CHRIS CAMPION
Observer, September 17th 2006

HELLO, STRANGER

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.

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.'

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'.

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 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.'

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.

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.

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. '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 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…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, 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.'

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.'


Tiny also insisted on answering every piece of fan mail he received personally. Ernie Clark was one of those who became an instant fan. He now maintains an official Tiny Tim website (www.tinytim.org) and has a huge collection of memorabilia… 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.

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.

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.

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.

'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… 'Was he a success or a failure ?...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.'

 




Street Of Dreams - Tiny Tim: Hello, Stranger