Hello, strangerHe was a crooner in the mould of Valentino who emerged from the New York avant-garde to win the hearts of middle America. Looking like a scarecrow, deeply religious, girls still fell at his feet. Ten years after Tiny Tim's death, Chris Campion celebrates the oddest pop star the world has ever seen and discovers from those who knew him the secret of his talent
Sunday September 17, 2006
He was a gothic apparition in a grey plaid jacket, a mane of wiry black hair spilling over the shoulders. His face, powdered and blotchy, ashen white, was dominated by a set of large teeth and a nose as big and majestic as the beak of a bald eagle.
When Tiny Tim scuttled out of the wings, onto Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In in January 1968, American TV audiences had never seen the like. The show's co-host, Dick Martin, looked on agape as this curious-looking creature pulled up beside him and hoisted a ukulele by its neck out of a large black shopping bag.
Then he started to sing - racing through a medley of 'On the Good Ship Lollipop' and 'A-Tisket A-Tasket' - in an eerie, warbling falsetto, enunciating every word like a pantomime dame. The latter was an adapted nursery rhyme that had provided Ella Fitzgerald with the novelty hit that launched her career in 1938. He didn't perform it like Ella, though. In truth, he didn't perform like anybody else at all, adding his own interpolations to the songs in a flurry of gestures - eyes rolling from side to side and skyward, hands fluttering in front of him - and child-like sound effects. The second he finished, he backed off stage to stunned applause, furiously blowing kisses to the studio audience.
That 90-second TV appearance, seen by 35 million Americans, and a whimsical 1968 novelty hit, 'Tip Toe Thru the Tulips', launched Tiny Tim as the unlikeliest pop phenomenon the world has ever experienced.
There was nothing small about him. Tiny Tim was six foot one and larger than life in every way imaginable. He was a walking anachronism set adrift in the modern world, a troubadour performing Depression-era songs of love and longing. He insisted that the spirits of the original singers - crooners like Russ Columbo, Rudy Vallee, Henry Burr and Bing Crosby - lived inside him.
'He could illustrate any aspect of the human condition with a song,' says Australian artist Martin Sharp, co-founder of Oz magazine, who first met Tiny Tim in the early Seventies and became his friend, patron and producer. 'He had thousands of songs at his command, that he knew by heart, which constituted a whole history of popular song, stretching back to the days before recorded music.'
New York Times critic Albert Goldman described Tiny as a 'pop dybbuk' - a wandering spirit inhabited by the ghosts of pop culture past, present and future - while a critic in the Wall Street Journal's weekly National Observer magazine wrote:
'He sounds alternately like Eleanor Roosevelt, Yma Sumac and Vera Lynn. He looks like Sir Alec Guinness as Fagin, Joan Baez after a week without sleep, Margaret Hamilton as the wicked witch in the Wizard Of Oz, and the gaunt mummy of Pharoah Seti the First.'
There was certainly something unearthly about him. He claimed to subsist on a diet of wheat germ, apples, pumpkin seeds and honey. But no one ever knew for sure because nobody (not even his closest confidants) ever saw Tiny Tim eat or drink in public. A devoutly religious man, who lived his life according to the tenets of the New Testament and peppered his speech with thanks to the Lord, he was fey and effeminate, spoke in a courtly manner and addressed everybody as 'Mister' or 'Miss'.
He seemed so genteel and naive that there were those that refused to believe that he was real and not a put-on or an act. But the only part of Tiny that was made-up was his face.
His run at the top was brief but intense. For three years, when Tiny Tim's dream world collided with our reality, he was one of the hottest stars on the planet. The three albums he recorded between 1968 and 1969 for Frank Sinatra's Reprise label - released this year for the first time on CD as a box set through Rhino Handmade - offer a captivating window into his world.
He would in time be written off as a one-hit wonder, a fluke and a freak. Few looked beyond his eccentric appearance and behaviour. But those that did recognised a profound and singular talent and speak of him with an inordinate fondness.
'You're looking at someone who was a giant, in my estimation,' says Martin Sharp. 'He was working with nothing, playing in strange venues to people who didn't understand him or came out of curiosity, but he was always tremendously giving in his performances.'
