BY BLAIR JACKSON | FROM THE SPRING 2020 ISSUE OF UKULELE
I think it’s safe to say that there has never been a figure in the ukulele world who has provoked as much derision, dismissal, and out-and-out hostility as the late-’60s uke-playing phenomenon known as Tiny Tim. Yes, he was unquestionably a freakish novelty act, who traded on a bizarre gimmick—an unearthly, quavering falsetto—and a sunny, solicitous stage personality that was either charming or borderline creepy (if you didn’t buy it). He had one album that made the Billboard Top 100—God Bless Tiny Tim, which came out in early 1968 and was on the charts for 32 weeks, making it all the way to #7—and one noteworthy single from that record, “Tiptoe Through the Tulips,” which peaked at #17. He rode the wave of his truly odd celebrity for a few years, and though he never achieved much more commercial success, he managed to eke out a living (barely, sometimes) until his death at the age of 64 in 1996, of a heart attack, onstage, ukulele in hand.
He was no ukulele virtuoso—he was a strummer first and foremost—but he had a savant-like knowledge of popular music from the turn of the 20th century through the 1950s, and he could play hundreds of songs. In the midst of the late ’60s electric rock ’n’ roll explosion, he shined a light on the humble, long-ignored ukulele, leading to the biggest uptick in popularity of the little instrument since Arthur Godfrey in the early 1950s. He also lived a really unusual and interesting life that found him rubbing shoulders with celebrities such as Bing Crosby, Bob Dylan, Zaza Gabor, George Harrison, John Wayne, and Jim Morrison, to name just a few.
He was born Herbert Butros Khaury in Manhattan in 1932, the son of poor immigrants: His mother, Tillie, was a Belarusian garment worker, whose own father was a rabbi; his father, Butros, son of a Maronite Catholic priest, came from Lebanon and also worked in New York’s textile industry. Herbert adored music from a very early age—thanks to the influence of his music-loving parents who played records around the house and sang to him. A pivotal moment came one day when he was just five and his father came home to the family’s tenement apartment with an old wind-up gramophone and a 1919 recording of Henry Burr singing “Beautiful Ohio.” Young Herbert was entranced by it and spent hours with his ear inside the gramophone horn, listening to the song over and over again. A year or so after that, a door-to-door salesman from the Wurlitzer Music School dropped by the Khaury residence, and when Tillie asked Herbert if he’d like to try learning an instrument, he chose the violin. That didn’t stick, however, in part because the teacher was impatient and brutish, a bad mix for her sensitive son. So Herbert turned to the guitar and, eschewing lessons, taught himself the rudiments. Tillie, quoted from a late-’60s article in TV Mirror magazine included in Justin Martell and Alanna Wray McDonald’s fascinating and definitive 2016 biography, Eternal Troubadour: The Improbable Life of Tiny Tim, noted: “I used to worry because he would lie on his bed all day long and write and sing to his guitar. I would say, ‘Why don’t you go out on the street and play?’ But no, he wanted only to stay with his music. I told him I would take him to a good vocal coach. He wouldn’t hear of it. No. He didn’t want to study anything with anyone.”
Herbert was a loner who mostly chose to live in the musical world inside his head, as an escape from friction and violence in his home environment, teasing and bullying in the neighborhood, and a general lack of interest in school, where all he really cared about was girls—he daydreamed about them endlessly. His other obsessions included the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team and the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey team—though he hated gym class and was completely un-athletic himself. He was routinely called a sissy—even by his parents—and his sexual inclinations were . . . confusing to him as an adolescent. The diaries he kept throughout his life, as revealed in Eternal Troubadour, portray a deeply religious soul striving to be good, but continually tortured by his own actions and imperfections, which he felt were an affront to his “Lord Jesus Christ” and might lead to his damnation. He wrestled with those issues his entire life.
