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Interview: Tiny Tim

His hard road to success

Tiny Tim

Tiny Tim smiles for the camera during a recording session at Western Studios in Los Angeles on September 16th, 1968.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

“I’m sorry to say, in all fairness,you’ll never be anything.”
– Tiny Tim’s mother, talking to her son in 1965″

You’ll never get anywhere singing in that sissy voice.”
– Tiny Tim’s father, same conversation.

Last week Tiny Tim sat in a plush Beverly Hills office, remembering what it was like before he became a Super Star.

“My dear, dear mother said, ‘Honey, dear, you’ve had your hair long since 1954, now why don’t you cut it off and go out and get work?’ I said, ‘My dear mother, I’d love to work, but I can’t cut my hair because I feel success is just around the corner.'” Tiny turned to those who were gathered in the office and said, “My dear mother had heard me saying this since 1954, and here it was 1965.” It was then, he said, his mother told him he wasn’t going to make it, and his father so readily agreed.

As he heard his parents offer this prediction, he recalled the limited success he had experienced singing and playing his “dear, sweet” ukelele in the Fat Black Pussycat Cafe, the Alliance Club and the Page Three in Greenwich Village.

“I went to my room,” he said, “and I got down on my knees and said, ‘O blessed Lord Jesus, you’ve seen the situation here with my parents. You’ve heard the applause and you’ve seen the celebrities who have come up to me. Am I to cut my hair now, am I to go back to being a messenger boy again?”

Tiny Tim was in his middle 40s, and he often prayed for help. “I got off my knees and tried show business again,” he said. “I was not given a sign I should quit.”

Questions about Tiny Tim’s reality, and whether scenes like this one are put-on or truth, have been answered by his recent television appearances. With Rowan and Martin on the “Laugh In” show, and with Johnny Carson, it has become apparent that Tiny Tim is real, that he is, in a sense, a peculiar butterfly … like nothing you’ve ever experienced before, quite odd, but above all, gentle and beautiful.

There is a story he tells about meeting Bob Dylan that contributes to understanding, when Tiny had been called to Woodstock.

“I said, ‘Oh, Mr. Dylan, oh what a thrill it is seeing you. You are a wonderful man and everyone thinks highly of you.'”

“Tell me, Mr. Tim,” said Dylan, according to Tiny, “tell me what they are saying about me.”

“I told him, ‘You are today what Rudy Vallee was in 1928,’ and Mr. Dylan asked me what I meant by that.”

The next fifteen minutes of the story are musical, as Tiny re-creates the original scene, with dialog, songs and history. He tells “Mr. Dylan” – everyone is addressed “Mister” or “Miss” – how popular “Mr. Vallee” was, how all the women swooned. Then, providing some historical background to Vallee, he introduces other singers from the past – Mr. (Henry) Burr, Mr. (Arthur) Fields, Mr. (Irving) Kaufman and Mr. (Gene) Austin – and accompanies each name with a song. The room is filled with the plinking of Tiny’s ukelele (pulled from a battered shopping bag) and a voice that ranges from a rich baritone to a pure falsetto, as the songs and singers demand.

“Some magic charm/Keeps me from harm …” he sings, from a Henry Burr hit of 1919. “I’ve banished all my fears/For I know God hears …”

The songs and praise of the creators go on and on, and it must have been a splendid sight to see all this happening in Dylan’s spacious home.

Tiny Tim then sings two of “Mr. Dylan’s” songs – “Don’t Think Twice” and “Like a Rolling Stone” – just as they would have sounded in the 30’s if Vallee had sung them, and finishes his song cycle and long, long answer to Dylan’s question by singing one of Vallee’s old hits, “My Time Is Your Time,” using Dylan’s voice. The performance is truly incredible.

“Then Mr. Dylan looked at me,” Tiny said, “and he said, ‘Do you want a banana.'”

Bob Dylan had met Tiny Tim. Tiny thinks Mr. Dylan is wonderful and this was his way of saying so. Tiny oohs and ahhs and laughs deeply when he tells this story. He thinks it amusing, even Dylan’s remark at the end.

