The name of Tiny Tim brings up a constellation of images: the long, stringy hair; the ukulele; the falsetto singing voice; the blowing of kisses. Wasn’t he on Laugh-In? Didn’t he get married by Johnny Carson or something? He’s the subject of a new biography, Eternal Troubadour: the Improbable Life of Tiny Tim, by Justin Martell with Alanna Wray McDonald. Between 1968 and 1971, Tiny Tim, real name Herbert Khaury, was one of the most recognizable pop stars in the world.
In December 1967, after gaining notoriety performing live in Greenwich Village, Tiny Tim went into a studio with producer Richard Perry and arranger Artie Butler to record the album God Bless Tiny Tim. It included a number of the old-fashioned songs Tiny revered, several going back to the Pioneer Era of Recording, alongside newer songs, including Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe.”
In January 1968, Tiny Tim was introduced to TV producer George Schlatter, about to launch Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, who booked him for the first episode. Without telling Dick Martin in advance, Dan Rowan brought Tiny on stage and then walked off, leaving an incredulous Martin to watch Tiny perform. A couple of weeks later, Tiny appeared again, only this time he sang “Tip-Toe Through the Tulips With Me,” a song from his album that had been a hit for crooner-guitarist Nick Lucas in 1929.
On April 3, 1968, “Tip-Toe” was released as a single. The next night, Tiny Tim made his first appearance on Tonight (the night of the day Martin Luther King was murdered). A New York Times profile and a second appearance with Carson came before the end of the month. And on April 27, “Tip-Toe Through the Tulips With Me” cracked the Bubbling Under section of the Hot 100. Two weeks later, it entered the Hot 100 at #83, and it steadily rose from there, eventually peaking at #17 for the week of June 29, sharing the Top 20 with “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “Mrs. Robinson,” “Mony Mony,” and “Mac Arthur Park.” (Also among the nation’s top songs that week was “Here Come the Judge” by Shorty Long, boosted by the popularity of “here come the judge” as a Laugh-In catchphrase.)
God Bless Tiny Tim charted in May and eventually rose to #7 on the album chart. Tiny Tim would appear on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Jackie Gleason Show, and Hollywood Palace with Bing Crosby, an appearance in which he and Bing traded obscure song snippets from old Crosby movies. A brief meeting with George Harrison resulted in Tiny recording a couple of lines that appeared on the Beatles’ 1968 Christmas record.
In June 1969, Tiny met Victoria Budinger, a 17-year-old girl from Haddonfield, New Jersey. Although he was perpetually in love with somebody (and had a habit of giving an engraved trophy to the girl he loved the most each year), he fell especially hard for Vicki, and proposed to her in August. (He was 37 years old at the time.) He appeared on Tonight in September, where he brought Vicki onstage and gave her a ring. The same night, Carson asked Tiny if he wanted to get married on the show. Tiny accepted; Vicki was horrified. But on December 17, 1969, the wedding—and it was an actual wedding, with a minister and attendants amidst a bower decorated with 10,000 tulips—took place during a taping of the show, on which Florence Henderson and Phyllis Diller also appeared. It was estimated that upwards of 40 million people watched that night, the highest-rated Carson show until his retirement episode in 1992.
Tiny’s story continues after that, ending with his death in 1996 at the age of 64. You can read the rest in Eternal Troubadour if you’d like, although the book is simply not very good. It’s tediously detailed and about half again as long as it needs to be, and riddled with typographical errors. (My favorite: one of Tiny’s backup singers would “occasionally bear her breasts onstage.” As would each of us, if we went onstage.) And as I sat down to write this post, I cursed aloud its lack of an index.
Although Martell says his intention is to reveal Tiny Tim as more than an oddball curio, it’s pretty clear that’s all Tiny was. A few years of unlikely success were followed by a quarter-century’s unraveling, as Tiny’s life grew ever more unsavory. What comes through the strongest in Martell’s book is that Tiny Tim was too much of an oddball to suffer any other fate.