'He just wanted to entertain,' says Ron DeBlasio, Tiny's personal manager from 1968 -'70. 'That was his main goal. He didn't care about many of the things other artists cared about; namely money, better billing, being able to play the best places in town. He was definitely out of step.'
When fame arrived he was more than prepared for it. Herbert Khaury had spent close to 36 years dreaming of celebrity before he achieved it. Living in a small room in his parents' apartment in the Bronx, he was surrounded by stacks of 78s and a wind-up Victrola on which to play them. He was born in 1932 in New York City, at the height of the Depression, but by immersing himself in a fantasy world, he was inoculated against the rigours of life.
As a child, he pored over comic books and movie magazines, listened intently to weekly radio serials. He would play act his own radio shows, ad breaks and all, performing all the characters. At one point, he adopted the middle name 'Buckingham' in honour of Captain America's sidekick, Bucky.
His elderly parents, Tillie and Butros, didn't know what to make of their only son. Both were first-generation immigrants: Tillie, a Polish Jew from a strictly-orthodox family; Butros, a devout Lebanese Maronite. Both worked at factories in the garment district of New York. All their attempts to normalise their child ended at naught. Herbert retreated more and more into his own private world, buttressed by glamour and romance.
In 1952, aged 20, he was taken by some local youths to a prayer meeting at band leader turned evangelist Jack Wyrtzen's Word Of Life ministry in Manhattan. 'There I was, living in a tenement on a block crowded with thousands of people, and my heart was filled with cursing and sin,' he told writer (and later actor) Harold Ramis in a 1970 interview for Playboy. 'It was like a miraculous gift when I discovered Christ; I had someone I could talk to personally. I started praying about my career. Then all of a sudden, in 1953, like the snap of a finger, the idea came to me to try singing in a higher voice.'
As soon as he heard himself sing, he was convinced it would be the key to his success. Inspired by Rudolph Valentino, he developed a romantic look to go along with the voice, growing his hair long and powdering his face into a deathly white pallor. This began his lifelong affair with cosmetics.
'I clean my body and my skin many times a day,' he explained. 'To me, this is a way to keep in touch with the purity of women. A beautiful woman from the age of 11 to the age of 25 can be the essence of life and youth if she can keep herself morally, spiritually and cosmetically clean. So, to me, this white powder was not a stage effect to help my career; it was the symbol of purity and youth and of my personal 24-hour-a-day involvement with romance.'
By this point, he had incorporated his fantasy world so wholly and absolutely into everyday life that his desire to maintain its purity and efficacy (largely) over-ruled sense and reason. But the outside world, especially in 1953, wasn't so understanding.
Living in New York City he had to run the gauntlet of public displeasure over his appearance every single day. Local children took to calling him 'Crazy Herbie'. He was well aware that his presence caused people extreme discomfort.
'There's no denying that I'm ugly,' he said. 'In fact, I think I've got the kind of looks that can drive people to madness. Once, a guy stopped me on the street and said, "You make me want to throw up my breakfast."'
He would often joke that looking like he did meant never having to worry about finding a seat on the subway. Herbert started looking for his big break by performing at talent shows, parties and even the subway system in the 1950s, swapping his guitar for a ukulele early on because it was less cumbersome if he needed to make a hasty exit.
He was given the name Tiny Tim by one of his first managers, George King, who, according to one apocryphal story, was trying to facilitate bookings at clubs looking for midget acts. Herbert had already performed under a succession of monikers, including Larry Love, Darry Dover, Judas K. Foxglove, Rollie Dell and Texarcana Tex. But Tiny Tim was the one that stuck.
His first paying gig was in the basement of Hubert's Museum, a 42nd Street institution that housed a flea circus and freak show. He was billed as 'The Human Canary'. He finally started to find acceptance of sorts among the music freaks who swarmed around the Greenwich Village cafe scene. At Café Wha?, he palled around with a young Bob Dylan. He also became friendly with Lenny Bruce - a joint gig was advertised with the slogan, 'Lenny Bruce speaks for profit, Tiny Tim sings for love' - and appeared in films by underground film-maker Jack Smith. At a lesbian club called Page Three, he was billed as 'The Answer To The Beatles!'.
All this activity led Tiny to acquire a reputation as 'the court jester of the underground'. He was invited to perform at private parties in Manhattan for the boho rock set, once serenading a wide-eyed Mick Jagger with a version of 'Time is on My Side', with tick-tock sound effects between each line.
