Tiny Tim (Herbert Butros Khaury)
Tiny Tim (Herbert Butros Khaury)
(b. 12 April 1932 in New York City; d. 30 November 1996 in Minneapolis, Minnesota), songwriter, musicologist, and “lovable eccentric” best known for his appearances on television, dressed in outlandish costumes, playing the ukulele and singing his one hit, “Tiptoe Through the Tulips with Me,” in falsetto.
Tiny Tim was the only child of immigrant parents Butros Khaury, a Lebanese textile worker, and Tillie Staff, an Orthodox Jew who worked in the garment industry. He grew up in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood and showed an interest in music early. Tim dropped out of George Washington High School following his sophomore year. He enjoyed listening to Arthur Godfrey on the radio, and because Godfrey played the ukulele, Tim decided to try it. He also taught himself the guitar.
What he wanted to do was entertain. He played the guitar at parties in the Bronx and began to develop a reputation under the name Larry Love. Tim had a number of pseudonyms in accordance with his belief that changing a name was like changing luck. From 1950 to 1953 he sang on amateur nights at a number of clubs in New York and New Jersey, but never won. In 1953 he had an inspiration to sing in a different voice from his pleasant baritone. One night at the Old Alliance Club amateur night he tried singing in a trembling falsetto, and his rendition of “You Are My Sunshine” took second place.
In 1958 Tim, using the name “Larry Love, the Singing Canary,” was a regular at Hubert’s Museum and Live Flea Circus, a “freak show” in New York City’s Times Square. He left Hubert’s in 1960 and changed his name to Darry Dover. In March 1962 he got a job at the Cafe Bizarre in Greenwich Village, working two nights a week at $10 per night. Although the job only lasted a month, other gigs in the Village followed. Tim’s manager, George King, renamed him Sir Timothy Tims, but Tim could not master the English accent required by the “role,” so King renamed him Tiny Tim, a comic touch for the six-foot, one-inch-tall singer.
His next engagement, in March 1963, was at the lesbian club Page Three. He was popular with the audience, and his falsetto versions of “I Feel Pretty” and “I Enjoy Being a Girl” invariably brought down the house. His act consisted of four numbers: three in his “high” voice and one duet with himself, using his own baritone and the falsetto. Tim stayed at Page Three until the police closed it in July 1965. On 5 December 1965 Tim did his act at yet another amateur show, at the Champagne Gallery, and won first prize. That same night Tim auditioned at The Scene and was hired for three months without pay.
In March 1966 he appeared on the Merv Griffin Show, singing “People Will Say We’re in Love,” one of his “duets.” After a trip to California, Tim went back to The Scene and stayed there for the next year and a half. He got a small part playing himself in a documentary film, You Are What You Eat (1968), produced by Peter Yarrow of the musical group Peter, Paul and Mary. Yarrow brought Mo Ostin, an executive for Warner Brothers Reprise Records, to see Tim’s act at The Scene. Ostin promptly signed him to a recording contract.
At last, Tiny Tim’s career was beginning to move. In January 1968 he appeared in the first broadcast of Laugh-In; he eventually made several other appearances on the show. The fan mail was abundant and usually negative. His greatest television success, however, was on the Tonight Show. After his initial appearance in April 1968, his first album God Bless Tiny Tim (1968) sold more than 200,000 copies, and the single “Tiptoe Through the Tulips With Me” became a hit. On the Tonight Show, Tim became a favorite guest, appearing on an average of once every seven weeks. With his white face, long, stringy hair, exaggerated effeminate gestures, and odd topics of conversation, he was a complement to straight man Johnny Carson.
Tim met Victoria May Budinger, who was just seventeen years old, in June 1969 at a book signing at Wanamaker’s in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, for his book Beautiful Things (1969), a collection of his favorite sayings. He called all women “Miss” to show respect; thus she became “Miss Vicky.” After Tim announced their engagement on the Tonight Show, Carson invited him to have the ceremony on television. At the wedding, which aired on 17 December 1969, some 10,000 tulips, imported from Holland, decorated the set. There were no commercials during the ceremony, whose viewing audience of 45 million was one of the largest in television history.
