Tiny Tim Kinda Rocked (Yes, Really)

On April 7th, 2010, Marines crammed powerful speakers into an armored vehicle and made some of the Taliban drop their guns by blasting Metallica and Thin Lizzy songs. They could’ve used Tiny Tim’s bizarre version of Billy Idol’s “Rebel Yell” and pretty much gotten the same result. Maybe in less time.

Before Tim’s music could be considered an aural weapon, he was Herbert Khaury from New York City. He played in dingy dives using stage names like Emmett Swink, Texarkana Tex (singing country music), Rollie Dell, Darry Dover, and Judas K. Foxglove. In 1959, he was billed as “Larry Love, the Singing Canary” at Hubert’s Museum and Live Flea Circus, a 42nd Street space featuring Gong Show-type performers like a man who could blow up balloons through his tear ducts and musicians like the Velvet Underground.

George King,  Khaury’s manager, changed the name to Tiny Tim. The name stuck in audiences’ minds much like Tim’s unearthly falsetto voice; it got him a part in the 1968 “film” You Are What You Eat, filmed in Woodstock, NY.  Tim recorded “I Got You Babe” with a backing band called the Hawks—who later went by The Band.

It was at Woodstock that Tim was reacquainted with Bob Dylan. Dylan noted that when he first arrived in New York, he would accompany fellow folk singer Fred Neil to The Cafe Wha?  “The best part of working with him was strictly gastronomical–all the French fries and hamburgers I could eat. At some point during the day, Tiny Tim and I would go in the kitchen and hang around.”

Tiny later took his repertoire of early 1900s tunes to The Scene, a NYC nightclub that he called, “A place for rich kids who wanted to act like Village hippies.” It also became the place where Reprise Records executive Mo Ostin saw Tiny and signed him to the label.

Tiny’s career was off and tiptoeing, proving his mother wrong. In 1965, she’d told her son, “I’m sorry to say but in all fairness, you’ll never be anything.”  But after his TV appearances on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In and his wedding on the Tonight Show to his bride of seventeen (which would have been highest rated show of 1969 if Apollo 11 hadn’t landed on the moon), the odd duck had turned into a cash cow. “Tiptoe through the Tulips,” a 1920s song from his 1968 album, God Bless Tiny Tim, reached #17.  The record’s producer, Richard Perry, noted, “No one in a million years would anybody think that Tiny Tim would not only make an album, but an album revered by the rock intelligentsia.”

John Lennon exclaimed, “Tiny Tim…he’s the greatest ever, man! The greatest fella on earth!” Paul McCartney concurred: “It’s a funny joke at first, but it’s not really. It’s real and it’s true.” On October 30, 1968, Tiny and a 44-piece orchestra played for rock royalty including the Stones, the Beatles, Harry Nilsson, and Marianne Faithful at the Royal Albert Hall in London.  Later that year, George Harrison invited him to sing “Nowhere Man” on the Beatles’ Fan Club’s Christmas Album.

But Tim became a rapidly falling star as his image as a sweet, innocuous artist took a serious hit. In the 1970 Christmas issue of Esquire, he penned: “A mother’s place is in the home; not outside competing with men. Man came from God, woman came from man. Woman is the second choice. Her duties were to take care of the home and scrub the floor and raise the children.”

His audience wasn’t buying his views on the Vietnam War either.  In a Playboy interview conducted by future filmmaker Harold Ramis, Tiny stated: “I believe that the United States has never been wrong in a war. I think we are in Vietnam because we remember Pearl Harbor, and we’re trying to see that a thing like that doesn’t happen again.”

Ironically, on July 29, 1970, Reprise Records released “Don’t Bite the Hand that’s Feeding,” a 1916 song that was written to shame Americans who didn’t support WWI.  Tiny’s version only illuminated his out-of-step stance on the Vietnam War.

His handlers also realized that Tiny was one unique client.  Harry Stein, who wrote the 1976 biography Tiny Tim, noted: “One of his managers described going to Tiny’s room late at night and became aware of the fact that he was moving from chair to chair and pretending to have a dinner party.”

As Tiny aged, there might have been more in attendance at Tiny’s imaginary dinner parties than at his actual concerts.  He went back to playing in a circus, joining Allen C. Hill’s Great American Circus in 1985 and playing at a bar in a trailer park. By then, he was an overweight diabetic who indulged in too much beer and pizza. Even though his doctor told him never to perform in public again, he took the stage at the Women’s Club of Minneapolis on November 30, 1996, where he suffered a fatal heart attack on stage.  The following day, the New York Times noted in Tiny’s obituary that he was “a pear-shaped singer with a beak nose, scraggly shoulder-length hair, and an outfit that could be described as haute-couture bum.”

Dylan was kinder: “Tiny Tim was a character who played around Greenwich Village in the Fifties and Sixties. And a lot of people think that he was a joke. But no one knew more about old music than Tiny Tim did. He studied it and he lived it. He knew all the songs that only existed as sheet music. When he passed away, we lost a national treasure.”

-Mark Daponte

Photo: Tiny Tim in 1969 (public domain)

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Mark Daponte is a copy/blog writer for an advertising company and has published/sold four short stories, three full length screenplays, nine short screenplays (including two animation scripts) and punches up screenplays—because they don’t punch back. He has had six short comedic plays performed by various theater companies, including one in Los Angeles, (Sacred Fools) and Sacramento, CA (Sacramento Actors Theater Company). When he isn’t sinking down to a thirteen-year-old’s level to make his teenaged sons laugh, he can be found seeking signs of intelligent life in his hometown of Brooklyn, NY.

6 comments on “Tiny Tim Kinda Rocked (Yes, Really)

  1. We only observed him in his character persona, which was not a serious scholar of “old sheet music”. He was a novelty that fizzled out.

  2. Andru J Reeve

    I love “Fill Your Heart”! Tiny Tim’s version is lightyears better than David Bowie’s. Not even close. Bowie’s version is dull; Tiny’s ROCKS. And he sings most of it in his natural voice, not the falsetto he’s best known for.

    • Eoghan Michael Lyng

      I agree with you that Tiny Tim’s is the better rendition.

  3. John Hayman

    Tiny was supposed to play at a Ukulele convention in Montague, MA. We had tickets to the second show. While we were waiting in line, Tiny was brought out on a stretcher because he had collapsed on stage. As they were wheeling him out, he waved at everybody in line. His next performance was the one he died at. If you listen to Dylan’s Old Thyme Radio Show, you can hear how wide and eclectic and timeless Dylan’s taste is. Not surprised at all that he dug tiny.

  4. Epidrake

    I had the opportunity to hang out with Tiny several times in clubs during the eighties. He was very nice and seemed more than a little sad.
    He reintroduced a lost music to several new generations. Most recently on the hit cartoon SpongeBob SquarePants in their debut episode.

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