Besides playing music, Herbert also spent countless hours listening to the radio—baseball games, serials, and music-oriented programs such as Your Hit Parade and Manhattan Merry-Go-Round. Although the Khaurys were always struggling financially, somehow Herbert was able to buy 78s of his favorite songs and took to memorizing the lyrics, figuring out how to play them off sheet music, even committing details of the recordings to memory and writing them down in notebooks. In his fantasy world, he even created his own elaborate radio shows, acting and singing all the parts. His musical heroes were singers and crooners such as Rudy Vallee, Irving Kaufman, Billy Murray, Russ Columbo, Henry Burr, and Bing Crosby. Herbert also became a fixture at the New York Public Library, where he found even more recordings to burn into his brain, which seemed to have an unlimited capacity for music history minutiae.
Herbert and high school were not a good fit, to put it charitably, and in 1950, at the age of 17, he dropped out and began taking a series of menial jobs, which typically would last anywhere from a day to a few weeks; it seems he wasn’t a good fit in the working world, either. Around that time, too, he started to seriously dream of becoming a music star and began auditioning for talent scouts and musical theater productions.
Enter the Uke
This is where the ukulele comes into the story. He saw Arthur Godfrey playing one regularly on the early-’50s TV show Arthur Godfrey and His Friends, and true to Herbert’s personality, he became obsessed with the instrument. His father bought him one of the inexpensive Fin-Der Diamond Head soprano ukes promoted on Godfrey’s program (initially it had an attachment for push-button chording, but Herbert hated that), and a little later, Herbert moved on to another, higher quality, Godfrey-promoted uke—a white plastic Maccaferri Islander. He also purchased one of Godfrey’s instructional books, You Can Play the Ukulele. Right away, his uke came in handy for his auditions—he felt liberated by not having to rely on the piano players who usually accompanied prospective singers. He played the uke left-handed (strung conventionally), but guitar right-handed.
It’s unclear how long he played the Maccaferri; at some point he purchased a wooden Favilla, which became his primary instrument for many years. Later in his career, once he had achieved some success, he bought a ca. 1930 Martin style 0, and he is known to have owned a number of other ukes, as well, including an old Regal and a Gibson UB-1 banjo uke. Not surprisingly, he became deeply knowledgeable about ukuleles and the Tin Pan Alley repertoire for the instrument, and he professed his admiration for early practitioners such as Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards and Roy Smeck.
One of the things that surprised me most in reading Eternal Troubadour is that nearly all the elements of the act that eventually came together as “Tiny Tim” were in place by the mid-1950s. He grew his hair long at a time when almost no one else did and was mercilessly teased and insulted for it—by his parents, most painfully of all. He took to covering his face in a ghostly white powder which he viewed as a “symbol of purity and youth and my personal 24-hours-a-day involvement with romance.” OCD at a time when that diagnosis was unknown, he washed his face at least eight times a day, and slathered it with various creams, over which he dabbed the powder. In public (and even in his diary) he was unfailingly upbeat and optimistic, and he respectfully started referring to nearly everyone he met or spoke of as “Miss” or “Mister”—an affectation he employed the rest of his life, including with his three wives. And he also discovered his famous falsetto when he remembered a time in 1949 when he had re-created a male-female duet he heard on the radio by singing both parts in the appropriate ranges. He began to try out the falsetto (he called it his “high voice”) for entire songs, and almost immediately it began to attract attention in the many talent shows and open-mics he played. Most importantly to him, some girls and women seemed to like, or at least be favorably amused by, this strangely androgynous creature, whom the New York Times would later describe in his obituary as “a pear-shaped singer with a beak nose, scraggly shoulder-length hair, and an outfit that could be described as haute-couture bum.”
