Tiny Tim: The Eternal Troubadour

As a wonderful new documentary brings the 60s pop culture icon back into the spotlight, we take a deeper look at the man born Herbert Khaury

God Bless Tiny Tim (Art: Ron Hart)

I first met Tiny Tim sometime in the late 1960s. My songwriting partner, the under-assistant east coast promotion man, Johnny Wonderling, brought me to New York’s famed “1650 Broadway”–the office building at the corner of 51st and Broadway. Which was becoming an extension of the new Tin Pan Alley, now the center of Pop Music’s song publishing world, in the famous Brill Building, some two streets away off 49th street. 

We were going to the offices of Buddha and Kama Sutra Records. In my teens and newly signed to a $50 a month songwriting job, I was in awe of visiting the offices of the Loving Spoonful’s record company. Johnny wanted me to teach a song we’d written about a yellow canoe to Herbert Khaury, aka “Tiny Tim.” All I knew about Tiny Tim was his 1968 hit song: “Tiptoe Through the Tulips.” Taken from his first album called God Bless Tiny Tim.

Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.

And so I was relegated to a side room alone with this strange man who only spoke with a falsetto voice and who kept calling me “Mr. Carey.” During an odd and often frustrating hour, and while keeping a straight face, I showed Tim the chords, words, and melody, I heard a commotion in the main office.. We both went to check it out. Although uncertain, it seems that the FBI or some other law enforcement agency had come looking for illegal drugs. Not finding any, one of their members allegedly pissed into a desk before leaving. I missed that, but everyone was talking it up.

Then I left. So did Tiny. 

Another time, I went to Peter Yarrow’s apartment near Central Park South. Not sure, but I think a meeting was going on with Pete Schekeryk and Melanie. That’s kind of because I didn’t travel in those exalted circles yet, being only a young songwriter from Queens. However, when I went to use the Loo, I passed a partially open bedroom door, and there on the side of the bed was Tiny Tim on the phone to someone, could have been his manager. Anyway, what made that fascinating, was that the voice coming from “Tiny Tim” was no longer his traditional high-pitched falsetto. He was barking in a deep, angry, and rough Washington Heights accent at someone letting Tim down.

I have to say I was dumbfounded. Remember, I’d spent over an hour in a closed room teaching my song to this guy. During that time, He never once dropped his “act”. From then on, I knew it was an “act”. The kinda prissy, sissy, high-pitched performer that he showed the public. The character Tiny Tim played all the time was his most remarkable performance. He even maintained that “falsetto voice” for the whole time we worked closely together, alone, and I was just an audience of one.

Tiny Tim was, as his recent biographer, Justin Martell called him, “the Eternal Troubadour” (Jawbone Press ISBN 978-1-908279-87-3). After my two brief encounters with Tim, I realized he was always himself without the voice. The whole story of his “improbable life” appears within the remarkable 470 pages that Martell researched and crafted. This article is but a tidbit of that story. 


VIDEO: Tiny Tim makes his TV debut on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In

Tim’s career in Show Business began by singing at amateur nights around Manhattan, earning $5 to $10 if he won. He was also a messenger boy for MGM Records. Steve Paul’s The Scene began to book him as their opening act, figuring any band that followed Tiny Tim on stage would look and sound great. After being discovered, he became a frequent guest on popular network TV shows like Ed Sullivan, Jackie Gleason, Laugh-In and The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.         

In 1967, folk singer Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary invited Tiny to sing “Be My Baby” in the cult movie Peter was producing, the eclectic You Are What You Eat. During the filming in Woodstock, NY, Tim was invited to Bob Dylan’s home. According to interviews Tim has given, he hailed Dylan as the Rudy Vallee of our time. Then he sang “Like A Rolling Stone,” but in the 1928 Rudy-Vallee-style, accompanying himself on his often out-of-tune Ukelele. Tim then spoke to Dylan of the other golden age singers. He ended their meeting by perfectly imitating Dylan’s voice and phrasing style while singing Vallee’s 1929 hit song, “My Time Is Your Time“. 

His wedding on the Tonight Show to the first of three wives became a significant reality TV event. An estimated 45 million viewers watched it live on December 17th, 1969. His wife, known by Tim as “Miss Vicki,” was 17. Tim was 37.


VIDEO: Tiny Tim marries Miss Vicki on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson 12/17/69

Before his death on stage in 1996, Tim became known and appreciated as highly knowledgeable about songs, singers, and musical history. Name any tune, and he knew who first sang it, even if only used in a 1920s film, who wrote it, and he could usually sing it. Either in his trademark falsetto or mimicking the original recording. I think he wasn’t allowed to play “Name That Tune” for prize money because he knew more than the show’s researchers.

By 1974 Tim had divorced, Miss Vicki and left her with their daughter (“Tulip”). His second marriage in 1984 to 23-year-old model Jan also didn’t work out. Then in 1994, he married Susan Marie Gardner, age 36. “Miss Sue” had been his fan since she was twelve years old and was determined to marry him. He seemed to be irresistible to women. They waited and offered themselves at autograph signings, hotel room doors, and backstage. If you have seen Tiny Tim, you would have thought he repelled them. But that doesn’t seem to have been the case.

While searching in vain on YouTube for a recording of Tiny Tim singing “Yellow Canoe,” I came across dozens of other unexpected recordings. And they sounded pretty impressive. Tim didn’t always use his trademark falsetto voice. Instead, he somewhat mimicked the original pop versions of his chosen songs but with his own particular timing and phrasing. Here’s a partial list of fascinating listening: “Another Brick in the Wall”“Highway To Hell”, “People Are Strange”“Nowhere Man” (which he sang to George Harrison live), “Those Were the Days” “Stairway to Heaven”, “Are Your Lonesome Tonight” “The Great Pretender“, ‘Stayin Alive”, “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy“, the Presley-like “Earth Angel“. 

Sadly he was often also his own worst enemy, fighting with producers, managers, record companies, and trusting the wrong people, and getting hurt in the process.

Tiny Tim was an underrated musical genius and an icon of eccentricity. Appearing in outrageous attire to the many thousands of fans who attended his concerts in America, Canada, Australia, and England during a near half-century career.  He certainly opened the show-biz door for flamboyant performers that followed after him like Boy George, David Bowie, Frank Zappa, Bjork, Elton John, Lady Gaga, Prince and Michael Jackson. 

The new film Tiny Tim: King For a Day by Johan von Sydow is distributed by Juno Films, premiered online at DOC’s NYC Nov 11-19 Showcase. 


VIDEO: Tiny Tim: King For A Day film trailer



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Carey Budnick

Carey Budnick is a songwriter whose work has appeared on recordings by The Cowsills and others. His writing on culture has appeared in the Albany Times Union Sunday Magazine and the Hartford Advocate.

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