We're very excited to showcase an exclusive chapter excerpt from Justin Martell and Alanna Wray McDonald's new book Eternal Troubadour: The Improbable Life of Tiny Tim. The book, published by Jawbone Press, is is available now at Amazon.
"After ’79, [Johnny Carson] never used me again because I rolled on the floor when I did ‘Do You Think I’m Sexy’ and a belly button showed and that was the end of that."
— TINY TIM TO HOWARD STERN, MAY 6 1994
In 1979, Tiny released a new single, 'Tip-Toe To The Gas Pumps,' written by a young songwriter named David Heavener from Louisville, Kentucky. The two had met back in 1977 and recorded some auxiliary material together in 1978: ‘old standards’ and ‘vaudeville material,’ which they recorded with an unnamed piano player, as well as a Heavener original, ‘The Hickey On Your Neck,’ which he adapted for Tiny, adding a lyric about a ‘tiptoeing turkey … kissing your tulip … and makin’ you a nervous wreck.’
When Tiny returned from Australia in January 1979, Heavener called him up and pitched his newest song, ‘Tip-Toe To The Gas Pumps.’ Always game to cash in on a current event or fad, Tiny did not need convincing.
‘Oh! Brilliant, Mr. Heavener! Brilliant!’ Tiny exclaimed, when he heard the song title and lyrics.
Let’s tiptoe to the gas pumps,
Fill ’er up, give me all you’ve got,
Till I scream, ‘I’ve had enough,’
Everybody clap your hands,
And sing in harmony,
Come tiptoe to the gas pumps with me!
Tiny returned to Kentucky and recorded the single over a few late-night sessions at Fultz Recording Studio. Because his voice was hoarse due to a cold, Heavener, a singer and talented imitator, rerecorded almost a quarter of the song in Tiny’s voice. Shortly after Tiny returned to New York City, however, Heavener’s phone rang. It was Roy Radin, who had a bone to pick.
Heavener still uses caution, only somewhat jokingly, when describing the encounter. ‘I want to make sure I don’t get myself exterminated,’ he begins. ‘Roy Radin, at that time, somehow came into the picture. He wasn’t in the picture until I recorded the song—that I know of. Then I started getting calls from Roy, wanting to know what me and Tiny were doing.’
A self-described ‘Kentucky boy,’ Heavener did not back down. ‘What the hell do you want?’ he asked.
‘Listen,’ Radin replied coldly, ‘I don’t think you know who you’re dealing with. I could snap my fingers and you’d be gone.’
Later, Heavener’s phone rang again. This time it was Tiny, who warned Heavener to watch his tongue when speaking to Radin. ‘You can’t talk to Mr. Radin like that.’
* * *
By 1979, Roy Radin had reached the apex of his wealth, braggadocio, and addiction to cocaine. According to his sister Kate, his behavior and personality had shifted darkly since his divorce in 1978. ‘It was almost as if he was starting to live his young life he never got to live at eighteen, nineteen, twenty,’ she recalled. ‘He was very broken-hearted after his divorce, and he got into the crowd of the Studio 54. He just got completely addicted to the cocaine and the people that were around him — we used to call them coke whores — he used to get really, really mad at us when we confronted him about it. He said he would be able to kick it.’
At the same time, Roy Radin’s Vaudeville Revue was in decline. According to Tim Fowler, ‘It really started to collapse in ’79. He was under investigation in five states for illegal distribution of funds because he was taking too much money and not giving enough to the charities.’
In the meantime, at Tiny’s request, David Heavener visited New York City for a few weeks. While he was there, he got a closer look at some of the gentlemen in Tiny’s entourage. ‘[We] hung out at this Brooklyn restaurant,’ he recalls. ‘The guy that ran the show there, from what I remember, they called him Johnny D. He was probably, around that time, maybe sixty-five, seventy—a big guy—and he had all his cronies, and you could tell this guy was packing. Anyway, [after] about three days hanging out there, he finally came up to me and started talking to me, and I remember him looking at one of his guys and says, I like this kid. I want you to take care of him. The guy comes up and gives me a wad of $100 bills, like, $2,000 in $100 bills. I got back to my hotel room that night and I looked it, and it was a lot of money.’
Heavener rang Tiny and told him what had happened.
‘Mr. Heavener,’ Tiny replied, ‘when Mr. D. likes someone, he takes care of them and makes sure everything is OK. Is everything OK?’
