Tiny Tim did not live a boring life.
Richard Perry, who produced “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” and other Tiny Tim recordings for Reprise Records, saw his unusual charge as more than just a novelty act. “The high falsetto voice is all that most people remember. That was the least interesting aspect to me.” A new biography reveals what else was interesting about a performer whose life was even more complicated than one might imagine. At nearly 500 pages, Eternal Troubadour: The Improbable Life of Tiny Tim says more about its subject than even dedicated fans may want to know. But from brief commercial highs through a long career decline and a final autumnal resurgence, Tim did not live a boring life.
Born Herbert Khaury, Tiny Tim (1932-1996) was the son of a Jewish Mother and a Catholic father, neither of whom was particularly supportive of their musically inclined but very strange boy. From an early age, Tim was fond of music from before his time – his signature hit, “Tiptoe Through the Tulips,” was first recorded three years before he was born. Tim was an authority on American popular music from the early twentieth century, able to accurately recall matrix numbers from specific releases. Yet even at the height of his fame in the late ‘60s, he was often considered a joke. His long, unkempt hair and generally disheveled appearance already made it hard for audiences to take him seriously; when he sang, sometimes duetting with himself in male and female voices, his fey, childlike mannerisms all but guaranteed he would be seen as a freak, even at time when America’s counterculture encouraged all manner of fringe artists to let their freak flag fly.
Justin Martell sourced much of Eternal Troubadour from original interviews conducted with people who knew Tim, but the most revealing material comes from the author’s access to diaries that the singer kept from the ‘50s through the ‘70s. These detail Tim’s devout religious faith, and also what he considered frequent transgressions into sin. Tim was frequently his own worst enemy, in business and in love, failing to show up for major gigs and unable to curb his outrageous spending habits (formed by youthful record store splurges) or his libido. Thanks (or no thanks) to Tim’s diaries, we also know how excitable he was, unable to control his bodily reaction to something as innocent as a woman applying makeup to his face before a show. But time and again Tim’s sincerity charms those around him, despite his volatile and sometimes unreliable nature.
Considering the wealth of information at hand, Eternal Troubadour is a breezy read, but it can be bogged down by session information that would have been better left to an appendix. The book doesn’t include a discography, and on several occasions the author lists off every song Tim recorded at a particular session.
Martell spoke with surviving figures from Tim’s life, including Miss Vicki, the woman whom he married on what was for decades the most-watched episode of the “Tonight Show” – that is, until host Johnny Carson’s final show. Notably, a big part of Tim’s late career resurgence was due to dedicated fans, and the book includes generous chapters on these benign superfans. You don’t need to be a superfan to get something out of Eternal Troubadour: it’s an intriguing study of a figure from the fringes of pop culture, who as it turns out led the kind of strange and sometimes wild life you associate with rock stars.