The Birth of “Tiny Tim”
In that era, as later, Herbert was a highly polarizing figure. For a few years, he haunted New York clubs and bars and assorted dives under all sorts of pseudonyms, including Emmett Swink, Texarkana Tex (singing country material), Rollie Dell, Darry Dover, Judas K. Foxglove, and Larry Love, to name just a few. It wasn’t until 1963 that Herbert’s manager—who by that time had successfully moved his client from a six-days-a-week, eight-performances-a-day grind at a (literal) freak show called Hubert’s Museum and Flea Circus to gigs in various venues in Greenwich Village—came up with “Tiny Tim.” It was a shortened version of “Sir Timothy Timmins,” which the manager had thought sounded exotically English, but never caught on. For a while, Herbert vacillated between Darry Dover and Tiny Tim, even recording under the Dover moniker.
Greenwich Village and the Lower East Side of New York was a lively, percolating area in the early ’60s—the folk and jazz boom filled area clubs and coffee houses night after night, and all sorts of beatniks, underground artists and musicians, and increasingly adventurous and radical theater groups found places to congregate and perform in the predominantly low-rent area. This is where Tiny Tim’s career finally started to take off. He became a regular attraction at several different venues (including a popular lesbian bar) performing solo with his ukulele, serving up his mixture of truly obscure Tin Pan Alley fare, torch songs from the ’30s and ’40s crooned in a surprisingly sure and powerful baritone influenced by the style of Rudy Vallee, falsetto numbers, and his novelty “duets” featuring both the “high voice” trill and baritone. He was completely conversant in pop styles from the 1950s, as well, including Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and doo-wop groups.
If in 1964 Tiny Tim was not exactly “America’s Answer to The Beatles,” as he was sometimes humorously promoted, he was starting to attract interest in some unlikely circles. Hugh Romney, who became a counterculture icon as Wavy Gravy after Woodstock, was a monologist and occasional promoter of unusual events in New York in the early ’60s, and he took Tiny Tim under his wing for a while, exposing him to hipper audiences and even bringing him out to California in early 1966, around the time of the notorious LSD parties known as the Acid Tests, which Romney was a part of. (Tiny Tim was completely opposed to drug use of any kind, but didn’t seem to mind being around high people, who found him very entertaining, for the most part.) Tiny Tim also became a regular fixture, under contract, at Steve Paul’s popular New York club called The Scene, where he opened for and hobnobbed with members of the Lovin’ Spoonful (who shared Tiny’s love of old music), the Blues Project, and even Jimi Hendrix, who was apparently quite charmed by him.
He also counted Bob Dylan, of all people, as an admirer. At one show Tiny played in the Village, Dylan was in the audience and Tiny mentioned him from the stage and then serenaded him with a hammy rendition of Dylan’s “Positively Fourth Street” done in the style of Al Jolson. On another occasion, he sang “Like a Rolling Stone” to Dylan a la Rudy Vallee. A little later, Dylan invited Tiny up to his house in Woodstock for a few days, to be part of an indie film he was making that was never released. He also took part in a wild documentary film by Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul, & Mary fame) and Barry Feinstein called You Are What You Eat, which Yarrow hoped would show “images that personified the kind of nuttiness and craziness of what was being explored at the time,” he says in Eternal Troubadour. “[Tiny Tim] was sincere, and he was caring, he was loving, and he was not like other people.” In what remains one of the strangest-ever pairings of musician and group, Yarrow brought in producer John Simon to record several songs with Tiny backed up by Bob Dylan’s backup band, the Hawks, soon to become known as The Band. Taped during a pair of marathon recording sessions were versions of Tiny singing “Memphis,” “Be My Baby,” “I Got You Babe” (with singer Eleanor Barooshian trading vocals, rather than Tiny’s usual solo-duet approach to that song), and, for good measure, Al Jolson’s “Sonny Boy.” In the end, “I Got You Babe” and “Be My Baby” appeared in the film (the latter intercut with what looks crowd footage from a Beatles stadium concert—screaming girls for Tiny Tim!) which was released in 1968 but was seen by almost no one. (You can see it on YouTube . . . if you dare!)