‘Good. That means he’s doing his job.’
‘Tiny,’ Heavener continues, ‘I assume [he] was connected with … some of those guys, you know what I’m saying? I was a kid so I didn’t ask any questions.’
Although Tiny did not shy from introducing Heavener to mobsters, he did worry a great deal about the boy’s mortal soul. ‘When we traveled,’ Heavener recalls, ‘I would get my own hotel room, and I’d always find this good looking girl, and if Tiny knew I took her back to the room, he would stand outside my door preaching—beating on the door and preaching the gospel—to the point where the girl would get mad or freaked out and leave.’
In the meantime, Heavener was shopping Tiny’s single around. He managed to get it into the hands of Steve Alaimo, the vice president of disco label TK Records, home of KC & The Sunshine Band. When they showed interest, Heavener sold it to them—and Roy Radin blew a gasket. ‘He went crazy,’ Heavener says. ‘I heard that Radin was after me and I heard that Johnny D. was after him!’ In any case, Radin did not did not enact revenge, and when Heavener left Kentucky for Nashville to pursue a songwriting career, he lost contact with Tiny Tim.
Radin did, however, manage to bully TK Records into giving him a piece of the action. ‘Tip-Toe To The Gas Pumps’ was released by TK Records’ subsidiary label, Clouds, with a label reading, ‘Produced by: David Heavener for Roy Radin Prod. Ltd.’
Steve Alaimo and TK Records President Henry Stone were willing to take a gamble on anything they thought might be a hit. ‘It was the time of the gas shortage, obviously, and we were putting out records by everybody,’ Alaimo explains. ‘We were a hot record company. What we did at this company was if there was something that was hot at the time—some dance thing, some groove thing—we’d go after it.’ For Alaimo, ‘Tip-Toe To The Gas Pumps’ was ‘a pretty timely record … we got some airplay on it [and] it rejuvenated Tiny’s career a little bit.’
‘Tip-Toe To The Gas Pumps’ peaked at number 80 on the Billboard charts and landed Tiny guest appearances on The Merv Griffin Show, where he had not appeared since 1977; The Mike Douglas Show, where he had not appeared since 1974; and, most significantly, The Tonight Show. For all three appearances, Tiny opened with ‘Gas Pumps’ and closed with a cover of Rod Stewart’s ‘Do You Think I’m Sexy.’
Radin had approached The Tonight Show about having Tiny on the program against Tiny’s wishes, and Carson extended an invitation. Unlike Tiny’s previous appearance, where the conversation centered around the dissolution of Tiny’s career and marriage, this time Carson approached the interview with the friendly rapport the two had enjoyed before Tiny’s life and career had become so publicly complicated.
After Tiny performed ‘Gas Pumps,’ which seemed to amuse Carson, he sat down for the interview. ‘It’s been a long time,’ Carson said, drumming his fingers on the desk, aware of the awkwardness surrounding Tiny’s extended absence from the program, but Tiny seemed not to bear a grudge.
‘You’ve been so wonderful,’ he told Carson.
‘You are one of the people who make life interesting, Tiny,’ Carson replied. Then, after briefly discussing the Marathon Medley and Martin Sharp’s forthcoming documentary, he addressed Tiny’s physical state, since he had ballooned since his last appearance on the show in 1974.
‘I’m always afraid I might pass away and miss all those great pizzas and great spaghettis,’ Tiny replied.
The conversation then turned to Tiny’s tours with Roy Radin — ‘The Ziegfeld of the 80s ’ — and Miss Vicki’s recent remarriage. Tiny, of course, felt that he remained ‘legally married to her until death do us part,’ and as such continued to try to ‘strengthen myself against the temptations of the world.’
After a commercial break, Tiny returned to the stage, and The Tonight Show band began to play ‘Do You Think I’m Sexy.’ The performance was initially much the same as his other television appearances, until, inexplicably, Tiny decided to take it to the next level. As the song reached its climax, he ripped off his jacket and threw it to the floor. Then he awkwardly grabbed his snug red polyester dress shirt and ripped it open, pulled it out from under his suspenders, and tossed it to the cheering audience. Sinking to his knees, he grabbed his last layer, a Luna Park Marathon Medley T-shirt that read ‘THE TIME MACHINE,’ and lifted it violently, exposing his entire stomach and chest. Then, bouncing wildly on his knees, his belly bulging between his tuxedo pants and raised T-shirt, he finished the song by belting partial phrases and lyrics into the microphone. Upon the final pants-tightening note, he fell to the ground, kicking and squirming, to the audience’s wild applause.
Carson looked shell-shocked. ‘I don’t believe it,’ he mouthed. As Tiny collected his clothes, while blowing kisses to the cheering audience, Carson sent the show back to commercials. ‘There’s just nothing that can be said,’ he said, clearly in disbelief. ‘We’ll be right back!’
Tiny’s performance was the talk of the Tonight Show staff. Jeff Sotzing, Carson’s nephew and a staff member at that time, watched a tape of the segment after it had aired and called it ‘the deal-breaker.’ It would be Tiny’s final appearance on the show while Carson remained as host.
Reviews of the appearance were predictably harsh. ‘If ever there was a creature of television,’ Peter J. Boyer of the Associated Press wrote, ‘it is this man Herbert Khaury. Found by television, made by television, dumped by television. It was kind of sad seeing Tiny Tim on Tonight, thick-bellied and sprawling onstage. He’s an oddball that people quit laughing with and began laughing at; then finally, worst of all, they quit noticing altogether.’
While the reception was harsh, the visibility caused a slight surge of attention. Two days later, the Washington Post carried a blurb about Tiny in its ‘Suspicions’ section. The short piece answered rumors that Tiny was seeking to perform for Ronald Reagan on the campaign trail. Tiny denied the rumors and endorsed the current president, Jimmy Carter, ‘a wonderful, religious, very fair man doing a fine job.’
Tiny also filmed a bit part in the Warner Bros motion picture One Trick Pony, starring Paul Simon. ‘Life hasn’t exactly been a bed of tulips for falsetto singer Tiny Tim,’ Newsweek reported in February 1980. ‘But his career appears to be on the rise. Says Tim: I believe in Miracles. … The turnabout began last summer, when he recorded a novelty song about the gas crisis. That led to a return appearance on Johnny Carson, which Tim considers “the very heart of show business.”’
The most intriguing nugget of information in the Newsweek article was that Vicki and Tiny had reunited for a business venture, opening a nightclub act in Glendale, New York, where ‘she dances and he sings.’ The estranged former couple announced their forthcoming performances together to Tom Snyder, the host of Tomorrow. Miss Vicki confirms that the reunion was ‘strictly business’. ‘They offered me to do it, and it paid, and I needed money because I was still raising my daughter,’ she explains. ‘He sang and I came out and danced but we didn’t really talk or have anything together … I got paid and he got paid and we all went home and that was that.’
* * *
In September 1980, Tiny returned to Australia for further concert appearances and to shoot additional footage with Martin Sharp for Street Of Dreams. Consumed with trying to save Luna Park from destruction, Sharp shot Tiny singing the 1930 Rudy Vallee song, ‘Wind In The Willows’ in front of the park’s clown-face entrance.
‘My dear friends,’ Tiny said, as he looked into the lens, ‘I hope you’ll listen well as you listen to the words of this song … ironically, in a sense, they apply to the great Luna Park, to which I had such great experiences in 1979.’
Sharp isolated the audio and released ‘Wind in the Willows’ as a single, coupled with an original song by Australian composer and Sharp associate Alistair Jones, ‘The Luna Park Song.’ The single was pressed and issued in a limited quantity in Australia with corresponding Martin Sharp artwork. According to Jones, it was intended to serve as a ‘rallying call for the Friends of Luna Park.’ It was also the only Tiny Tim single released in 1980.
By the end of the year, whatever optimism had been generated by ‘Tip-Toe To The Gas Pumps’ had worn off. ‘I’m still hoping to be a major star,’ Tiny told the Washington Post on December 8, ‘maybe not what I was back then, but something more than I am today … maybe it might be time to get out of the business, but I hope not. I love this and if the people want me, I’ll be ready.’
He echoed these same sentiments in an interview with the National Enquirer, which took place before a show at a restaurant called the Wagon Wheel in Queens. ‘I’ve gone from rags to riches, then riches to rags,’ he told the hungry tabloid. ‘This sure is a long way from getting married on the Johnny Carson show. But then, who knows from here? You come up, you go down, you come up again. It’s just like an elevator … right down to the basement, then back up to the top floor again … Something always comes along. I do get depressed many times, sitting in my room and wondering what’s going to happen next. But I still count my blessings.’
© 2016 Justin Martell / Jawbone Press.