He's been called the J.D. Salinger of song, someone who once stood on the precipice of big-time musical fame, only to walk away.

Even now, as Tom Lehrer gets on the phone to discuss what he insists will absolutely be the last recordings he'll ever release (a retrospective boxed set), he sounds positively joyful that he never allowed himself to become a household word."No, no, I don't do television," Lehrer says he told an ABC News producer who had called the reclusive musician at his Cambridge, Mass., home just the day before.

Trying to change his mind, she chided him, asking when exactly was the last time he had appeared on television.

"I said 1965," he recalls matter-of-factly.

"It's just too nerve-racking," he complains of such exposure. "For one thing, the invasion of privacy is not commensurate with the rewards. Secondly, they'll probably want me to sing a song. And I don't want to convey the idea that I'll ever do that again."

Lehrer emerged as a brilliant song satirist in the early 1950s from the coffeehouses and clubs around Cambridge, where he had arrived 10 years earlier as a precocious 15-year-old Harvard freshman.

He grew up in Manhattan, the son of a successful necktie designer, and recalls an idyllic childhood of Broadway shows, which served as his musical inspiration, and strolls through Central Park at any time of the day or night.

"Oh, yeah. New York was wonderful. I loved it then," he recalls.

At Harvard, he was a boy wonder, earning a degree in mathematics at age 18, then a master's -- and he began to write silly songs to amuse his friends.

The expertly crafted, scathingly sarcastic tunes sounded as if they had been lifted directly from the Broadway stage. They poked fun at the major issues of the day: sex, politics, racism, religion, pollution, political assassinations.

Accompanying himself on piano and singing in a nasal voice he once described as "the greatest baritone to grace the American stage since that of Millard Fillmore," Lehrer would sometimes weave tales of a 1950s Norman Rockwell America gone astray:

"I remember Dan, the druggist on the corner. He was never mean or ornery. He was swell. He killed his mother-in-law and ground her up real well. And sprinkled just a bit, over each banana split. In my hometown."

Or he could be just plain silly. As when he exhorted the Roman Catholic Church, then trying to broaden its appeal by taking Latin out of the Mass, to "really sell the product," with a catchy little ditty for the choir called "The Vatican Rag" -- "Get down on your knees, fiddle with your rosaries. Bow your heads with great respect, and genuflect, genuflect, genuflect."

But by the mid-1960s, Lehrer was gone.

He began teaching math at MIT, leaving behind a legion of fans who never forgot him.

He says now that he was never comfortable appearing in public, never understood "the cult of the performer."

"I enjoyed it up to a point," he says. "But to me, going out and performing the concert every night when it was all available on record would be like a novelist going out and reading his novel every night."

And he was never really obsessed with writing songs either. Indeed, he only recorded about three dozen.

"When I got a funny idea for a song," he says now, "I wrote it. And if I didn't, I didn't. . . . I wasn't like a real writer."

So why was he so good?

"The guy is just a marvelous wordsmith and a pretty good tunesmith, too," says musicologist Barry Hansen, who helped produce the new three-CD boxed set, "The Remains of Tom Lehrer."

"And let's face it," quips Hansen, a k a radio personality Dr. Demento, "a song like 'Poisoning Pigeons in the Park' never really goes out of style."

Lehrer, 72 now and semiretired, knows that firsthand. He still meets college students who discovered him in high school when some social studies teacher -- "trying desperately to be a pal," he suspects -- played a song like "National Brotherhood Week":

"Oh, the Protestants hate the Catholics. And the Catholics hate the Protestants. And the Hindus hate the Muslims. And everybody hates the Jews.

"But during National Brotherhood Week. . . . It's National Everyone-Smile-At-One-Another-Hood Week. . . . It's only for a week, so have no fear. Be grateful that it doesn't last all year."

Sometimes students will seek him out at the University of California, Santa Cruz -- where he teaches math one quarter a year now, mainly to escape the New England winters -- and they expect him to be funny.

"But it's a real math class," he says. "I don't do any funny theorems. So those people go away pretty quickly."

A friendly, self-effacing man, Lehrer dismisses sheepishly the idea that what he did musically was genius.

Oh, he will acknowledge pride in the fact that one of his albums, "An Evening Wasted With Tom Lehrer," was nominated for a Grammy in 1960. But he'll also tell you that while it didn't win, he's prouder still that at least it didn't lose to Alvin and the Chipmunks, who were also nominated that year.

"That would have been too ignominious," he says.

He'll also let on that his last album, 1965's "That Was the Year That Was," earned him a gold record for sales -- 31 years after it was released.

"I think that's a record," he adds with the same deadpan delivery he once used to introduce his songs.

But as for getting up on stage in public again, Lehrer will remain the J.D. Salinger of song.