Lehrer began to study piano at the age of 7. While he was an undergraduate student, majoring in mathematics at Harvard University in the 1950s, he began to write and perform comic and novelty songs to amuse his friends. In 1953, while teaching mathematics, Lehrer self-produced and released his first album, Songs By Tom Lehrer, on his own label Lehrer Records. He soon gained a cult following and toured the US, Europe (especially England), and Australia. After a brief stint in the army (1955-57), Lehrer returned to Harvard to teach and pursue his doctorate. Musically, "Songs By..." was followed by a live album, An Evening Wasted With Tom Lehrer, and a studio album, More Of Tom Lehrer, both released in 1959.
In the 1960s, he wrote songs for the US version of the British satirical TV news program, "That Was the Week That Was", and his satire took on a more political bend, dealing with topics such as racism, religion, war, nuclear proliferation and pollution. His songs were performed by members of the cast, usually with lyrics altered by the network censors. At Lehrer's insistence, an album of songs from the show was released in 1965, That Was The Year That Was (his first in 6 years and his last complete album of new material), with Lehrer performing the songs with their original lyrics, so that the audience could hear them as they were written. In 1996, "That Was The Week That Was" was certified Gold by the RIAA.
Tom Lehrer gave up public performance of his music in the early 1970s except for two performances in 1998 at a London gala show celebrating the career of musical theatre producer Cameron Mackintosh.
In the 1970s, he was approached by his Harvard classmate Joe Raposo, who was the Musical Director for the Children's Television Workshop (Sesame Street, etc.) about contributing some songs to the their new reading education show, "The Electric Company." He agreed and submitted the classics "L-Y" and "Silent-E." In the 1980s, Lehrer gave his blessing and support to a successful musical written for the British stage using his songs, "Tom Foolery". Around this time, Lehrer's music received a rebirth in popularity thanks to a California disc jockey named Barret Hansen, better known as Dr. Demento. He played novelty, comedy, and satirical music on his weekly two hour show.
In 1972, after teaching PolySci at MIT for several years, Lehrer accepted a position teaching mathematics and musical theatre at University of California, Santa Cruz. After 29 years, he taught his last mathematics class at UCSC in 2001. Today he is enjoying retirement in the area around the campus in Santa Cruz.
Tom Lehrer Discography
- 6 Vocals
- 10 Instruments & Performance
- 55 Writing & Arrangement
- 1 Featuring & Presenting
- 3 Production