Old Songs, Young Girls
New Bio Portrays Tiny Tim's Life as a Strange Showbiz Fable
By Don Stradley
Tiny Tim is usually written off as a one-hit wonder, but "Tip Toe Thru' the Tulips" could've been followed by any number of songs from his brilliant debut album, including "The Old Front Porch," or "Livin' in the Sunlight, Lovin' in the Moonlight." His volcanic version of "Earth Angel," which he performed on The Ed Sullivan Show with an all-girl backing band called The Enchanted Forest, should've been a hit, too. Still, having only the one success, and the fact that it was the final song he performed before his death at 64, gives Eternal Troubadour: The Improbable Life of Tiny Tim, a touch of melancholy.
There's plenty of detail in Justin Martell's chronicle of Tiny Tim's life, though the reader is advised to seek out the music and give it a listen; this impressive chronicle assumes we know what Tiny Tim sounded like. Martell, described on the flyleaf as "one of the world's foremost experts on Tiny Tim," seems more interested in Tiny's premature ejaculations and his fear of the dark, than why "Tip Toe" connected with listeners in the first place. Still, Tiny Tim's rise and fall is a kind of showbiz fable, and well deserving of a full scale exploration.
Tiny Tim (real name: Herbert Khaury) was a curiosity from the start, standing out in his northern Manhattan neighborhood as a weird boy with a predilection for old-time songs and Shirley Temple movies. His musical interests did little to brighten the days of his overworked, occasionally violent parents. His Lebanese-Catholic father, Butros, once smashed a guitar across Tiny's back. His Polish-Jewish mother, Tillie, called her peculiar son a sissy and said he'd never amount to much.
In 1936, at age four, Tiny discovered the wonders of music when his parents bought a vintage Gramophone. He was mesmerized by a 78-RPM of Henry Burr singing "Beautiful Ohio." By his teens he was immersing himself in the pop songs of the day. "I used to buy four or five new releases a week," he once said. "I even loved the smell of shellac." But it was the music of the 1900s up to the 1920s that most fascinated him. Describing himself as "a vampire sucking the blood of the past," he developed a falsetto singing style, learned his way around a ukulele, memorized hundreds of songs, experimented with stage names ("Dary Dover," "Emmett Swink") and began entering talent shows. He was usually jeered off the stage, but by his late 20s he was performing regularly in Hubert's Museum and Flea Circus on 42nd Street, billed as Larry Love, The Human Canary. His first paid gig was at Page 3, a lesbian bar, where he cleared a measly $96.00 after playing nearly every night of the month.
He tried other jobs, failing at the simplest of them. He'd either be fired for incompetence, or get himself canned by going to sing somewhere when he was supposed to be working. The call of the stage was too strong. He was born to entertain, and entertain he did, through several decades of troubled marriages and shady managers. By his mid thirties he was a Greenwich Village mascot, earning the admiration of such heavyweights as Lenny Bruce and Bob Dylan. Then came the hit single, landmark appearances on Laugh-In, and then, in a moment of pop culture overkill, his marriage on The Tonight Show to a 17-year-old girl. The episode set a ratings record that would last nearly a quarter century. But Tiny Tim, prudish, chauvinistic, anti-abortion and pro-war, was nothing like the hippies and fringe characters who jumped on his bandwagon. It was only a matter of time before he was sniffed out.
Martell, an independent filmmaker and writer, does a marvelous job recreating the glory years of 1968-70, when Tiny Tim even appeared as the subject of a board game. The press glowered and grimaced, but at times Tiny Tim showed himself to be not just a novelty act, but a strangely charismatic performer with an encyclopedic knowledge of vintage songs. There was his debut album, God Bless Tiny Tim, compared favorably by some critics to The Beatles' Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, plus his memorable appearance with Bing Crosby on Hollywood Palace where he stood his ground and swapped tunes with the master of crooning. There was his surprise performance at the 1970 Isle of Wight festival where, on a bill with the likes of Jimi Hendrix and The Doors, he provided a show highlight by using a megaphone to sing "There Will Always Be An England."
