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Tom Lehrer

Tom Lehrer in 1960.
Tom Lehrer in 1960.

Thomas Andrew (Tom) Lehrer (born April 9, 1928) is an American songwriter, satirist, pianist, mathematician, and singer.

As a graduate student at Harvard University, he began to write comic songs to entertain his friends. Those songs later became The Physical Revue. Influenced mainly by the musical theater, his style consisted of parodying the then-current forms of popular song. For example, his appreciation of list songs ( la Danny Kaye's "Stanislavski") caused him to set the names of the chemical elements to the tune of Gilbert and Sullivan's "Major General's Song".

Inspired by the success of his performances of his songs, he paid for some studio time to record an album, Songs by Tom Lehrer, which he sold by mail order. Self-published and unpromoted, the album, which included the macabre ("I Hold Your Hand In Mine"), the lewd ("Be Prepared"), and the mathematical ("Lobachevsky"), became a success via word of mouth. With a cult hit, he embarked on a series of concert tours and released a second album, which came in two versions: More Songs by Tom Lehrer was studio-recorded, and An Evening Wasted With Tom Lehrer was recorded live in concert.

By the early 1960s Lehrer had retired from touring (which he intensely disliked) and was employed as the resident songwriter for That Was The Week That Was, a satirical TV show. An increased proportion of his output became overtly political, or at least topical, on subjects such as pollution ("Pollution"), Vatican II ("The Vatican Rag"), race relations ("National Brotherhood Week"), and nuclear proliferation ("Who's Next?"). He also wrote a song which satirized the amorality of Wernher von Braun. A selection of these songs was released in the album That Was The Year That Was.

There is an urban legend that Lehrer gave up political satire when the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Henry Kissinger in 1973. He did say that the awarding of the prize to Kissinger made political satire obsolete, but has denied that he stopped doing satire as a form of protest, and points out that he had stopped doing satire several years earlier.

In the 1970s he concentrated on teaching mathematics and musical theater, although he also wrote the occasional educational song for the children's television show The Electric Company. In the early 1980s, Tomfoolery, a revival of his songs on the London stage, was a surprise hit. Although not its instigator, Lehrer eventually gave it his full support and updated several of his lyrics for the production.

In 2000, a CD box set, The Remains of Tom Lehrer, was released by Rhino Entertainment. It included live and studio versions of his first two albums, That Was The Year That Was, the songs he wrote for The Electric Company, and some previously unreleased material, accompanied by a booklet containing an introduction by Dr. Demento and lyrics to all the songs.

Lehrer's influence on rock music

While Lehrer hated rock and roll —referring to it as "children's records" in the intro to "Oedipus Rex"— his literate satiric style clearly influenced Frank Zappa.

Fans of rapper Eminem have also noted some similarities in Em's style to that of Lehrer. The style comparison is best evidenced on Eminem's South Park parody "The Kids" with its piano backing, clever use of syntax and off-beat rhyming, and even references to torturing small animals similar to that of Lehrer's notorious "Poisoning Pigeons In The Park".

Reviews selected by Lehrer for his liner notes

External links

Last updated: 07-30-2005 00:00:41
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