Tom Lehrer's father was a tie manufacturer and led a normal childhood by his own admission. He took piano lessons but didn't like classical music. After completing his lessons, he would start picking out popular tunes he had heard on records, so his mother soon found him a piano teacher that could teach popular music. His parents often took him to Broadway shows where he saw Danny Kaye perform. Aside from the inspiration he received from Danny Kaye, it was the songs of Sylvia Fine that made a lasting impression.
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 Fiercely, Harvard," the earliest composition that appears on his recordings. 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. Lehrer's first public performance was in the fall of 1952, at a nightclub called Alpini's Rendezvous in Boston, for $15 a night.
Lehrer was able to get a great deal with a recording studio in Boston, where he set up a recording session plus the LP pressings and the printing of the jackets. He recorded his first album on January 22, 1953, all in one session. The session took little more that an hour and cost $15. The album was sold in the local record stores and Harvard dormitories for $3.50. Since the first 400 copies had his home address on the back, he soon began getting orders from college towns around the country. Several major record labels expressed an interest in his work, but all were afraid to be associated with Lehrer's controversial lyrics. Lehrer's songs were also avoided by most radio stations, but the mail orders continued to grow. He 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.
After a two year stint in the army (January 1955 to January 1957), he began working on new material. More Of Tom Lehrer was recorded on July 8, 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.
In 1960, Lehrer recorded four songs with a full orchestra. "Poisoning Pigeons In The Park" and "The Masochism Tango" were released shortly afterward as a single on Unicorn's Capricorn label while the other two songs were never released at that time.
Except for that 1965-66 burst of activity when he recorded "That Was The Year...," Tom Lehrer has been comedy's most celebrated nonperformer ever since. Of all the artists ever heard on the Dr. Demento Show, only "Weird Al" Yankovic gets more requests than Tom Lehrer. Meanwhile, theatergoers have been reintroduced to his work by the revue Tomfoolery, produced by British impresario Cameron Mackintosh in 1980 and since presented in most of the world's larger English-speaking cities.
Lehrer 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.