Tom Lehrer is the most brilliant song satirist ever recorded.
You probably knew that already, but perhaps you didn't know this: His first album, Songs By Tom Lehrer, was one of the most profitable investments in the history of the music business. Recorded for an initial studio cost of $15 (15 dollars - for the entire album) and initially released for sale only on and around the Harvard University campus, Songs By Tom Lehrer went on to sell 370,000 copies on Lehrer's own do-it-yourself label, becoming one of America's biggest-selling - if not the biggest-selling - humorous-music album of the 1950s on any label, large or small.
Lehrer’s career as an entertainer was as brief as it was brilliant. He didn’t become a professional performer until 1952, just before he made his first album. He dropped out of showbiz in 1960, and two years of that eightyear span were spent in the Army. Aside from a very short comeback in the mid-'60s (when he recorded his highest-charting album, That Was The Year That Was), he's spent his time teaching and, by his own account, taking life easy.
Tom Lehrer was born (April 9, 1928) and raised in New York City.
"My father was a tie manufacturer, a big man in the industry. I had a normal childhood, I would say. I took piano lessons; everybody did in those days. I didn't like classical music, though. I would practice the absolute minimum that I had to for my piano lesson, and then I would start picking out popular tunes I'd heard on records, and my parents finally caught on. They didn't have many pop-piano teachers in those days, but my mother, bless her, actually scouted around and finally found me one.“
A precocious student, Lehrer graduated from high school at age 15 and entered Harvard. He soon began writing little songs and parodies for parties and special occasions. (In 1945, at age 17, he wrote "Fight Fiereely, Harvard".) He got his bachelor's degree in mathematics at 18 and remained at Harvard as a graduate student until 1953, except for one year spent at Columbia University.
"The first time I ever sang for anybody, other than at a private party, was when I was in graduate school. They had a quartet singing contest at a law school dance, and four of us entered and sang some of my songs. We were the only entry, so they refused to give us the prize, but we sang anyway! Then we got hired to sing at the Harvard freshman smoker, an annual event where the whole freshman class – all boys in those days - got together to drink beer and throw up. The other three singers went on to other careers after that, but I continued to sing on my own around the campus, at dance intermissions, things like that.“
"My first real public performance was in the fall of 1952, at a nightclub called Alpini's Rendezvous in Boston, for $15 a night. I got a couple of $5 raises, but when I got to $30 they said that was too much, so I quit"
The LP record had recently been introduced, which made it more feasible to record and release an album on one's own than it had been in the days of fragile, cumbersome 78-r.p.m. discs.
"There was a doctor in Boston named Shep Ginandes, who sang folk songs. He made an album of them and issued it privately. I called him up, and he helped me a great deal. I found a studio in Boston, and they set up the recording session plus the LP pressings and the printing of the jackets. I recorded the first album on Januara 22, 1953, all in one session. I think it just took an hour; it might have been a little longer.“
„The whole idea was just to sell it around Harvard. Record stores agreed to take it for $3 and sell it for $3.50, just as a public service to the community. Also, each dormitory at Harvard had a newsstand kind of thing, and they would also sell it, give me $3 and sell it for $3.50. The first 400 copies have my home address at the time on the back: 6 Kirkland Road."
"I began getting orders from college towns around the country. Then I began getting a lot of orders from San Francisco, which I couldn't figure out. It turns out that the music reviewer of the San Francisco Chronicle had devoted a whole column to the record, giving the price and the address."
At Christmastime 1953 Lehrer was booked into the Blue Angel, then one of the top nightclubs in New York. After he talked the city's two largest specialty record stores into carrying the album, which promptly began flying out the doors, several major record labels expressed interest. All of them eventually backed off because of the album's controversial lyrics. Like it or not, Lehrer remained an independent entrepreneur.
"I spoke to Manny Sachs at RCA. He explained that RCA sold refrigerators and other consumer items and wouldn’t want any protests because of something on their record label.“
Radio also shied away from Songs By Tom Lehrer, except for a few FM stations late at night (those were the days when only serious music and hi-fi buffs had FM radios). But those mail orders continued to roll in, more and more each week. Tom eventually set up a downtown office for Lehrer Records and hired assistants to take orders and deal with the pressing plant and the jacket manufacturers. There was another pressing maller, though, that he had to handle personally: the draft.
More Of Tom Lehrer was recorded on July 3, 1959. This time it cost a bit more than $15 - the session was held at RCA's first-class studios in New York. Once again, though, the entire LP was cut in a single session - three hours including playback and editing time.
Lehrer held firm to his decision to abandon the concert hall for the classroom. Did he not enjoy performing, one wonders?
"Oh no, it was fine. I enjoyed high school but I wouldn't want to do that again either. I had a good time, going to new places and meeting new people, but getting out onstage and performing was not all that interesting. I felt like a novelist being asked to read his novel every night. One night I was performing at New York's famous Town Hall. I sang 'Fight Fiercely, Harvard' and I started with the second verse instead of the first, and I thought How am I going to get out of this? So I just stopped, and started again, and got confused again, and finally said, 'Oh, you all know this song anyway. Let's go on to the next one.' It was embarrassing. I hadn't been thinking about the song, but about what I was going to have for dinner afterwards or something. So I thought OK, the time has come."
Tom Lehrer has been comedy’s most celebrated nonperformer ever since. But he has never totally retired. He continues to teach a variety of courses in musical theater and in mathematics at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Despite having turned his back on his songwriting and performing career, he retains a lot of pride and affection for his creations.
Source: Dr. Demento, in the booklet of „Songs & More Songs by Tom Lehrer“.
(Quotes from Tom Lehrer are from an interview contucted with him in August 1996)
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