Saturday, May 18, 2024

Tiny Tim – The Prisoner of Love

In the rather overpopulated world of what is broadly described as ‘outsider music’, it’s true to say there are one or two frauds, or at least those who have been shoehorned in. Are The Shaggs outsiders? Perhaps it was challenging or even outrageous to insist your clearly tone-deaf daughters perform for the masses – of course, now, Britain’s Got Talent and X Factor do it on a weekly basis, though in an entirely joyless way. Legendary Stardust Cowboy records songs many would never consider releasing but in that sense he’s no more an outsider than Captain Beefheart or Frank Zappa – themselves considered outsiders but with healthy record sales and huge followings.

There are others, of course. Of particular prominence are Wild Man Fischer and Wesley Willis. Here, we’re on far firmer footing, their recordings an avalanche of oddness, engaging and repellant in equal measure. There is one abiding factor here – they both suffered from significant mental illness. Coherent and indeed savvy enough to record and perform but haunted by inner turmoil, there is an element of car-crash voyeurism – is it right to listen and enjoy their output or is this no more than a modern-day freakshow? I consider their output completely valid but to hit upon mental illness as a qualifier for being an outsider is troubling. And so it goes on. But looming over all the challengers, swooping like a perverse bird of prey, there is only one. There WAS only ever one. There will never be another.

The ebullient troubadour, Herbert Buckingham Khaury, renamed Tiny Tim in the early sixties was a man born utterly out of sync with the world around him. Channelling the spirits of long-dead singers and delivering their songs in an alarming vibrato falsetto, there was no other performer who looked like him or sounded like him. A physical giant of a man, comfortably over six foot and an ungainly combination of gangliness and puppeteer-operated scuttling, it was his appearance that startled from the off. His face, an eye-widening confusion of funeral parlour pallor, milk bottle teeth, Jimmy Durante-sized nose, plus long, acrylic-like black hair were themselves trademarkable. Once seen, never forgotten. It was inconceivable Tiny could have been a singer…or an actor…indeed, it was difficult to imagine what niche in society he filled.

And therein lies the rub. As the son of a staunch Catholic Lebanese immigrant (Butros Hanna Khaury) and Jewish mother (Tillie), he followed the line of many comedians, singers and actors in New York and used what many would perceive as stumbling blocks as an escape route. The nightclubs of New York City were his springboard to an unlikely mainstream. Even from the age of 12, there was enough to intrigue an audience. The falsetto was affected – his ability to use it was through choice, though what you might call his ‘normal’ singing voice was just as arresting. His choice of instrument was the ukulele, partly because it lends itself to songs of a different era, partly, one suspects, as it looked so bizarre size-wise, tucked under his arm like an afterthought.
To quote Tiny himself:

“The style sounded like I look. What good would it do if I sounded like Sinatra? People
would look at me and look at him and choose him”.

Indeed, his ‘look’ got him noticed but when he performed, this became secondary. Tiny’s voice is utterly unique, a shrill but note-perfect stiletto to the ears. His choice of material was almost exclusively from the late 19th and early 20th century and his knowledge of the songs and photographic recall of when they were written and by whom, was not an act but pure passion and reverence. Tiny’s obsessions would follow him throughout his life – an almost venomous Catholic guilt about sex, multiple showers every day and a stifling, religious zealousness that is exhausting just to watch during interviews.

Tiny played many of New York’s clubs – pivotal was Wavy Gravy’s Phantom Cabaret (interestingly, alongside another of New York’s difficult-to-pigeonhole geniuses, Moondog) and becoming resident at ultra-hip discotheque, The Scene, around 1966, Tiny caught the attention of many a famous face passing through – Jimi Hendrix, Donovan, Allen Ginsberg, Janis Joplin et al. Even more unlikely were his run-ins with The Beatles, particularly John Lennon. The bond between Tiny and the band was strong enough that he would record a cover of “Nowhere Man” for one of The Beatles’ fan club Christmas singles. Top of the heap though has to be impressing that most redoubtable curmudgeon, Frank Sinatra, spotting money in a minefield, signed Tiny to his label, Reprise.