This was the high point of Tim’s career. Once he started on the Tonight Show, Tim had many opportunities. In 1968 he appeared at the Royal Albert Hall in London, singing with a fifty-eight-piece orchestra, and won over a skeptical audience. A club engagement at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas paid $50,000 for the first week. He and Miss Vicky appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, and he toured England, Australia, and New Zealand. In 1970 he appeared at the Isle of Wight Festival, a rock festival on the Isle of Wight with the Who, The Doors, Joni Mitchell, and other superstars. His rendition of “There’ll Always Be an England” can be seen in the “rockumentary” film Message to Love: The Isle of Wight Festival, (1997).
But Tim’s brief stardom was waning. In 1971 he was on the Tonight Show only twice, and his next appearance, in 1974, was labeled a “charity” booking by his biographer Harry Stein. Tim’s personal life was also changing. He and Miss Vicky, who had one child, Tulip Victoria, were divorced in 1977. In June 1984 he married Jan Alweiss. That marriage also ended in divorce, and in August 1995 he married Susan Gardner.
Throughout the rest of his life, Tim tried to regain his fame. Unfortunately, the sideshow image of Tim, singing falsetto with his ukulele, was the image audiences wanted, not Tim the musicologist who had a remarkable knowledge of popular songs, gleaned from 78 r.p.m. records, Edison cylinders, and the music archives of the New York Public Library. In fact, Tim was described in a 1996 Billboard article as “a walking archive of music.” He not only carried notebooks full of old songs but could imitate the recorded sounds of singers as diverse as Rudy Vallee, Al Jolson, Russ Columbo, and Ruth Etting. His knowledge of the history of recorded popular music was encyclopedic. In 1979 in Sydney, Australia, he sang a 135-minute, 133-song stream-of-consciousness history of recorded popular music, from the first songs recorded for the phonograph to the Bee Gees “Stayin’ Alive.”
In 1980 Tim’s song “Tiptoe to the Gas Pumps,” a response to the gas crisis, led to another appearance on the Tonight Show, but not a return to stardom. He toured constantly, often on one-night stands, most often singing in his “real” baritone voice. In the late 1980s and the 1990s Tim became a feature on the Howard Stern Show, introducing a new generation to Tiny Tim. Dressed in his usual flamboyant style, he judged Stern’s New Year’s Rotten Eve Beauty Pageant in 1994.
Tim continued to record albums such as Tiny Tim: The Eternal Troubadour (1986) and Rock (1993), which includes his version of the AC/DC hit “Highway to Hell.” In 1996 he did Tiny Tim’s Christmas Album, with songs from the Beatles and Led Zeppelin, as well as old-fashioned Tin Pan Alley tunes. Reviews were good. While participating in a ukulele festival at the Montague Grange Hall in Massachusetts in September 1996, Tim collapsed on stage. Although diagnosed with congestive heart failure, he kept working. Always optimistic and trying to “make it” one more time, Tim said, in a June 1996 People magazine, “I’ll go down to the grave always trying.” He died from cardiac arrest after performing “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” at a benefit sponsored by the Minneapolis Woman’s Club. Tim is buried in Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis.
Throughout his life, Tim wanted to please an audience. His love of music included performing as well as studying the great early singers and songs of popular music. He once said, “People have laughed at me my whole life,” but did not see that as a bad thing. To be in front of an audience, whether as the butt of a joke or to sing a simple song, was everything to him.
A collection of Tiny Tim memorabilia is in the Tiny Tim Museum, housed in the store Fourteen Records, in Dallas, Texas. There is an unauthorized biography, Harry Stein’s Tiny Tim (1976). Articles from his years of fame include “The Last Innocent,” Newsweek (20 May 1968), and Alfred G. Aronowitz, “It’s High Time Fame Came to Tiny Tim,” Life (14 June 1968). Later articles are Robert Taylor, “The Amazing Tiny Tim,” Boston Globe (30 July 1981), which discusses Tim as a showman and musicologist; David Gates, “Tiptoeing with Tiny Tim,” News-week (3 Dec. 1984); and Mary Shaughnessy, “Tiny Tim Tiptoes On,” People (15 Apr. 1985), which describes his lounge act. David Richards, “God Help Us Every One, Tiny Tim: Fame, Failure and the American Dream,” Washington Post (19 Feb. 1995), is a lengthy article. Tributes include David Browne, “Tiny Phenom: The Archetypal Oddball Embodies Camp to the End,” Entertainment Weekly (13 Dec. 1996), and Alex Tresniowski and Margaret Nelson, “Exit Singing,” People (16 Dec. 1996). Obituaries are in the Boston Globe, Daily Telegraph (London), New York Times, and Minneapolis Star Tribune (all 2 Dec. 1996).
Marcia B. Dinneen