29 June, 1968
On June 14, LIFE magazine’s Al Aronowitz had hailed Tiny Tim’s debut album God Bless Tiny Tim as “one of the most dazzling albums of programmed entertainment since… Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”
Some claim. Yet it seemed the Fabs agreed. Interviewed on Kenny Everett’s Radio London show on June 6, John Lennon enthused, “Tiny Tim… he’s the greatest ever, man! …the greatest fella on earth!” Paul McCartney added, “It’s a funny joke at first, but it’s not really. It’s real and it’s true.” Sufficiently so, as the month drew to a close, for Tim’s single Tip-Toe Thru’ The Tulips With Me – a falsetto ukulele cover of a wiggy, shy romance tune from 1929 – to reach its highest position of Number 17 on the US charts.
It was an unlikely success story. Born Herbert Khaury in Manhattan to a Lebanese/Polish, Catholic/Jewish family in 1932, he had always been a rare bird with a serious case of the Other. From a young age, sentimental music c.1890-1940 had been his obsession and his escape from a hostile world too lacking in romance, sanctity and good manners for his liking. Spurned, unemployed and written off as an irredeemable eccentric – think a more polite cousin of Ignatius J. Reilly, anti-hero of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy Of Dunces – his encyclopaedic knowledge of vintage American song drew him to the stage. “I had the songs within me,” he later told Newsweek, “and I had to present their goodness to somebody else.”
“Tiny Tim, he’s the greatest ever, man! The greatest fella on earth!”
In 1953 he discovered his piercing upper register; the following year he started wearing his hair long and henna’d, and began covering his face in white pancake make-up. With ukulele in hand, he set out to painstakingly build a legend in the sub-showbiz dives, clubs and lesbian bars of New York, using a variety of monikers. “In this business, originality is the key to success,” he later observed. As was patience.
Signed by Reprise when record man Mo Ostin caught a sparsely attended show at NY club The Scene in July 1967, Tiny started work on his debut LP in Los Angeles that December, with producer friend Richard Perry and musicians from The Wrecking Crew. Released in April, God Bless Tiny Tim sustained a strange and haunting mood that took in antique America, baroque pop and some striking blurrings of personas. Yes, some singers could combine the masculine and feminine, it was said, but who could simultaneously sound like an nonagenarian and a child, or like he was both alive and dead, like Tiny?
“I have a double-jointed throat,” he quipped. He even gave voice to Satan himself on Irving Berlin’s 1914 anti-war song Stay Down Here Where You Belong, sang both parts on a version of I Got You, Babe and turned cowboy on an update of 1902 song Then I’d Be Satisfied With Life that imagined being married to Tuesday Weld (that’s Nico, soon to release The Marble Index, huskily breathing “Tiny, I love you!” at the crucial moment).
And then there was Tip-Toe Thru’ The Tulips. Preconception-warping performances on TV shows, including Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In and The Tonight Show, saw it resonate with hippies, little kids and grand-parents alike: on the latter programme, the scrupulously hygienic singer memorably discussed his strict diet of seeds, honey and raw vegetables. The US was becoming obsessed, a process that also included hate mail. “It was tough,” reflected Tiny in 1994. “[But] that’s the same thing that happened when I had this long hair in ’54 round the neighbourhood… it helped immensely, I don’t have no animosity.”
Riding high, his stages grew bigger. At a June 22 show in Cleveland he sang Like A Rolling Stone in the style of ’30s teen idol Rudy Vallée, and Vallée’s song My Time Is Your Time in the style of Bob Dylan, gaining a standing ovation. In August, he played the Newport Pop Festival with Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead: the same month Elvis and the Colonel sent him a telegram when he performed at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. In September, Tiny even appeared in Charles Schulz’s Peanuts cartoon, and in October he played London’s Royal Albert Hall, backed by an orchestra. “People definitely come for the curiosity value, to see what it’s all about,” Tiny told Melody Maker on that UK visit, adding, “I would never quit. I’m not trying to boast, but I knew success would come.”
After his 1968-69 peak, he stayed true to his art across the next quarter century, but would never have another Top 40 hit. He left the stage after playing a benefit show in Minneapolis on November 30, 1996, suffering a heart attack and collapsing during a closing version of Tip-Toe Thru’ The Tulips With Me. As his wife Susan noted, “the last thing he heard was applause.