Each month of this year I am posting a very brief sketch of someone who did things their own way, who lived their own iconoclastic life. Last month we looked at the phone phreakery and child like sense of wonder present in the life of Joybubbles. This month we are going to explore the ukulele strung shenanigans of that soprano toned vaudevillian throwback, Tiny Tim. He lived a life full of verve, vision, vibrato, and not a few eccentrities.
(If you are interested in the background of WHY I am writing these notes on American weirdos you can read this post by John Michael Greer on Johnny Appleseed's America.)
There is much more to the story of Tiny Tim than his Tiptoe Through the Tulips or his marriage to Miss Vicky on the Johnny Carson Show in December of 1969. Tiny Tim was a true 20th century troubadour, and deeply religious all American freak, whose eccentricities were only matched by his encyclopedic knowledge of popular songs. He was an archivist, entertainer, and a dandy with a ukulele. He loved show business with all his heart, all most as much as he loved Jesus. Through prayer and devotion he overcame the obstacles placed in his way to live his dream of being an entertainer.
His love of old and mostly forgotten tunes dated back to his time as a kid. Born as Herbert Butros Khaury on April 12, 1932, he also went by Herbert Buckingham Khaury. His parents were of mixed religious background, and Tiny came from a priestly lineage. His mother was a Polish Jew and daughter of a Rabbi. She immigrated to America in 1914 from Brest-Litovsk, now part of Belarus. His father had been a textile worker in Beirut, Lebanon whose father was a Maronite Catholic Priest. The Maronites are an ethnoreligious Christian group whose members belong to the Syriac Maronite Church, an Eastern Catholic Church in full communion with the Pope and Catholic Church. The founding of this branch is attributed to St. Maroun who led an ascetic life in the Taurus Mountains. The Syriac Marionite Church is totally cool with having their priests be able to marry and have families, which is how Tiny ended up with a Rabbi grandpa on one side, and a priest grandpa on the other side of his family tree.
When Tiny was a young little whippersnapper of five years age his father thought he needed a Gramophone and he was right. It was a vintage one, wind up, and Tiny got his love for listening to the old tunes, and how he ended up getting a huge amount of his repertoire straight from the mouth of the horn.
Listening to records on the Gramophone became an addiction for Tiny and he soon caught the disease for LPs, becoming an early music and record hound. He became fascinated with the technology, with the music, and with the entertainment business. Sitting around in his New York home listening to records he started memorizing the songs, and singing them.
One of the first 78's he heard was "Beautiful, Ohio" sung by Henry Burr, as this was a record his dad gave him, along with the player. Burr became a very early radio singer and recording artist. In 1920 Burr made his inaugural radio appearance using a microphone from a wooden bowl with an inverted telephone transmitter. Broadcasting from Denver, Colorado this choice bit of early DX was heard by the descendants of gold bugs and others living in San Francisco. Burr was also credited with singing over the telephone lines from New York to diners wearing headphones at a Rotary dinner in California. The same year he signed a contract with the Victor record company. He became one of Tiny Tim's heroes.
One of the music hound habits that helped build up Tiny's deep bank of songs was that of going to the New York Public Library. He spent most of his free time there. As Frank Zappa once quipped, “If you want to get laid, go to college. If you want an education, go to the library.” And since Tiny didn't want to get laid, believing that even kissing and touching should be refrained from until marriage, he got himself a world class education in America's popular music from years gone by from his immersion in the resources available at the NYPL. He read everything he could about the recording industry and making records, and everything he could about people like Henry Burr and others from the first few waves of recording artists. He also studied sheet music and when photocopiers became available he would copy sheet music. He continued this hobby for the rest of his life.
At age eleven he started learning to play instruments, first the violin. He would perform for his parents in the evening. At age thirteen he had an appendectomy. The year was 1945 and the harsh war years were coming to a close. He put his down time in recovery to good use, feeding his imagination and spiritual life by reading the Bible and listening to the radio.
On the school front he wasn't doing so well, having repeated the tenth grade a few times before dropping out to make his own way in the world. Frankly, school bored him and he new his destiny was the stage. By this time he'd already picked up the mandolin and ukulele as an instrumental player. While singing along with the radio one day he discovered he could go up higher than he'd thought, having a fine falsetto voice full of verve and vibrato.
During his early years of struggle (to be followed by later years of struggle following his commercial high-point as the ruthless entertainment industry thrust him aside) he worked as a messenger for the offices of Metro Goldwyn Mayer in New York. This line of work made him even further infatuated with showbiz.
Tiny decided to enter a talent show which was the debut of his newly discovered falsetto, with the song "You are My Sunshine." Now with a taste for the spotlight he started going to various amateur nights and clubs, performing for whoever would let him on the stage. He played in the New York subways as a busker.
He needed even more than his high voice to stand apart from all the talent trying to make it big in the Big Apple. He started dressing weird and after seeing a movie poster for actor Rudolph Valentino who was sporting long hair, he decided to grow his out as well. This was all years and years before the heyday of the hippie. People thought he looked like a freak, and he kind of was. He also took to wearing a pasty white makeup and put lotions on his skin. His mother wanted to have her son, now in his twenties committed, or at least checked out by the shrinks at Bellevue hospital. His dad talked her down.