In 1965, he secured a seven-night-a-week residency at the hippest club in New York, Steve Paul's the Scene. Tiny described it as 'a night spot for rich kids who wanted to act like Village hippies' that was 'packed with lovely teenage girls'. He played between sets by Hendrix, the Doors and the Velvet Underground and had the audience pounding on the tables, crying with laughter. Jim Morrison even offered Tiny his song 'People Are Strange'.
His big break finally came on one rainy Monday evening in August 1966. It was a slow night down at the Scene and Tiny didn't feel much like playing. But he decided to give it his all, as if he was stepping out onto the stage at Carnegie Hall. Sitting in the audience was Reprise Records boss Mo Ostin, his art director Ed Thrasher, and their wives. Ostin had come down to check out another act he was interested in signing.
'I can't remember who it was now,' Thrasher says. 'And I'll bet Mo couldn't either. But as we were waiting, this goofy-looking guy with a shopping bag gets up out of the audience and walks up on stage. Everybody's wondering, what the hell is this?!'
Given the inclement weather outside, Tiny decided to start his set with an old Perry Como hit, 'Let a Smile Be Your Umbrella'. 'As I started picking up my energy, I heard someone laughing,' he recalled, 'and by the time I got into my two-voice duet, this guy was really cracking up.'
It was Mo Ostin. He offered to sign Tiny on the spot. Three months later, the sessions for Tiny's debut album began at TTG Recorders studio in Hollywood. He was paired with the new in-house producer at Reprise, Richard Perry.
Perry would be a pivotal figure in Tiny Tim's rise. He is the hand behind million-selling records by Carly Simon and Barbra Streisand but, to this day, he considers God Bless Tiny Tim as one of his greatest achievements. 'It was the realisation of a dream that Tiny and I both had,' Perry says fondly. 'The high falsetto voice is all that most people remember. That was the least interesting aspect to me. I immediately saw in him the ability to be a true showman. There was nothing that he wasn't capable of doing.'
With God Bless Tiny Tim, Perry fused his passion for Broadway musicals with the cartoon psychedelia of Sgt. Pepper, creating a musical backdrop that acted as a dreamscape for Tiny's performances. He added theatrical sound effects and had Tiny talk to the listener throughout the record. 'I don't think anyone has ever done anything like that, before or since. It was very interactive.'
The result was truly psychedelic, not through any affectation of sound, but because it's so acutely keyed-in to Tiny Tim's personality. The producer also convinced Tiny to expand his repertoire beyond the rousing romanticism of his sheet music standards and he set about collecting a selection of contemporary songs to set alongside the versions of Tiny's curios from the past. Perry had Tiny perform several of the duets that were a crowd-pleasing staple of his live performances. On a version of Sonny & Cher's 'I Got You Babe', he flip-flops between the male and female parts, engaged in a cross-gendered conversation with himself.
The album sounds as fresh today as when it was recorded, helped in no small part by rich and fanciful arrangements overseen by Artie Butler (the arranger of Louis Armstrong's 'What a Wonderful World' and hundreds of other classic cuts). He assembled the cream of LA musicians for the recording, including many of the seasoned session players who had helped create Phil Spector's Wall of Sound: drummer Hal Blaine, guitarist Tommy Tedesco, and 'the first lady of bass', Carol Kaye. 'You see, I didn't write funny for him,' Butler says. 'I wrote as if I was writing for Frank Sinatra or Tony Bennett. And the combination of the serious and his child-like approach just worked.'
As the sessions drew to a close, Perry took Tiny down to audition for a new variety show scheduled to start on NBC as a mid-season replacement for The Man From Uncle. 'No one ever imagined when we finished the album that he'd be able to get on TV,' says Perry. 'But the Laugh-in people flipped out when they saw him.'
Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In was hip and irreverent, both in tune with and subtly mocking the grooviness of Sixties youth culture. Tiny fitted the bill perfectly. Executives at the network were so nervous about his appearance that the show's producer George Schlatter told them Tiny was actually a major celebrity in disguise. By the time they found out he wasn't, it was too late. Tiny really was a major celebrity and everyone wanted a piece of him.