And, of course, there was the tumultuous marriage to the legendary Miss Vickie, a teenage girl he met at an autograph signing. Their wedding ceremony on The Tonight Show may have been the height of Tiny Tim's celebrity, but it was also the beginning of his downfall. Where he'd once seemed like a harmless curiosity, he now seemed like a guy willing to do anything for fame. A few years later, after Tiny's ridiculous performance of "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy," Johnny Carson stopped inviting him on the show. By then, Tiny was already old news.
Still, there were signs that Tiny Tim was always on the verge of a comeback, first as a sort of musical savant, entering the Guinness Book of World Records in 1979 with a marathon performance at Australia's Luna Park, then in the 1990s as a regular guest on The Howard Stern Show. There was also a surprising late career surge of creativity, including Prisoner of Love, a collection of old Russ Columbo tunes that he'd wanted to record for years. (If you need proof of Tiny's talent as an interpreter of songs, his version of "Sweet and Lovely" is an absolute killer.) There were down times, where Tiny Tim shuffled through endless tour dates, playing everywhere from circus tents to Spooky World, but even as his health faltered and audiences dwindled, he was living the troubadour's dream.
Martell gives us Tiny Tim in all of his moods and colors. He shows us a man who was strange in his habits, at times unpleasant, out of touch with reality; most psychologists would diagnose him as paranoid, and depressed. But Martell also sees Tiny Tim as a kind of heroic figure, one who showed us "the depths of exploitation inherit in the media, the exhausting and cutthroat world of entertainment, the pressures of fame, the struggles of marriage, and how lonely it can be to be different." Tiny Tim, he writes, "took the heat as the original freak."
"It used to give me some kind of pleasure when people got angry," Tiny once said of the abuse he endured during his early days, which included physical attacks. "It was thrilling to me to expose the underpinnings of their hearts."
Martell's research into Tiny's life was Herculean. Not only did he conduct hundreds of interviews, but he had access to Tiny Tim's diaries, which reveal an often morose man. A maniacally devout Christian, Tiny spoke daily to Jesus, thanking him for his successes, and shaming himself for his sinful acts, which at one time included a dalliance with a 14-year-old neighbor boy. Usually, Tiny wrote about the lovely young women he encountered, teens mostly; he handed out special trophies to his favorites, and dreamed of a special land where he could live with a beautiful princess and never grow old.
Some of the best incites come from Tiny's third wife, the long suffering Miss Sue. Though a bit of a hypochondriac in her own right, she was possibly the only decent, intelligent person in Tiny's life. She's especially compelling when she addresses the effeminate mannerisms that often baffled Tiny's critics, describing them as, not feminine, but childlike: "He simply found childlike mannerisms to be sexy. He was attracted to young, teenage girls, and his imitation of the personalities of the young girls he loved was reassuring to them, as he well knew."
Still, it's Tiny Tim who gives the most poignant line about the weight and brevity of his career, with a comment he gave to TV Guide at the height of his popularity: "If I fell down today," he said, "I could always say that at one time in my life, I stunned them all."
And when the madness stopped, he carried on, as if the fumes of the tulip song were powerful enough to guarantee another 27 years of gigs and recordings, until the sad day in 1996 when he was too sick to finish a show at a Minneapolis women's club, and the bum heart that had been failing for a while finally gave out. You can say he died doing what he loved, but he would've probably preferred to be playing on The Ed Sullivan Show, dying before the cameras, blowing a final kiss to the wonderful people out there, the people who still smile when they hear his name now, because they remember a unique entertainer, a hairy misfit who belted out the old tunes and gave them a last gasp of life in the most unlikely of eras: the surreal late '60s.
That's why, despite some minor flaws, this biography of Tiny Tim is one of the most useful publications of the past year, and well worth reading.