TINY ON TV

Inevitably, Tiny did break out of the clubs of Greenwich Village and his rise was meteoric. Appearing on the biggest TV shows of the day; Jackie Gleason, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, Ed Sullivan, Johnny Carson, it seemed everyone was in on the joke. Here was a guy who looked weird and sounded weird. Tiny was clearly intelligent, in his many interviews he is always lucid and forthcoming but can anyone be willing to be laughed AT for a sustained period of time without cracking? He certainly seemed the real deal – his love of early crooners and songs of a lost age seemed so fervent that if the public’s ridicule of him was the price that had to be paid in order to keep the songs alive, then that’s the way it had to be. A youthful-looking Tiny appeared in a pilot of the TV show ‘Ironside’ – one member of the show’s audience has a telling line:

“It’s just nonsense but it doesn’t pretend to be anything but nonsense”.

To perform, for money, in front of any paying audience is indeed nonsense. Whether it’s considered high art or lowbrow schlock, the act of getting on stage and moving or making a noise for reward is inherently absurd. Is there actually anything more ridiculous about Tiny playing songs from Tin Pan Alley as a means of keeping alive old thoughts and values, than Laurence Olivier reading out words written by someone 500 years before? Must one have more value than another for any good reason?

Tiny always appeared at ease on camera – or, at least, with equal unease about appearing on stage. His act was mostly manufactured coy campness, coupled with his awkward physical presence which generally led to, at the very least, gentle ribbing from whichever host had to deal with him. By 1968, Tiny had both a massive hit single and album; “Tip-toe Through the Tulips” and “God Bless Tiny Tim” respectively. “Tip-toe’s” success was staggering, conservatively 200,000 copies were sold in the United States alone. This was matched by his earnings, around $7,500 per show.

The comfort of the vaguely familiar struck a chord with America and there were no limits to how far the demand for Tiny spread. When it was announced in 1969 that Tiny was to wed a 17-year-old fan, Vicky Budinger, 29 years his junior, it’s fair to say there was considerable interest. The 45 million people (85% of the TV-watching audience) witnessed Tiny exchanging vows amidst 10,000 imported tulips on Johnny Carson’s ‘Tonight’ show was a record. The peculiar thing about the spectacle is that it’s surprisingly subdued; any humour comes largely from Tiny (when asked if he’s ever drunk champagne before he replies that “he may have had a bottle once” – he and his bride instead sip on milk and honey). Carson himself is a paragon of virtue, not rising, as other hosts were fond of, to ridicule or self-aggrandisement.

Tiny serenades his bride, firstly with what appears to be a rare example of a self-written song on the autoharp, and then, of course, on the uke. Tiny concludes by thanking those who’ve helped arrange his special day, including the outfits (and what outfits!) and the hairdos. Miss Vicki, as she would be known, looks terrified throughout. Another guest on the show, Phyllis Diller, looks ready to call her agent.

God Bless Tiny Tim
Tiny’s debut album is truly a wonderful thing. So outrageously a product of the sixties and yet still as fresh and uplifting as the day it was released. The opening lines of the lead track ‘Welcome to my Dream’, sung a cappella, is as spine-tingling an opening as there is to any album:

“Welcome to my dream.
And how are you?
Will you be here long?
Or just passing through?”

The album is a compromise – the songs of the early 20th century, so beloved of Tiny, treated to the studio techniques of the psychedelic, so as to dampen the blow of the weird for the mass market.

The affectations that Tiny would carry with him throughout his career are here – duetting with himself (both male and female voices, most significantly on Sonny and Cher’s “I’ve Got You, Babe”), introductions and asides before, after and even during tracks and, of course, an astonishing exuberance that invites only affection and happiness in all but those most stoney of heart. The arrangements by Artie Butler (‘What a Wonderful World’ and ‘Copacabana’ are his) are swish and tailor-made for the froth-hungry audience. The songs stand up brilliantly, already, for the most part, fifty years out of fashion. Contemporary songs include ‘The Other Side’ with its weirdly prophetic refrain of “the ice caps are melting!” It’s hippy dribbling of the highest order but in Tiny’s hands, a catchy, arresting and slightly troubling standout.