Tiny is one of those gentle souls, seemingly impervious to personal assault and professional failure, even if he said there were times when “I had to keep pumping positive thinking into myself.” It did not bother him, he said, when he was called “Alice” at hockey games and people shouted, “Get that witch out of here!” Nor did it seem to bother him when he spent so many years knocking on doors.

“I started on the tenth floor,” he said of the Brill Building, home of Tin Pan Alley, “and worked my way down to the first.” Then, in a lilting, sing-song voice, “At each office I’d say, ‘Hel-loooo, my friends. In my hand here is a Number One hit, which I wrote. Is anyone listening?'”

Other times, he said, he’d push his head through agency doors and say, “Any TV commercials today?” Always he left a photograph – first the little pictures you-get four-for-a-quarter in amusement park booths, then wallet size photos he’d had made up by answering an ad in a magazine.

“I kept telling myself, ‘I can see success just around the corner. It’s coming, it’s coming!'”

“When things were really bad I sang at amateur nights. Night after night in the ’50s I traveled all over New York City. The promoter had 10 acts and the winner each night would get five dollars, second place would get three dollars and third place would get two dollars. He always put the best acts on last so the people wouldn’t walk out, and the worst acts went on first. He always put me on first. I guess I was doing something wrong. I said to myself ‘It sounds good to my ear, but not to theirs.’ So I switched my songs around, just like in baseball you change the batting order. It didn’t seem to help much.”

Although he occasionally found employment for a few weeks at a time in the Village, it wasn’t until Steve Paul gave him $50 a week for performing at The Scene seven nights a week (in 1965), that his career began to go bumping along.

In the year that followed he appeared on television with Merv Griffin, traveled to Los Angeles to join several old friends in a short-lived cabaret theatre, and contributed 10 minutes of fun to Peter Yarrow and Barry Feinstein’s film, You Are What You Eat.

Warner Bros. Records “discovered” him in 1967, while looking at another act, and the rest – as they say in — all those banal biographies – is history. Today Tiny’s album God Bless Tiny Tim is selling at the rate of 30,000 a week and one Warner exec claims Tiny grossed only $2,500 last year, but will gross about half a million this.

“I can’t believe all this is happening,” Tiny said. “It’s wonderful!”

Tiny’s one regret in life seems to be that he doesn’t get to see enough of the Dodgers and a Canadian hockey team in action. “I never had the money,” he said, “and I don’t really have the money now, either. It’s all going to pay expenses. Do you realize it cost me $80 for cosmetics. My, what an awful lot of money that is!”

Tiny did get to a Dodgers game recently, though – finding himself featured prominently on sports pages all over the country, in one city sharing the headline with the Dodgers.

“I always love the smell of a bat and a glove, or a hockey puck in the winter time,” he said.”Everything I do is according to baseball … and I picked the Toronto Maple Leaf team because the name is just like Nature.”

Tiny is proud he has been asked by the Dodgers to participate in an upcoming celebrity game. “I can’t hit, run or catch … or bat,” he said. “Maybe they’ll let me be the manager for an inning or two.”

When Tiny began to prove his parents wrong, and found a publicist and a personal manager on his payroll, he was asked if he’d like to write his own publicity bio. This is, in part, what he wrote:

“I always bring my little ukelele along in my shopping bag which my dear, sweet father bought me. After all, you just never know when a song might come along.

“I don’t think I’m turning back the clock by doing these old tunes. I love rock and roll and popular music. It’s just that the spirits of the singers whose songs I do are living within me. That’s why the songs come out in the voices of the original singers. I’m not doing imitations. That’s the way they sound inside me.

“Really, there are three main reasons why I sing. The first is to give thanks to God for the gift he gave me. Number two is to cheer people whether they are young or old, with a song of the past or present. And number three, and perhaps above all, is because of all the lovely women who with their beauty cause my heart to overflow with joy.”

The biography is Tiny himself.

Everything you hear about Tiny Tim, and everything you read, and everything Tiny himself says, and how he says it, comes together. That peculiar butterfly is formed – a butterfly with- strange, long black hair and an incredible nose and teeth, white Elizabeth Arden makeup; a butterfly that clumps about in a man’s body, holding a ratty shopping bag and talking about baseball, singing in Mr. Vallee’s voice.

In This Article: Coverwall

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