He was picked by Cosby-Silver-Campbell, a talent agency co-owned by comedian Bill Cosby. As Tiny's day-to-day personal manager, Ron DeBlasio had to deal with all his client's idiosyncrasies.
'He was extremely out of the norm,' says DeBlasio. 'This was a man who powdered and bathed himself with creams and lotions, yet put on a jacket that looked like he'd slept in it. And most of the time he did sleep in it!'
Tiny also insisted on answering every piece of fan mail he received personally. Despite his peculiarities, DeBlasio was won over by Tiny's commitment to his profession and the strange contradictions within his character.
'Here is a man who is in the middle of the hippie era, loved all the things that hippiedom had to offer, yet he was vehemently opposed to any kind of drugs or medication. He was a supporter of the war in Vietnam and a flag-waving patriot at a time when everyone was questioning American values.'
For the most part, DeBlasio felt it better to shield his client's personal convictions from public view, even devising a system of codes to keep Tiny 'on message' during interviews. 'I felt that the audience didn't want to hear any politics. They just wanted to be entertained by this weird character who was trying very, very hard to entertain them.'
Tiny himself was sanguine about the success he had striven so hard for: 'My Laugh-In appearance led to nationwide acceptance - and rejection. I got a lot of terrible mail, but at least it showed that people were moved enough to write in. I know I have a talent for making people either very happy or vehemently angry.'
Ernie Clark was one of those who became an instant fan. He now maintains an official Tiny Tim website (www.charlestonchronicle.net) and has a huge collection of memorabilia. He was 13 years old when Laugh-in aired and remembers watching it with his family.
'I'd never seen anyone like him before,' he says. 'I was completely mesmerised. He seemed like someone from another planet. My dad didn't like Tiny too well though, because of his effeminate aspect. As a matter of fact, I had this big poster of Tiny on my bedroom wall and my dad tore it down one day when I was at school.'
Despite his innate conservatism, straight society didn't regard Tiny as one of their own. At best, he was seen as a hippie parody. At worst, an insufferable freak. Even members of the counter-culture were appalled. After putting Tiny Tim on their July 1968 cover, Rolling Stone received an extremely ornery letter from one of their readers.
SIRS: Is Tiny Tim a success? Is Rowan & Martin your gauge for success? What exactly do you mean by 'success'? Fuck all of you.
Nowadays the notion of a pop star whose success stems solely from TV is absolutely commonplace. Back then, it was very new. By 1966, the Monkees had already been manufactured for TV and moulded into pop stars. But Tiny Tim was ready-made; absolutely real, but stranger than fiction. He was possessed of an almost pathological honesty to reveal the most intimate details of his life that made him the perfect guest for TV talk shows.
It was the first time someone so alien had crossed over into the mainstream of popular culture. And, in that respect, Tiny paved the way for every other out-of-sorts character who tasted pop success - from Klaus Nomi to Boy George and Marilyn Manson. But there was absolutely nothing about Tiny that was contrived for the sake of persona. He was who he was. The curiosity into what made him tick fuelled a relentless tabloid interest in his private life.
'We never knew his age,' says Artie Butler. 'But we knew he was older.' Tiny was in fact 36 (almost 10 years older than both Butler and Richard Perry) in 1968. When asked to state his age, he often refused. This quickly became part of his publicity shtick. If pushed, he would claim to be 16. In one sense that was no word of a lie because, in his mind, Tiny Tim was eternally adolescent. Every new infatuation was like his first crush.
Perry recalls an incident that occurred while working on God Bless Tiny Tim. 'One time he called and asked me to come right over to his hotel. When I arrived at the door, he greeted me and led me in. He was so proud of the fact that the entire GTOs [Girls Together Outrageously, a seven-strong gang of groupies associated with Frank Zappa] had come to visit him. They were all lined up in his room. It was an amazing sight.'
He thought of women as celestial and immaculate creatures from another realm. His whole being was devoted to finding the 'eternal princess' of his dreams, 'a beautiful angel with the heart and kindness of an average girl'.
Every year from 1963 onwards, he ritualistically presented the girl whose beauty had made the greatest impression on him with a customised trophy. In 1966, the honour fell to a girl he knew and whom he named Miss Corky; she received a cup inscribed with, 'To Miss Corky, Fate Left Me Sighing, Sighing For You in 1966.'