It was difficult to believe Tiny Tim could be any more famous – indeed, this was exactly what the Gods decreed. There had never been anything like Tiny before, an artist of utter conviction but with no desire for the trappings of fame or wealth, only to please and parade the songs of his long-dead saints. For an act so perversely left-field to have sprung from the clubs of New York and found such rapid fame through the medium of television was revelatory, though now something utterly expected, and indeed demanded. The Summer of Love was now already two years distant and the underdog-championing hippy armies had started to disperse. Naysayers had always been as rife as his followers and were already braying that he had long outstayed his welcome.

Tiny’s second album (naturally titled, ‘Tiny’s 2nd Album’) was a straight follow-up to his debut but lacks the surprise and boisterousness. The bizarre cover pictures him with his elderly mother and father. Reprise was clearly struggling to work out where to pitch him and was relying heavily on the goodwill of the masses to buy blindly. It led to his last major TV appearance, alongside his hero, Bing Crosby, whom he insisted on referring to as “Mr Bing”, throughout the show. In England, his star was still shining brightly, but not for much longer. A sell-out show at the Albert Hall conjured a rare coming together of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, both bands in attendance.

His third album truly signalled his label’s ‘get the hell out of here’ intent, ‘For All My Little Friends’, a children’s album, at least had a slant to it, indeed it narrowly missed out on winning a Grammy. A Monkees-style Saturday morning TV show centred around Tiny, was conceived but with managers pulling one way, the studios another and Tiny all at sea, it never happened. If only all Tiny had to contend with was a baffling style. Despite his often dishevelled and hap-hazard dress sense, Tiny was obsessed…with pretty much everything. The constant washing of his skin and the application of a myriad of potions and ointments were feverish, and his quickly accumulated fortune was spent on the frippery of cosmetics and expensive food. His latching onto strangers went from cordial to infatuation overnight. He was terrified that his actions were regularly bordering on sin and despite his adoration of women as creatures to be worshipped, he couldn’t even bring himself to say ‘sex’ out loud, spelling it out, letter by letter.

Miss Vicki did have a child with Tiny – perhaps inevitably called Tulip, in 1972. Miss Vicki left Tiny that year, though only divorced him five years later. Tiny claimed he didn’t believe in divorce and it had been the State that divorced Miss Vicki, not he. He said he would sooner marry 100 times than commit sin outside. The acts of ‘sin’ and Tiny are as fascinating as they are baffling. That he had a child is in some respects surprising in itself, his obsession but apparent repulsion of sex was evident throughout his life. All the more remarkable then that he would put himself in positions of extraordinary probing, if you pardon the phrase, by some of the counterculture’s leading muck-rakers.

Tiny was interviewed by Al Goldstein for the notorious Midnight Blue cable show in the late seventies. Al, a man whose snout was always in the gutter, had little interest in Tiny’s musical career, only in how a guy who couldn’t get arrested and now looked even more bizarre than when he started out, could get laid. Tiny was either too polite to dodge the questions or secretly enjoyed the ride. When introduced, he profusely thanks “Mr Goldstein” and in response to the understandable question, “Why are you here?” responds thus: “Because I was asked”

Tiny’s star was by this stage little more than a flickering candle but the desire to perform and please just wouldn’t leave him.
He goes on to explain there is essentially no difference to being on Midnight Blue as there was to being on “Mr Carson’s show” as everyone was a sinner in the eyes of the Lord. Goldstein, without missing a beat, asks him if he masturbates.
Unfortunately, yes…(filling me with) shame entirely

Tiny never says the word masturbation, of course, simply referring to it as “those things”. The interviewing continues, moving on to cunnilingus.

