Eternal Troubadour: The Improbable Life of Tiny Tim
Justin Martell & Alanna McDonald
Herbert B. Khaury, was better known to the world as Tiny Tim, a lovable oddball ukulele playing weirdo who scored a hit in 1968 with the song “Tip-toe Thru The Tulips With Me.” He was also a complicated man. He was a true American oddity—a giant, hulking, physically imposing fellow, he had an amazing knowledge of obscure music from the turn of the century, and the ability to sing in a range from anywhere between falsetto to deep bass. His was an unlikely career—and one that was undervalued by the fickle listening audience. Justin Martell and Alanna Wray McDonald’s biography Eternal Troubadour: The Improbable Life of Tiny Tim is an aptly-titled in-depth look at the untold history of this gentle giant.
Born in Manhattan to immigrant parents, a young Herb Khaury took a great interest in the music he heard on the radio, soon discovering that he had a talent for singing. Though his parents were loving, they were quite concerned for their son’s future; they knew he was an odd, eccentric person, and they encouraged him in his singing, not so much with the goal of him making a living, but for his self-esteem purposes. He would enter local singing competitions, and soon discovered that he had the power to captivate audiences with his singing and his innocent, childlike personality. Though he was instantly polarizing—you either loved him or hated him, no middle ground—he did start to develop a reputation as a must-see live act, performing with other eccentric act in the New York City area, ranging from Bob Dylan and Lenny Bruce to Moondog, making friends along the way with up-and-coming and famous people alike, all intrigued by this compelling man.
Fame would come, but it would leave him quicker than it arrived. His hit single was spawned in part by his regular appearances on The Tonight Show and Laugh-In. God Bless Tiny Tim, his debut album, would prove to be his career high point. Sadly, his fame quickly eluded him; thanks to bad business decisions and shady “management” associates, the music industry soon tired of him, He would get back into the spotlight briefly when he married his first wife, Miss Vicky, live on the Tonight Show—but the marriage, which produced a daughter, would be short-lived. It was also somewhat short-sighted, too; if anything, it furthered questions about Tiny Tim’s sincerity and his sexuality, as it all seemed just a tad too contrived. It also didn’t help that Tiny, who had won over the hippie movement with his surreal hearkening to innocent times, would soon release a number of unapologetically patriotic numbers that seemed to mock the hippie audience who dug him.
But the remaining years of his life would show that his sincerity and commitment to his musical career. He would perform and tour relentlessly for the next two decades, and would die of a heart attack that he incurred while performing. He would never again have a hit record, though he would raise eyebrows with the painfully unsympathetic song, “Santa Claus Has Got The AIDS,” a shameful number that gave him headlines and press coverage for all the wrong reasons. Spurred on by his close friend and apologist Howard Stern, this single would prove to be a black mark on his otherwise wholesome and (seemingly) innocent public persona.
Yet he took it all in stride, and though it phased him, he never let it do so publicly. Eternal Troubadour’s documenting of this later era is not always flattering to Tiny Tim, especially when it comes to his dealings with women. The authors are to be commended for handling the complexities of this complicated yet beautiful spirit; it would be relatively easy to conceal and obscure this side of him by dismissing them as mere eccentricities. Thankfully, they don’t, and in so doing, they’ve produced one of the most honest and revealing biographies of the year, one that tells its story well, warts and all.
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