In late 1967, Tiny’s fortunes changed forever when Reprise Records head honcho Mo Ostin caught Tiny on a rainy, uncrowded night at The Scene and was so taken by his act that he offered him a record deal on the spot! Shortly after that, Ostin flew Tiny out to L.A., paired him with up-and-coming producer Richard Perry (who would be tremendously successful in the ’70s and ’80s), and cut Tiny Tim’s major label debut, God Bless Tiny Tim, using the cream of L.A. session musicians, later called the Wrecking Crew. In fact, there is surprisingly little ukulele on the album, and most of what’s there was played by an uncredited session pro (most likely Lyle Ritz); Tiny’s uke-playing only appears for a few seconds on a couple of tracks. The rest showcases Tiny the singer—using both of his voices—and as a genial host between tracks, speaking directly to the record-listener as if it’s a radio program. The material is split between newly minted songs from then-little-known songwriters (such as Paul Williams) and Tiny’s obscure choices from early 20th century pop repertoire, including the song that would cement his stardom, “Tiptoe Through the Tulips,” a 1929 number written by Al Dubin and Joe Burke for singer Nick Lucas, who sang it in the early talkie Gold Diggers of Broadway. Listening to God Bless Tiny Tim more than 50 years later, it sounds surprisingly strong—some bogus psychedelia notwithstanding. Perry clearly had the magic touch and managed to bring out the best in Tiny Tim.
Like many Americans, I, a 15-year-old rock music fan, got my first glimpse of Tiny Tim when he appeared for the first time on the late-January 1968 series debut of the hip sketch comedy program Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. I admit that I laughed so hard I nearly cried when he came out onstage blowing kisses, reached into a shopping bag, pulled out a soprano uke, and performed “A Tisket, A Tasket” and “On the Good Ship Lollipop” in his unearthly falsetto. What the hell was that? And when he appeared on Laugh-In’s February 5th episode and sang “Tiptoe Through the Tulips,” a star was born! All of a sudden he was everywhere—in magazines, on TV (Johnny Carson, host of the massively popular Tonight Show, gave him tremendous exposure, and of course he appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show), and even on the radio, where he had both novelty appeal and a surprising amount of hip cachet. Truly transgenerational, he appeared in rock halls for young audiences but also played Las Vegas and other “straight world” venues. He appeared at the giant Newport Pop Festival in Southern California in 1968 on the same bill as the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, the Byrds, and others, and in 1970 he played the Isle of Wight Music Festival in England (where he was quite popular), sandwiched between Miles Davis and Joni Mitchell before a crowd of over 600,000. Sometimes on the road he enlisted a pickup band or orchestra, but often he worked alone, with just his ukulele.
Unfortunately, Tiny Tim was never able recapture the mojo of this initial starburst. His 2nd Album (also produced by Richard Perry) was a commercial failure, as was a more ukulele-oriented children’s album he cut in 1969 called For All My Little Friends (which did at least earn him a Grammy nomination). Widening his repertoire to include songs such as “Stairway to Heaven” seemed promising but did not yield new success. However, he remained a very popular personality among show-biz folks, in the press and on TV, and that reached its zenith in December 1969 when the 37-year-old performer married 17-year-old Victoria Budinger (“Miss Vicki”) in a traditional ceremony live on The Tonight Show—it was one of the highest rated TV programs ever. Nick Lucas even sang “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” for the bride and groom.
Tiny was the first to admit that by the end of 1970, his career was on the skids. The problem with a novelty act is that the “novelty” usually wears off quickly. When he started singing patriotic medleys of World War I tunes and came out as a rabid supporter of the Vietnam war and President Nixon, he lost many of the young fans who’d once embraced his quirkiness. Disparaging the burgeoning Women’s Lib movement didn’t help, either. It wasn’t too long before he became one of those “Whatever happened to . . .?” figures, though he still worked regularly, occasionally even for decent paydays, and there was always a small hardcore base of fans that loved him dearly. He remained an optimist to the end, always believing his next career renaissance might be right around the corner, and he’d basically play to anyone who would listen, no matter how small the crowd. He always considered himself blessed to have had the career he had and to have met so many of his heroes—particularly the singers he idolized, from Nick Lucas to Bing Crosby to Irving Kaufman.
