Eternal Troubadour: The Improbable Life of Tiny Tim
By Justin Martell and Alanna Wray McDonald
Jawbone Press, 368 pp., $19.95
Even among the freaks of late-1960s music, Tiny Tim was pretty freaky-deaky.
Who would have imagined that one of the most recognizable (if not successful) stars of the era would be a 6’1”, rail-thin guy with long, curly hair and a huge hook nose who wore white-powder face makeup and ill-fitting suits while accompanying himself on a ukulele singing decades-old songs in a high falsetto voice with overtly effeminate mannerisms?
Or that the same man would go against counterculture mores of the time by passionately supporting Richard Nixon and the war in Vietnam, keeping women at home, and practicing an intense love for and devotion to Jesus Christ? While struggling with obsessive sexual desires for young women (all given the salutation “Miss”) in between following the Toronto Maple Leafs and Los Angeles Dodgers and showering up to six times a day?
Welcome to the weird world of Tiny Tim.
He will be forever embedded in pop culture consciousness for his unlikely Top 20 rendition of “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” in 1968, as well as his live wedding that was viewed by between 45 and 50 million people on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show a year later.
That he did not actually play his signature instrument on the record of his signature song is one of the least memorable revelations in these pages.
But as Martell and McDonald’s exhaustive – and I mean exhaustive – research and writing shows, there's a lot more story to the story of the man born Herbert Khaury than as an odd footnote of the 1960s.
Growing up, Khaury was already the neighborhood oddball whose fragile ego was routinely crushed by a domineering mother and distant father. Obsessed with the music of a bygone era and performers like Rudy Vallee and Al Jolson, the natural tenor began singing in a high falsetto voice at first for attention.
But then it became his calling card as an offbeat attraction in the clubs of Greenwich Village, where among his admirers was his occasional dining buddy, another young and struggling singer with an odd voice — Bob Dylan.
When Tim made his first appearance on The Merv Griffin Show in 1966, protest letters came in from viewers who wanted to know what that “thing” was on the screen.
He found more receptive audiences on Laugh-In and in Johnny Carson, who had Tiny Tim on his show more than 20 times over the years. As the authors write, they actually seemed to care for Tim as a person. Carson was also one of many who firmly believed that Tim’s bizarre behavior and mannerisms were no act.
Tim's relations with the multitude of women who passed through his life — some platonic, some sexual — could almost be their own separate book. It seems that despite his effeminate manner (and a homosexual relationship early in life), he was into chicks.
Though he would alternately put women on a pedestal in a flurry of romantic yearnings, but then become angry if they didn't live up to an impossible candy-colored fantasy. And while he might not fuck them, licking honey off their bodies (and then chastising himself about it to Jesus) happened more than once.
Each year, he would give a trophy to "The Most Beautiful Girl" in his life — even if it wasn't a wife or girlfriend. And he very nonchalantly told first wife Miss Vicki (who was 17 to his 37 when they married on The Tonight Show) in the limo after the ceremony that he would continue to see and have other women.
Ultimately, Tiny Tim’s time in the spotlight was brief, though he maintained a career on package shows and – believe it or not – carnival revues. He would also occasionally make news with his appearances on Howard Stern’s radio show. That’s where Tim would often detail his, um, unique dietary, hygiene and sexual practices to the delight and shock of the shock jock. Tim also put out bizarre single releases like “Santa Claus Has Got the AIDS This Year.”
But all the while, he remained a champion of music of the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s, with an encyclopedic knowledge of songs, writers and performers that impressed even Bing Crosby. For all his weirdness, Tim was a real musical archivist. While his life, understandably, overshadows his music sometimes, the man could sing long-forgotten songs for three hours straight without repeating a single one. Tiny Tim died in 1996 at age 64 at a Minneapolis hospital after suffering a heart attack onstage.
Houston makes an appearance in the book detailing Tim’s appearances at the Cork Club. Sadly, in 1970, Miss Vicki suffered a miscarriage at Methodist Hospital while in town.
Naming the boy “IT” and opting for a burial with casket, the couple interred their son at Memorial Oaks Cemetery in the “Babyland” plot. A year later, Tim returned to Houston for another series of dates and toured the Houston (now Johnson) Space Center.
The story of Tiny Tim’s life is alternately heartbreaking, infuriating and head-scratching. And with scores of new interviews (including with wives Miss Vicki and Miss Sue, but not daughter Tulip), detailed research and access to Tim’s own personal (and very frank) diaries, this book makes for a compelling, if lengthy, read for the non-“Tiny Head.”
KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE...
Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.