He still hadn't adopted his signature moniker of Tiny Tim during this time when his family thought he was nuts for trying to make a go at a singing career.
1959 was a fateful year for the young balladeer. He was working at Hubert's Museum and Live Flea Circus in Times Square under the name Larry Love the Singing Canary. He got himself a manager who started sending him off on auditions, where he continued to play unpaid. At a club in Greenwich Village he sang Tiptoe Through the Tulips and it became his piece-de-resistance.
His first paid gig was at a gay and lesbian bar in the village where he played for six nights a week and for six hours a night earning him ninety-six bucks a month. It's kind of ironic that it was his first paying job as later Tiny Tim was noted for his prudish and strident views about sex, as well as his homophobia. It was at this time, after following the midget act, that his manager gave him the name Tiny Tim. He had arrived at the foot of the ladder but he still had ways to climb.
A helping him came along when he started appearing in films, such as Normal Love (1963) and You Are What You Eat (1968). In the latter he sang a version of I Got You Babe and this helped him get onto the television program Laugh In, which he became a regular on.
In 1968 he released his first LP, God Bless Tiny Tim. As he got more time in the spotlight, and other albums followed, people started to wonder whether or not Tiny Tim was just putting it on as schtick to get into the big time, or if he was as genuine as he seemed. Those who got to know him, realized it wasn't an act. Tiny was a romantic idealist and his persona was part and parcel of who and what he was.
In 1969 he married his first of three wives Miss Vicky on the Tonight Show. Going into the seventies he continued to perform and make appearances though his popularity had started to wain with the fickle public. He charged on though, appearing in horror movie Blood Harvest (1987), and releasing his own albums on his Vic Tim Record Label when his contracts with the big league labels were over.
And when he stopped being able to perform in the big venues, he kept on playing in the smaller ones. In the 1990s several more albums were released. It was in the mid 1990s when apocalyptic folk musician David Tibet of Current 93 fame became obsessed with Tiny Tim.
Tiny Tim shared with David Tibet various esoteric and eschatological views about the end times and Christianity. Like Tibet, Tiny's views were also not within the mainstream of Christian theology. Among other things Tiny believed in aliens and thought the Antichrist would most likely come from a distant galaxy. Tiny and Tibet conversed frequently with each other over the phone.
On Tibet's label Durtro he released the album Songs of an Impotent Troubadour that contained his more off the wall songs. It contained such classics as “I Used To Love Jessica Hahn, But Now I Love Stephanie Bohn,” “Santa Claus Has Got the AIDS This Year" and “She Left Me with the Herpes.” The final track was a collaboration with David Tibet called “Just What Do You Mean by ‘Antichrist’?" Steve Stapleton, best friend of Tibet, also used some of Tiny Tim's material on Nurse With Wound releases.
Besides his non-traditonal views on the Christian end times, Tiny Tim had some other eccentricities. He bathed and washed himself often, placing an extreme importance on bodily cleanliness. This went along with his mental ideas of cleanliness. He would spell out "S-E-X" when speaking of that subject. When he brushed his teeth, which he did four times a day, he used his own mixture of Crest, Macleans and Gleem to give them a significant shine. After his baths, he wouldn't dry off with a regular cloth towel, which he thought was just a vehicle to harbor germs. He only used disposable paper towels, of the Job Squad or Bounty Microwave variety.
Yet if you were hanging out with Tiny Tim you were probably talking about music, when not discussing the alien anti-christ. If you named a song, he'd tell you who wrote it, who recorded, in what year and how it did on the charts. If he had bought the album he could even tell you what he was wearing when he bought it.
Yet the entertainment business that he loved so much discarded him when he couldn't be used to make a buck for the big guys anymore. Yet he scraped on. In 1995 he moved to Minneapolis to live with Miss Sue his third wife.
On November 30, 1996 he was scheduled to play a charity event for the Women's Catholic League Ball. A band was scheduled to play and back him, but the band leader wouldn't play the songs Tiny had brought with him, even though he knew a whole catalog of standards in his head. So Tiny took to the stage for the last time accompanied by himself on ukulele, playing songs with great verve. He never once let the venue dictate how he performed. He gave it his all. He'd already been diagnosed with congestive heart failure, and after singing Tiptoe through the Tulips one last time he came off the stage shaky. He'd had a heart attack while singing the 1920's song he'd made into anthem for the Flower Children of the sixties.
When asked about death he said, "I am ready for anything that happens. Death is never polite, even when we expect it. The only thing I pray for is the strength to go out without complaining."
At the event, a doctor in the audience tried to resuscitate him, and EMT's were called to the scene, and he was rushed to the hospital, where he died moments later. He didn't go out complaining at all, he went out singing.
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Justin Patrick Moore
Husband. Father/Grandfather. Writer. Green wizard. Ham radio operator (KE8COY). Electronic musician. Library cataloger.