The end of the Tiny Tim saga came in the fall of 1996. First, he suffered a heart attack while performing at a ukulele festival in Massachusetts and was hospitalized for three weeks. Then, a few weeks later, despite warnings from doctors, he took the stage again at a benefit concert in Minneapolis, where he and his third wife, “Miss Sue,” were living. This time he collapsed during the final number of the night, “Tiptoe Through the Tulips,” denting the Beltona resonator uke he was playing as he fell. He died before midnight that night.
A Mixed Legacy
It’s difficult to pinpoint Tiny Tim’s legacy in the ukulele world. Did it take a step back because it became a jokey, novelty prop? Maybe. But there are also those who believe that the exposure he gave to the instrument at least put it into the public’s consciousness again and was, in a sense, a bridge to the Third Wave that we’re enjoying today.
I put the legacy question to a couple of veteran uke players and aficionados who are also experts in the early 20th century music that Tiny Tim adored and championed until his last breath.
Casey MacGill, who was featured on the cover of the Summer 2018 issue of Ukulele and also wrote our recent cover story on Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards, says:
“I do have a very strong opinion of Tiny Tim’s presence in pop culture during the last quarter of the 20th century. I started playing the ukulele for tips in the summer of 1969, and from then until Tim’s death, I was taunted with ‘Oh, Tiny Tim!’—as a cheap shot, or a way of making fun of me. The only more annoying thing during my professional music career was probably people asking for me to play the song ‘Free Bird.’
“Tim’s eccentric appearance and behavior were effective in creating a character to get him on The Tonight Show as an oddity, but it did the ukulele no favors. Very few people were aware of his encyclopedic knowledge of early American popular music.
“I had nothing against him personally, but I got very tired of being teased. I played the ukulele in spite of him, not because of him. I feel his presence cast a shadow over the instrument, and with his passing the renaissance of the ukulele began.”
And we’ll give the last word to Robert Armstrong, of Cheap Suit Serenaders fame, and a fine artist, as well:
“I was a fan of his performances even before he hit it big on TV with Johnny Carson and Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. I had friends back in the mid-’60s that saw him play in small clubs in NYC and raved about his musical knowledge and the wide range of songs he drew from, so I first learned about him then, before he made his first LP. Yes, he was definitely an eccentric character and that was no put-on, but his love for old recordings and performers from the first half of the 20th century was impressive indeed.
“I’m glad he enjoyed a decent share of fame, which really helped his career, but I never liked the way he was treated on TV. Rowan and Martin, especially, treated him like some sort of carnival geek. Johnny Carson was a bit more sympathetic, but still Tim came off as a freakish oddity, much to the amusement of the mainstream TV audience.
“Tim made a number of seriously good recordings. One of my favorites is his tribute CD to the songs recorded by Russ Colombo in the early ’30s [Prisoner of Love, 1995]. Great stuff! Tim had a fine baritone voice that people often overlook because they always expected him to leap into his novelty falsetto.
“The band Brave Combo made a wonderful CD with Tim titled Girl  after the hit song by The Beatles, which he does an over-the-top wonderful and unique version of. I remember talking with Carl Finch, the leader of Brave Combo, about working with Tim and he had funny and even disturbing stories that detailed Tim’s genuine strangeness in the recording studio. Somehow, though, they managed to pull off a fine recording in spite of it. Around the time that Tim was recording with Brave Combo, he also approached the Cheap Suit Serenaders to back him up on a record. To our delight, he was a fan of our band, but unfortunately, once we explored the possibilities of working with him, we realized that it just wouldn’t work for us.”