“Can you remember what a girl tastes like?”
“Not really, as it was covered in honey and peanut butter”

It’s a little cringeworthy, a little depressing and of course, unintentionally hilarious. There then comes the revelation that Tiny uses prostitutes but “Only to give them pleasure…I never released myself”. He talks of massaging and undressing but never sex itself as he would be “weak as water”. Not that he wasn’t aroused.

“One time (after they’d showered together) I was still aroused and told her not to touch me and she wondered what was going on…so I took out the ukulele and played a few numbers”

“She was afraid you were going to use the ukulele on her?!”

“No! The closest I ever came to doing that was using drumsticks…”

There’s certainly an air of Tiny ‘getting off’ on the conversation and, of course, this is fuelled by the gassy goading of Goldstein. The motives are mixed and it’s clear Tiny is there as he still considers himself the everyman entertainer, the conduit to his dead heroes. As such he had a duty to do whatever was necessary. Even away from the cameras and microphones, Tiny behaved in ways most unexpected. At his very lowest ebb, virtually penniless in terms of assets, living in shabby accommodation in the most down of downtown New York districts, he would return home from gigs and distribute $20 bills to the down and outs begging near his building: “Everyone needs to live”.

Tiny continued to work, his star hadn’t now just dimmed, it had been packed away with the Christmas decorations and forgotten about. He played tiny clubs in the middle of Nowhere’s surrounding hamlets, motels and ukulele conventions. By the mid-80s, and there’s no way of saying this without the mind-boggling, he had joined The Great American Circus: he followed the pony act, anecdotally, to rapturous applause. Tiny himself was thrilled – to quote, “If I have another hit record, I’m on top for another 20 years!”.

This seems extraordinary. Fully 20 years since his ONLY hit single, Tiny was still of the mind that the next was imminent. Of course the audiences, usually one suspects to applause and the hushed chattering of “Ooh, isn’t that, ooh, y’know, he used to be famous…” lapped up his almost endless shows of medleys people grew up with with‘…Tulips’ wheeled out night after night (and day after day – Tiny’s enthusiasm knew no bounds). As a testament to his memory, Tiny also broke the world non-stop singing record in Brighton.

Physically, he was still recognisable as the same Tiny most of America had watched two decades previously. His hair was now dyed, though despite the effort he put in, not lavishly:

“I wash it every day. I use a shampoo called Emulsified Coconut Oil Shampoo which is out
of the 40s. Only a special dealer can get it for me out of New York. I use Wella Balsam's
rinse and colour it with Clairol’s shade 81, redwood brown, about every ten days. My real
hair color is somewhere between brown and black”

The effect was akin to reddening it with wax crayons…with his eyes shut. He never was Tiny but now he was certainly out of shape:

“I love to eat. number 1 is pizza, number 2 is Chinese food, number 3 is popcorn. I buy big jars of Prego spaghetti sauce and drink it all right up out of the jar. And, I like Ronzoni tomato sauce because it has seeds in it. I love to chew the seeds.”

Tiny married twice more, firstly to Miss Jan in Las Vegas in 1984. They lived apart for the majority of the ten years they were wed, seriously considering divorce within the first year. He accused her of cheating on him repeatedly, though he was no saint, discussing with wild candour how he had fallen for a 15-year-old girl in San Francisco, with the full blessing of her father – Tiny’s manager was quick to intervene. Miss Jan was particularly exploitative of Tiny’s career, such that it was, mugging wildly to the cameras when he became resident at the Spooky World amusement park, again, a sentence it’s difficult to write without pausing.

Tiny’s final marriage, to Miss Sue, lasted until his death. Tiny once mused “I wish I’d taken the name Larry Love instead of Tiny Tim” (along with Darry Dover, these were under serious consideration – indeed in the late ’50s and early ’60s, Tiny did perform as Larry Love, The Human Canary). Tiny also appeared in a film, a horror film no less, ‘Blood Harvest’. I have to tell you, Blood Harvest is dire. I mean, REALLY dire. Tiny’s the best actor in it, which is remarkable in itself, given he couldn’t remember any of his lines. ‘Blood Harvest’ is simply the laziest, most inept excuse for a cash-in you can imagine. Tiny appears as Marvellous Mervo, a clown who, oh Lord, y’know, you just don’t need to know. Tiny also became a regular guest on Howard Stern’s shows – rather like Goldstein, Stern can’t resist mocking and belittling him, from diapers (Tiny was a fan of the adult type) to Jesus (much upset in the studio) all subjects under the sun were discussed.

