period are specifically topical and hence somewhat dated...but there are true masterpieces included on his album, "That Was the Year That Was." Among the best are "New Math," "The Folk Song Army," "Smut," "Pollution," and "The Vatican Rag."
Lehrer had an advantage over other songwriters, in that writing seemed to come naturally to a mind trained in mathematics.
"I think the construction part, the math, how to say it, the logical mind, the precision, is the same that's involved in math as in lyrics," he says. "And I guess in music too. It's gotta come out right. It's like a puzzle, to write a song. The idea of fitting all the pieces so it exactly comes right, the right word at the end of the sentence, and the rhyme goes there and not there. Mathematicians, as opposed to natural scientists, are so interested in elegance. That's the word you hear in mathematics all the time. 'This proof is elegant!' It doesn't really matter what it proves. 'Look at this -- isn't that amazing!' And it comes out at the end. It's neat. It's not just that it's proof, because there's plenty of proofs that are just boring proofs. But every now and then there's a really elegant proof."
His background in mathematics is perhaps unusual for a man best known as a songwriter...but Lehrer always considered himself primarily a mathematician first.
Lehrer earned his BA degree in mathematics (magna cum laude) from Harvard University in 1947, when he was nineteen. He received his MA degree the next year and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa. He taught classes at MIT, Harvard, and Wellesley.
From 1962, he taught in the political science department at 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 still "hangs out" around the University of California, Santa Cruz.
The American Mathematical Society database lists Lehrer as co-author of two papers:
* RE Fagen & TA Lehrer, Random walks with restraining barrier as applied to the biased binary counter, Journal of the Society for Industrial Applied Mathematics, vol. 6, pp. 1-14 (March 1958) MR0094856
* T Austin, R Fagen, T Lehrer, W Penney, The distribution of the number of locally maximal elements in a random sample, Annals of Mathematical Statistics vol. 28, pp. 786-790 (1957) MR0091251
Many legends have sprung up about this man and why he stopped performing, he himself says he stopped performing because "my stimulus came from humor however grim the humor may have been at the base. I wasn't burning when I wrote these songs. I think I still have the craft to write, but I just don't have the inspiration." Among the rumors that have circulated about his leaving show business is the one I believed myself that he was forced to choose between performing and math, since Harvard was upset by his political songs. There are those who feel that his song "Fight Fiercely, Harvard" caused the administration at Harvard to make him choose between their school and performing (Mr. Lehrer pointed out that "it amazes me that anyone would think a song making fun of the football team was grounds for expulsion.") Other rumors as to why he quit go like this: he was a dope addict, or a communist, or committed suicide (which, if true, would have been grounds for expulsion.)
By the early 1970s, Lehrer had been away from performing for a long time. Barry Hansen, better known as Doctor Demento, tracked him down:
"The outrageousness gets you hooked, but then the perfected songcraft, the wedding of lyric to tune, and the fact that every line has some nice wordplay in it. Never wastes a line. That keeps you coming back," he says.
With the increased exposure Dr. Demento brought, Lehrer's records started selling again. Hansen kept wondering about this man Tom Lehrer. What had happened to him? Nobody had heard from him in years. Where was he? Was he even still alive?
Hansen says he eventually tracked Lehrer down. After the two chatted a couple of times on the phone, they met for dinner at a restaurant in Boston. Both were full of questions. And neither knew what to expect.
"I'll admit I had a little case of butterflies at meeting one of my idols," Hansen says. "He was also very interested in meeting me because I was somebody who was playing his stuff on national radio frequently, and helping prolong the sales of his records. I remember I was nervous enough so that I somehow managed to spill a little bit of butter into my glass of wine. I don't know if he noticed it or not, it was very dark in the restaurant."
In 1981 the Tomfoolery Revue opened in England, featuring four singers performing many of Lehrer's best-and-least-known songs. The producer was Cameron Mackintosh, with whom Lehrer developed a friendship:
In 1998, Lehrer emerged from hibernation to take part in a tribute to Mackintosh called "Hey, Mr. Producer." Performers from each of Mackintosh's musicals were invited to take part, from Judi Dench to Julie Andrews and Bernadette Peters. To everyone's amazement, Lehrer accepted. He flew over to London for the performance, sat at a piano, and sang "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park," and another tune about nuclear bombs called "Who's Next."
"It was a royal gala, so Queen What's-her-name was there," Lehrer recalls. "There was a line for the queen to come around and shake everyone's hand. She wore gloves, of course -- you never know where these actors have been. She came around, 'Nice to see you, thank you for coming.' And Prince Philip comes around afterward, and he also shakes your hand, at a discreet distance, of course, from the queen. And he said, 'Poisoning Pigeons in the Park' gave us a lot of pleasure. We used to play that.' I could just imagine Princess Margaret and Prince Philip sneaking off to listen. I asked Princess Margaret, 'What does Her Majesty think of the record?' And she said, 'Oh no, she thinks it's horrid. She leaves the room when we put it on.'"
It's not commonly known that Lehrer was a marvelous performer of other people's songs as well. He was particularly fond of Noel Coward and Cole Porter's material. Here he appears on David Frost's TV show, performing Noel Coward's "That's The End Of The News":
Lehrer lives in California in semi-seclusion. In 1997 he performed for the 80th birthday celebration of mathematician Irving Kaplansky, presenting songs primarily on mathematical themes, such as "The Derivative Song."
At the same occasion, he performed "The Professor's Song," one of the pieces he'd put together for his very first show, "The Physical Review."
As a long-time Boston/Cambridge resident, Lehrer was also a perspicacious observer of our local culture, and generated the following ditty about the Red Line subway from Cambridge to Boston, called "The Subway Song." He performed it that memorable evening in 1968, and it has rung in my memory ever since:
So...Happy Birthday to the greatest satirical songwriter ever! While it's too bad he's not likely to write any more material, we can always hope that he'll resurface...and meanwhile...
If Sunday you're free, why don't you come with me,
And we'll poison the pigeons in the park?
And maybe we'll do in a squirrel or two,
while we're poisoning pigeons in the park!
We'll murder them all, amid laughter and merriment...