Tiny Tim, Outcast Troubadour

Remember, it’s better to be a has-been than a never-was.
(Tiny Tim)

That an outsider like Tiny Tim could reach success, albeit briefly, can be ascribed to the typical appetite for oddities of the Sixties, the decade of the freak-out ethic/aesthetic, when everybody was constantly looking for out-of-line pop music of liberating and subversive madness.
And yet, in regard to many other weird acts of the time, this bizarre character embodied an innocence and purity the Love Generation was eager to embrace.

Born Herbert Khaury in New York, 1932, Tiny Tim was a big and tall man, sporting long shabby hair. Even if in reality he was obsessed with cleansing and never skipped his daily shower during his entire life, he always gave the impression of a certain gresiness. He would come up onstage looking almost embarassed, his face sometimes covered with white makeup, and pull his trusty ukulele out of a paper bag; his eyes kept rolling in ambiguous winks, conveying a melodramatic and out-of-place emphasis. And when he started singing, there came the ultimate shock. From that vaguely creepy face came an incredible, trembling falsetto voice like that of a little girl. It was as if Shirley Temple was held prisoner inside the body of a giant.

If anything, the choice of songs played by Tiny Tim on his ukulele tended to increase the whole surreal effect by adding some ancient flavor: the setlist mainly consisted of obscure melodies from the 20s or the 30s, re-interpreted in his typical ironic, overblown style.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c71RCAyLS1M

It was hard not to suspect that such a striking persona might have been carefully planned and engineered, with the purpose of unsettling the audience while making them laugh at the same time. And laughter certainly didn’t seem to bother Tiny Tim. But the real secret of this eccentric artist is that he wasn’t wearing any mask.
Tiny Tim had always remained a child.

Justin Martell, author of the artist’s most complete biography (Eternal Troubadour: The Improbable Life of Tiny Tim, with A. Wray Mcdonald), had the chance to decypher some of Tiny’s diaries, sometimes compiled boustrophedonically: and it turned out he actually came within an inch of being committed to a psychiatric hospital.
Whether his personality’s peculiar traits had to do with some autistic spectrum disorder or not, his childish behaviour was surely not a pose. Capable of remembering the name of every person he met, he showed an old-fashioned respect for any interlocutor – to the extent of always referring to his three wives as “Misses”: Miss Vicki, Miss Jan, Miss Sue. His first two marriages failed also because of his declared disgust for sex, a temptation he strenuously fought being a fervent Christian. In fact another sensational element for the time was the candor and openness with which he publicly spoke of his sexual life, or lack thereof. “I thank God for giving me the ability of looking at naked ladies and think pure thoughts“, he would say.
If we are to believe his words, it was Jesus himself who revealed upon him the possibilities of a high-pitched falsetto, as opposed to his natural baritone timbre (which he often used as an “alternate voice” to his higher range). “I was trying to find an original style that didn’t sound like Tony Bennett or anyone else. So I prayed about it, woke up with this high voice, and by 1954, I was going to amateur nights and winning.

Being on a stage meant everything for him, and it did not really matter whether the public just found him funny or actually appreciated his singing qualities: Tiny Tim was only interested in bringing joy to the audience. This was his naive idea of show business – it all came down to being loved, and giving some cheerfulness in return.

Tiny avidly scoured library archives for American music from the beginning of the century, of which he had an encyclopedic knwoledge. He idolized classic crooners like Rudy Vallee, Bing Crosby and Russ Columbo: and in a sense he was mocking his own heroes when he sang standards like Livin’ In The Sunlight, Lovin’ In The Moonlight or My Way. But his cartoonesque humor never ceased to be respectful and reverential.

Tiny Tim reached a big unexpected success in 1968 with his single Tiptoe Through The Tulips, which charted #17 that year; it was featured in his debut album, God Bless Tiny Tim, which enjoyed similar critic and public acclaim.
Projected all of a sudden towards an improbable stardom, he accepted the following year to marry his fiancée Victoria Budinger on live TV at Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, before 40 million viewers.

In 1970 he performed at the Isle of Wight rock festival, after Joan Baez and before Miles Davis; according to the press, with his version of There’ll Always Be An England he managed to steal the scene “without a single electric instrument”.

But this triumph was short-lived: after a couple of years, Tiny Tim returned to a relative obscurity which would last for the rest of his career. He lived through alternate fortunes during the 80s and 90s, between broken marriages and financial difficulties, sporadically appearing on TV and radio shows, and recording albums where his beloved songs from the past mixed with modern pop hits cover versions (from AC/DC to Bee Gees, from Joan Jett to The Doors).

According to one rumor, any time he made a phone call he would ask: “do you have the tape recorder going?
And indeed, in every interview Tiny always seemed focused on building a personal mythology, on developing his romantic ideal of an artist who was a “master of confusion“, baffling and elusive, escaping all categorization. Some believe he remained a “lonely outcast intoxicated by fame“; even when fame had long departed. The man who once befriended the Beatles and Bob Dylan, who was a guest at every star’s birthday party, little by little was forgotten and ended up singing in small venues, even performing with the circus. “As long as my voice is here, and there is a Holiday Inn waiting for me, then everything’s just swell.

But he never stopped performing, in relentelss and exhausting tours throughout the States, which eventually took their toll: in spite of a heart condition, and against his physician’s advice, Tiny Tim decided to go on singing before his ever decreasing number of fans. The second, fatal heart stroke came on November 30, 1996, while he was onstage at a charity evening singing his most famous hit, Tiptoe Through The Tulips.

And just like that, on tiptoes, this eternally romantic and idealistic human being of rare kindness quietly left this world, and the stage.
The audience had already left, and the hall was half-empty.