'He made me go with him when he was delivering that trophy,' Perry recalls. 'And he was just so enamoured, he didn't want to leave. I had to drag him down the hall of the apartment building.'
He was also in the habit of presenting them with one-off acetates of songs dedicated to the girl in question. In turn, mementos from favourite girls were kept like holy relics in makeshift reliquaries. A cookie from Miss Corky was stashed in an empty jar of hand lotion and sealed with Scotch tape.
The speed of the modern world, Tiny maintained, had increased the opportunities to sin. He liked to refer to himself as 'the biggest sinner in the world' but was so hung up about sex that he couldn't even say the word, instead spelling it out letter by letter to avoid embarrassment.
Yet he would freely admit that when it came to s-e-x, he would often spill his s-e-e-d within seconds. In fact, if a girl would so much as touch him, Tiny was liable to explode. At the height of his fame, he even implored his managers to hire a handler to keep girls away from him.
'He was charmed by women but he also felt guilty that they aroused him,' says Ron DeBlasio. 'It was against God's will. A lot of the young girls at that time loved the purity and the honesty of him. It was a certain type of girl. The ones who were into rock'n'roll didn't get him. But the kind of girls who ran through the heather with flowers in their hair did. He had great fans.'
Spurred by the huge buzz generated by his TV appearances and debut album, plans were made to take Tiny into the live arena. A record as fantastic as God Bless Tiny Tim demanded a spectacle to accompany it. And that's what Tiny got when he hosted a sold out live show at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium in June 1968.
The stage was decorated with crystal chandeliers and free-standing ionic columns. There was smoke and showgirls and live birds that flew out of the wings and perched on Tiny's shoulder as he sat on a park bench. Designed by Joe Gannon (who later devised Alice Cooper's stage shows), it was the first theatrical staging of its kind that had ever been attempted for a pop concert.
The show was deemed such a success that a week-long residency was secured at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas for which Tiny was paid $50,000, a sum unheard of for a new act virtually unproven in the live arena.
Installed in a luxury suite, Tiny celebrated by ordering everything on the room service menu including desserts, twice over! The food was brought up in a procession of trolleys. It took four hours for it all to arrive. Tiny arranged all the dishes around the floor and bed of his suite, sat down in the middle of it and then waved it away without touching a morsel. 'You know what got me excited,' he told Australian writer Headley Gritter. 'The trays, with all those silver domes on top.'
He just wanted to see the fruits of his success, so to speak, not partake in them. He was also living out a scene he once saw in a movie. But once he hit the top, consuming was an overriding passion. He bought pricey cosmetics by the case-load, leaving behind what he couldn't carry.
Tiny went international, travelling to London in October 1968 for a sold-out appearance at the Royal Albert Hall. When Perry arrived in London, after having put the finishing touches to Tiny Tim's Second Album, he went straight to meet his charge who was touring the city in an open-topped Rolls.
'As I approached Carnaby Street, the streets were blocked off. It was completely mobbed with people wanting to get a glimpse of him. It was complete hysteria, almost as if Elvis was appearing.'
Rock royalty turned out for the show, a benefit for the Keystone charity. Both the Beatles and Stones and their various consorts, including Marianne Faithfull and Jane Asher, were in attendance. Again Perry conducted a full orchestra behind Tiny; a task, he says, that was far from easy.
'If there was a four-bar phrase that finished the song, sometimes he would feel he didn't want to bother completing it and would just start the next verse two bars earlier. And when you had a 45-piece orchestra, you had to somehow move them up two bars. It was very difficult. He would just go about his merry way and I had to sweat it out and keep them somehow locked in with him.'
Nevertheless, Perry considers the show (tapes of which were uncovered and released on CD in 2000) as one of the high points of their collaboration. For Tiny's Tim's Second Album, which was timed for a Christmas 1968 release, Perry expanded Tiny's palette with songs that touched on a more melancholic aspect to his personality.
But the album didn't fare nearly as well, largely because a bootleg album of recordings made in the early Sixties had been rush-released by a third party to cash in on Tiny's success. 'It may be the worst record ever produced,' he told writer Harry Stein with typical candour. 'In those days, I'd sometimes sing off-key on spite.'
