Tiny Tim – Fifteen Minutes of Celebrity

It was a media event to end all media events – Tiny Tim was going to marry Miss Vicki (Victoria May Budinger) on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show the night of December 17th, 1969. Record numbers of viewers tuned in that night, breathless in anticipation of…what?   A geek show?   A carnival side-show? A travesty? Would Miss Vicki be a no-show? How could that pretty young thing marry such an ugly old man? America had to watch!

Forty million people watched that wedding – which went flawlessly. How many were waiting for some disaster to occur is impossible to guess, but it was not an insignificant number.

That was at the height of Tiny Tim’s popularity. When he died on November 30th, 1996 of a heart attack, he was referred to as a has-been, although he was still working, still playing in small clubs, and had collapsed in one in Minneapolis after finishing a set. Periodically he was the subject of whatever-happened-to articles and TV segments.

His name was Herbert Khaury, and his claimed birth date was April 12, 1933, which would make him 64 at the time of his death, and only 36 when he married the seventeen-year-old Miss Vicki. Some obituaries gave his age as 66, but the World Almanac stated that he was 73, making him ten years older than he claimed – and in his mid-forties when that famous marriage took place. He followed elaborate skin and other hygiene procedures on a daily basis in order to “preserve his youthful appearance” and, given that, the older age cited makes more sense.

Khaury was fascinated by old songs and singers. He collected old 78 rpm records and sheet music with the ear and interest of a musicologist, plumbing the almost-forgotten singing stars and popular songs of earlier eras for material. He spent a lot of time in the New York Public Library – he lived in the Bronx – while he was growing up and for years after that. Many of the songs he sang he found there, some of them going back to the 1830s.

His style would be called “retro” now. His inspirations were Cliff “Ukelele Ike” Edwards (he was the voice of Jiminy Cricket in Disney’s Pinocchio), Nick Lucas (who first sang “Tip-Toe Thru’ the Tulips” in the Thirties) and radio’s Whispering Jack Smith, as well as crooners like Bing Crosby.

“I want to thrill the audience with these songs from the days of the Victrola. You know, everyone talks of the black man’s soul, rhythm, and blues.   No one talks about the white man’s soul. The white man’s soul, in music, was songs like ‘In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree’ and “Give My Regards to Broadway,’” he said.  

He began his career in show business in the early Fifties, first performing under the name of “Larry Love,” and using a variety of names until he settled on “Tiny Tim” a name he took from Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” In his early days he played small Greenwich Village clubs, singing in his warbling falsetto and strumming his ukulele for audiences which mostly ignored him. He is credited with making his debut at the Page 3 (now Woody’s on Seventh Avenue), then a lesbian cabaret with a hostess who called herself “Mr. Rhythm.” He was probably as out of place there as he was when he later appeared at Gerde’s, a folk and neo-rock club, in the middle Sixties.

He wore loud plaid jackets, wore his ringletted hair down to his shoulders, had a nose which dominated his face, usually smiled insincerely (his eyes remained sunken and sad), and sounded fruity when he spoke – addressing everyone as “Mister” or “Miss” with a strange deference. How could he fail to become a superstar – at least for a few minutes?

Television made him.   It gave him stardom and wide exposure – and then, tired of him, spat him out into oblivion. While he was hot, he was on Johnny Carson’s show regularly, and was a feature on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, as well as appearing on Ed Sullivan’s Sunday night variety show and the Jackie Gleason show.   But one could rarely be certain why he was on TV. Was is because he was a singer and entertainer? Or was it because he was some kind of a freak – a weirdo or loony of some sort?   Did Johnny like him? Or was he making fun of him? When he was on Laugh-In, why was co-host Dick Martin always rolling his eyes in disbelief?   Were we supposed to be laughing with or at him?

A lot of people laughed at him, but he didn’t care. They were paying attention to him and he reveled in it while he could. His signature song became “Tip-Toe Thru’ The Tulips With Me” sung in that strangely unconvincing falsetto, but his first album, God Bless Tiny Tim (Reprise RS 6292), featured a broad base of songs, ranging from “Welcome To My Dream” and various songs by Irving Berlin, George M. Cohan and Gordon Jenkins, to “I Got You, Babe,” the huge contemporary hit for Sonny & Cher. That album was recorded and released in 1968, just as Tiny Tim was hitting the big time.   Indeed, “Tulips” when released as a single made it into the Top Forty.

Cashing in on the first album’s success, he immediately recorded Tiny Tim’s 2nd Album (RS 6323), which Reprise released the following year. Here he mixed songs like “When I Walk With You” with Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Great Balls of Fire.”   The rock ‘n’ roll songs had a bizarre quality to them when Tiny Tim performed them.   His admiration of them was sincere, but his performances were freakish. His “Victrola style” singing did not mesh well with rock.   Still trying to grab the brass ring while it was available, he released a second album in 1969, For All My Little Friends, an album of songs for children – and then his recording career was over for two decades.

After having a child, Tulip, by him, Miss Vicki divorced him. He remarried in 1984 to Miss Jan, but they soon separated. In 1985 he actually joined the circus for 36 weeks. Throughout, he continued to play in small clubs around the country, occasionally recording singles for obscure independent labels to sell at his gigs (these are now rare and sought after) and expanding his repertoire, bringing into play his natural baritone voice.

Speaking of the old songs from the Twenties, Tim said at one point, “If at a show, I sing one or two songs from that time period, in the style of that singer…if I feel I did the singers justice, and it magnifies to the crowd and the audience connects to me…when they think they’re coming out to see ‘Tip-Toe Thru’ the Tulips’ and they hear something from seventy years ago that hits them in the heart…that’s what has kept me alive.”

Nonetheless, he tried to stay up to date, covering songs like Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” and Led Zepelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.”   In 1987 the Bear Family label tried a revival with Tiptoe Through the Tulips: Resurrection. Tiny Tim began a comeback in the Nineties which saw him back on TV with Conan O’Brien and Howard Stern. In 1995 Seeland released I Love Me, and the same year Rounder released Live in Chicago. In 1996, the year of his death, he recorded and released Girl and Tiny Tim’s Christmas Album for Rounder. That latter was his last new album.

A strange, proud and unique figure, Herbert (Tiny Tim) Khaury found his niche in life and never minded that most people never took him seriously or understood him. He had somehow achieved his life’s dream.

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