33 comments to Tiny Tim, Outcast Troubadour

  1. gery says:

    Mi ricorda Jean-Claude in “Sensualità a corte” :D. Che personaggio unico e tenero!
    Sbaglio o “Tiptoe Through The Tulips”, è presente in alcune scene del film horror Insidious?

  2. Daimon says:

    Che personalità affascinante!Fortunato chi lo ha conosciuto.

    A quando la super compilation di Bizzarro Bazar?
    Con Alessandro Moreschi, i Tiger Lillies, Tiny Tim, Gloomy Sunday…e magari con un pezzo di Charles Manson.

  3. sergente kabukiman says:

    Ciao bizzarrobazar, leggo da anni i tuoi articoli ma non ho mai commentato, ma su quest’articolo devo davvero farti i complimenti, affronti temi affascinanti e lo fai con una penna di rara eleganza, il finale di questo articolo descrive perfettamente il senso di tristezza e meraviglia per un personaggio che non conoscevo ma che sembra disegnato da una mente geniale, ti rinnovo ancora i complimenti.

    • bizzarrobazar says:

      Grazie per i complimenti, Sergente!

    • Giorgio says:

      Ciao,
      stavo per scrivere un commento quasi identico.
      Frequento il più noto sito web di filmati anche per cercare interpreti strani, ma non conoscevo Tiny Tin; amo la buona musica di qualsiasi genere e in lui riscontro delle buone qualità sia canore che istrioniche. Ho guardato un pò di suoi filmati e ascoltato alcuni brani, soprattutto le sue versioni di brani famosi sono da ascoltare con cura. Grazie a Ivan per i suoi sempre garbati articoli.
      Giorgio

      • bizzarrobazar says:

        Non tutta la sua produzione è costante, e alcune cover sono forse un po’ troppo ‘semplici’, ma in ogni album c’è a mio avviso qualche perla.

  4. Livio says:

    Inquietante, stupendo!

  5. Giuseppe says:

    Forse a qualcuno della mia generazione “Tiptoe Through The Tulips” è suonata familiare ma non riesce a ricordare il perché. È stata usata in uno spot della Nike ormai parecchi anni fa:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BIKWb939gCE

  6. Skizzo says:

    E’ difficile trovare delle persone creative che non cadano ad accettare i compromessi volgari di questo mondo. Grazie Bizzarro! L’articolo è superbo, come tutti quelli che scrivi!

  7. ZIO BARBOCCHIA says:

    Ho sempre pensato che Tiptoe Through The Tulips sarebbe la canzone perfetta per una scena di tortura in un film. Non sapevo che Tim potesse essere autistico, di sicuro è un musicista tra i più sottovaluti.

  8. Giacomo Miglio says:

    Anche questa volta sei riuscito a commuovermi Ivan, complimenti.
    Mi accodo anche io all’idea di una raccolta musicale di BB, con Shaggs, Captain Beefheart etc.

    Se posso permettermi, per il futuro considereresti un articolo su Zappa o sugli italianissimi (e a mio modestissimo parere unici!) Squallor??

    • bizzarrobazar says:

      Per un buon periodo della mia vita ho scandagliato la sterminata discografia di Zappa come un palombaro, e ancora oggi ho una vasta parte delle sue composizioni fissate nella mente. Gli Squallor confesso che li conosco meno – li ho recuperati in ritardo e in età sbagliata, suppongo. Comunque un articolo zappiano, magari su un lato meno noto del suo personaggio o della sua produzione (ad esempio il suo rapporto con il cinema) sarebbe interessante. Vedremo! 😉

  9. Natasha says:

    Grazie infinite per questo magnifico articolo su un grandissimo musicista e uomo, ancora troppo sconosciuto, che fu Tiny Tim. Quando mia nipotina di pochi mesi piangeva le suonavo e cantavo sempre la sua versione di “Tip Toe through the tulips” e lei si calmava. Bizzarro Bazar non sbagli mai un colpo!

  10. GianoDB says:

    Il piccolo Tim mi mancava! Amo quando estrai dal cilindro queste perle rarissime vecchio mio!

  11. Komakino says:

    Conoscevo Tiny Tim come personaggio ma il ritratto che ne hai tracciato, così malinconicamente affascinante, me l’ha fatto riscoprire. Complimenti (ennesimi).

  12. Connie81 says:

    Ciao BB! Leggo e rileggo continuamente i tuoi articoli,dal più datato al più recente..uno più affascinante dell’altro,scritti in maniera magistrale direi.
    Ma questo è uno di quelli su cui passo e ripasso più volte.Questa è la 25-26esima probabilmente.
    Ho una morbosa attrazione per il personaggio,la sua personalità;e quando vedo le due foto in bianco e nero affiancate sento come una strana inquietudine insinuarsi sotto pelle.
    Non è tanto la seconda espressione che mi “turba”,bensì la prima affiancata all’altra.
    Molto difficile turbarmi..sarà la posa,sarà il sapere che dietro a quella voce si nasconde in realtà un omone e viceversa..il viso ingenuo ed infantile che si atteggia a grande diva del cinema muto..quando ho visto (e ascoltato) il primo video sono rimasta attonita..e lo riguardo una,due,tre volte.
    Ipnotico,inquietante,quasi sconvolgente,terribilmente affascinante.
    Grazie!

  13. precious says:

    Hello this article is very interesting, i maked a research on the web and i found only the biography in english about Tiny Tim, i’d like to ask if you know the existence of an edition in italian.
    Thank you.

    • bizzarrobazar says:

      Ciao precious, questo è un blog italiano (per cambiare lingua, c’è la bandierina proprio sopra il teschietto). 🙂
      Purtroppo non esistono biografie di Tiny Tim in italiano, che io sappia.

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