An injunction was taken out to prevent the album's distribution. But by that time the damage was done. Close to a hundred thousand copies had already been sold.
By the time his third album, For All My Little Friends, came around in 1969, Perry had left Reprise and was much in demand as a freelance producer. Gene Shrively was drafted in to finish the record, which recast Tiny as a children's entertainer.
Looking to secure his client's future, DeBlasio set up a deal with Warner Bros to produce a Saturday morning TV show centred around Tiny, conceived like the Banana Splits as a mixture of live action and animation.
'We were using what later became known as 'synergy',' says DeBlasio. 'Everybody was all for it. But, at the last moment, Tiny didn't want to do it. I told him I thought he was making a big mistake. I felt that some of our options were closing. And so we parted company'.
Tiny's contract with Reprise lapsed in 1971. DeBlasio intimates that it was the very thing that made Tiny what he was - namely his old-fashioned ways and resistance to change - that ultimately stalled his mainstream career. But he acknowledges that, in some senses, television killed the musical star. 'People didn't want to pay to see Tiny. They just wanted to turn on their TVs and see him.'
However, Tiny's finest TV hour - his December 1969 marriage to a gawky 17-year old girl from New Jersey called Vicki Budinger (whom he rechristened Miss Vicki) - remains one of the highest-rated shows in US broadcasting history, beaten only by the Apollo 11 moon landing and the final episode of MASH. He had first spotted his bride in the crowd during a public appearance at a Philadelphia department store. After a six-month romance, they were married live on Johnny Carson's The Tonight Show. The studio was decked out with 10,000 tulips and 45 million people tuned in to watch.
Tiny's strange ways would ultimately prove too much for his young bride. The marriage was short-lived. In 1972, a year after she had given birth to their only child, Tulip Victoria, Vicki walked, although the couple didn't divorce until 1977. Tiny was broke and in debt to the tune of $20,000.
He married twice more; renewing vows with second wife, Miss Jan, in an October 1994 ceremony at Spooky World theme park in Massachusetts that was again broadcast live on the Tonight Show, and marrying his third, Miss Sue, in a private ceremony nine months later. He was diagnosed with congestive heart failure in 1995 and advised to lessen his performance schedule. But entertaining was his lifeblood. Tiny collapsed seconds after playing 'Tip Toe Thru The Tulips' during a performance at the Women's Club Of Minneapolis on 30 November 1996, dying off-stage in the arms of Miss Sue.
Just before his death, his career had started to pick up again. His reputation for no-holds-barred talk made him a popular guest on shock jock Howard Stern's morning radio show. The brief burst of massive fame sustained him for the next 30 years. The untold tale of his bumpy ride at the lower echelons of the entertainment industry is as riveting as his rise.
'He sabotaged himself on every level. And yet remained, un-sunk,' says British musician David Tibet, who records as Current 93 and who released three albums in the Nineties by Tiny. In recent years, Tiny's child-like view of the world has become a reference point for performers like Devendra Banhart and Antony Hegarty (of Antony and the Johnsons). But the peculiar and contradictory quirks of personality that arose from the passions (sexual, musical, religious and patriotic) which drove him make him utterly unique. He was also ahead of his time in other ways. Nostalgia has, after all, become the engine of the entertainment industry.
'Was he a success or a failure?' asks Tibet. 'I think you'd have to say he was a huge success because he did everything on his own terms and he did it to the end. He never compromised his integrity because his integrity was so peculiar, there was no way it could be compromised. What could he do? Sell out? He was always trying to sell out. He just didn't think of it in the same terms as we did.'
Through all the ups and downs, Tiny's passion for performing continued undimmed, his perseverance steadfast. But, more pertinently, he was irrevocably wed to his fantasy world to the very end.
'My greatest unfulfilled ambition,' Tiny told Playboy back in 1970, 'is to be one of the astronauts or even the first singer on the Moon. But most of all, I'd love to see Christ come back to crush the spirit of hate and make men put down their guns. I'd also like just one more hit single.'
In Tiny's footsteps: five who owe him one
ˇ 'God Bless Tiny Tim: The Complete Reprise Recordings' is available from www.rhinohandmade.com. Tiny Tim's official website is www.charlestonchronicle.net
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