Albums and singles were released at regular intervals though he had now branched out into more novelty fare than ever before; Christmas charmer “Santa Claus Has Got The AIDS This Year” is a particular favourite in my household; covers of rock songs were also conjured up, “Highway To Hell” at least engaged him briefly with the MTV generation. Towards the very end of his career came some of his best music. An odd co-existence with Current 93’s David Tibet led to the album ‘Songs of an Impotent Troubadour’, outsiders realising that there was strength in numbers.

Best of all were his recordings with Texan Grammy winners Brave Combo, a collective both skilled in music forms as diverse as zydeco and polka as well as being hugely respectful to the desire and vocal skill Tiny provided. The album they created, ‘Girl’ is truly wonderful, both heartwarming, funny and absurd. Alongside covers such as ‘Over the Rainbow’ and ‘Hey Jude’ and the clear standout ‘Fourteen’

“X-I-V is how the Romans said it/In retrospect I’m sure they don’t regret it”

One of Tiny’s final recordings was his very best. ‘Prisoner Of Love’ a tribute to one of his crooning heroes, Russ Columbo, is an achingly gorgeous collection of straight-up covers – admittedly scattered with Tiny’s introductions but absolutely the album Tiny had waited his whole career to make and prove that he had the genuine talent and intelligence to recreate songs that were lost to the ages. If you turn the lights out and listen to the recordings in the dead of night through headphones, you are transported to another time and place. The innocence, yet slight danger these songs convey are treated with such respect by Tiny that they outshine the originals without the novelty or faux silliness that labels often felt the need to push Tiny towards.

Tiny’s health in the early ’90s was suffering. Though clean living in terms of smoking and drugs, the endless travelling and awful diet had put serious pressure on his body. After a series of heart scares, Tiny died in 1996 from a heart attack on stage, straight after ‘Tip-toe Through the Tulips’ with Miss Sue propping him up, so shaky was he when taking applause at the end of the show. Tiny’s final words were a response to Miss Sue’s alarmed query as to whether he was ok:

“No, I’m not”

Obituaries were kind but predictable – that Tiny was essentially the end of the free ’60s and the cannon shot that ended the innocence and ushered in the scathing and bitter ’70s, as if he himself had taken the joy and rapture too far and had made America wake up to its frippery. Three of the first searches for Tiny Tim on Google say much. The first, an incredibly detailed description of a dream about Tiny that someone wants to be unravelled by an ‘expert; the second, a horrific neo-nazi website heralding him as everything repugnant about Jews; the third, the file the FBI had on him from the ’60s, centred around what ‘his connection was to Frank Sinatra and other hoodlum elements’.

So many years after his first appearance, the diversity of opinion and memories of Tiny could not be more polar. Most recently, his most famous song appeared repeatedly through the film ‘Insidious’, used to create an otherworldly, creepy atmosphere – this from a song originally received as a jolly, singalong pop song.

There is something extraordinary and life-affirming about Tiny Tim’s whole life; yes, it showed the world that anyone could be famous for Warhol’s allotted 15 minutes, not something perhaps to crow about but more than this it showed that talent, spirit and fearlessness could defy any convention and make people stop and pay attention. As a man who had Tiny’s obituary from the Guardian pinned to his fridge for a year, I can attest to the drug-like pull of his music and the man himself.
To borrow the enigmatic quote from the inner sleeve of Tiny’s debut album, there is nothing more to add than this:

“The world is wide with many things within but few so rare as he
God Bless Tiny Tim”

Daz Lawrence

A version of this article first appeared in issue one of The Reprobate.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *