If you grew up in the 60s and 70s, you know exactly who Tiny Tim was. The strange dude packing a ukulele in a shopping bag was a regular on TV shows such as Laugh In and Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show. His hit song, “Tiptoe Through The Tulips,” made everyone who heard it sing along in falsetto. And then ask “What the hell was THAT? Was that a joke?”
Early on in Justin Martell’s fascinating bio, Eternal Troubadour: The Improbable Life of Tiny Tim, the man who booked Tiny on Carson prepared a briefing that said, in part, “HE IS FOR REAL. BUT WHAT HE REALLY IS, IS THE REAL QUESTION.” Indeed, Tiny Tim was a repository for early American music and a savant. However, as many people have noted, these television shows were “not an ideal medium” for Tiny Tim. While “it gave him tremendous exposure, it did so at a big cost to his artistry…was he a singer or a comedian?” However, most people would simply have agreed with the NY Times reporter, who wrote “a Tiny bit of Tim went a long way.”
But along that way, Tiny was a regular at Steve Paul’s “The Scene,” was backed on several sessions by members of The Band (The Hawks, at the time), opened for both Lenny Bruce and The Doors, and was a guest of Bob Dylan’s at his home. He was also scheduled to appear at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, until “the concert promoter got a good look at him and declared, ‘No way.’” He would, however, appear at the legendary Isle of Wight festival in1970 and, according to the Sunday Times, “stole the show.” Much later, Tiny set a world record of three hours and 10 minutes of continuous singing and then, in 1989, also ran a campaign for Mayor of New York City. Who knew?
Then of course, there was Tiny Tim’s sexuality. Mostly repressed by his conservatism and stout, sometimes strange, religious beliefs, Tiny was quite the swordsman in his own way, He was infatuated with women, most of them quite young. Most famously, of course, there was Miss Vicki, but there were lots of young “Miss Whomevers." There was 15-year old Miss Jan (whom he also proposed to), Miss Karin, a Doubleday employee he met on his book tour, Miss Tricia, Miss Carol and Miss Cleo. But it would be Miss Vicki whom he would famously marry on The Tonight Show, with Johnny Carson and 14 million witnesses. Tiny’s pitch to Miss Vicki’s concerned and reluctant parents is hilariously recounted in the book; it could not have quieted their fears. It’s fair to say his romantic relationships were as complicated and messy as you might imagine.
Eternal Troubadour is not an easy read. Five hundred pages on Tiny Tim is A LOT, and, in some places, it seems an almost day-to-day account of his life. No one really needs to know this much about Tiny Tim, but I did thoroughly enjoy the book and doggedly worked towards the end. The last few chapters, with “the end” in sight were true page turners, and I felt a range of emotions when Tiny has a heart attack on stage in 1996. When asked if he was okay, he responded, "No, I'm not.” He would not recover, and it seems a fitting finale to Tiny’s story. In the end, Martell’s book only reinforced my view that Tiny Tim was weird — and perhaps even weirder than I knew — but if nothing else, Tiny Tim was also a true original and one of a kind. Which, of course, might just be a kinder way of saying “weird.”
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