If you must be a musical completist, it's refreshingly simple and economical to be a Tom Lehrer fan. As Dr. Demento observes in the copious hardbound notes that accompany this three-CD set, the entire recorded "Lehrer canon" comes to around 50 songs. Except for a ditty he composed for Rod Taylor to sing in the 1963 film A Gathering of Eagles, and perhaps a few other odds and ends, you'll find all of his works, often in more than one version, conveniently packaged here. This definitive collection, the cover of which depicts a Lehrerian Dead Sea Scroll, is not much less precious than such a document if, like me, you're one of those children of the '60s in whom Lehrer inspired the ambition to grow up to be a snide, above-it-all wise-ass.
Born in Manhattan in 1928, the son of a prosperous Jewish necktie manufacturer, Lehrer grew up listening to Gilbert and Sullivan and radio comedy, and idolizing Danny Kaye. He was encouraged to pursue the piano by his mother, but it was at mathematics that he proved a near-prodigy -- he was in Harvard at the age of 15, and two years later wrote "Fight Fiercely, Harvard," an Ivy Leaguer's football fight song ("Come on, chaps, fight for Hah-vahd's glorious name/Won't it be peachy if we win the game?").
By the early '50s, Lehrer had compiled enough comic tunes, which he played at freshman "smokers" and occasional nightclub dates, for an album, so he self-produced one, titled simply Songs by Tom Lehrer, in 1953. The 12 songs on it were parodies of popular genres, some of them topical, like "I Wanna Go Back to Dixie" (Stephen Foster à la the KKK), others, like "I Hold Your Hand in Mine" or "The Irish Ballad," touched with gleefully sophomoric sick humor.
More of Tom Lehrer, 11 new songs including the great nuclear-age revival-tent song "We Will All Go Together When We Go" and "The Masochism Tango," followed in 1959. Tom Lehrer Revisited and An Evening Wasted With Tom Lehrer, concert albums of the material from both previous collections, interspersed with Lehrer's wry spoken introductions, were released in '59 and '60, respectively.
In 1964, Lehrer wrote a number of tunes for NBC's pioneering topical-comedy show That Was the Week That Was; and the following year Warner/Reprise released That Was the Year That Was, a live LP of Lehrer performing some of this material before a howling audience in San Francisco. The most notorious of these tunes, probably, was "The Vatican Rag," composed in the wake of the Second Ecumenical Council in Rome: "First you get down on your knees/Fiddle with your rosaries/Bow your head with great respect/And, genu-flect, genu-flect, genu-flect . . ."
Lehrer gave up live performing, which had only ever been a sideline to his main profession as a teacher, in 1967. He didn't stop writing music, however -- the real prizes on this collection, for the Lehrer fanatic, are several previously uncollected cuts, including four tunes written for The Electric Company, a '70s-era Children's Television Workshop show. These delightful songs include the klezmerish "L-Y," the breezy "Silent E" ("He turned a dam -- ali-kazam! -- into a dame/But my friend Sam just stayed the same . . ."), and "O-U," the tune of which Lehrer filched from "Caro Nome" in Rigoletto.
The revelation is how well all of Lehrer's stuff holds up, musically and lyrically; even where the topical content has dated, it's still a pleasure to listen to for its own sake.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.