Ukulele Heroes (3): Tiny Tim
December 3, 2010
For ukulele aficionados, the career of TINY TIM (born Herbert Khaury, 1932–1996) can seem like an unmitigated disaster. He tied the albatross of quatsch more tightly than ever around the instrument’s sturdy little neck. His playing was indifferent at best; his falsetto was unsettling; his one-trick-pony shtick was comically insufferable. He gave hep-cat postmodern funnymen like Rowan & Martin or Johnny Carson the chance to aim a big what-the-fuck at sixties youth culture.
And yet check out what Tiny Tim does in this 1968 Tonight Show appearance, performing “Living in the Sunlight, Loving in the Moonlight,” a tune once popularized by Maurice Chevalier:
“That’s catchy,” a studiously nonplussed Carson says. “Is it original?” Tiny Tim’s derangement of the hackneyed, sentimental old song was almost too effective. As he had done with “Tiptoe Through the Tulips,” he was serving up early twentieth-century mass culture in uncanny form. Born in 1932, Tiny Tim was renowned for his scholarly knowledge of early recorded music and the American songbook. This was the soundtrack of Carson’s childhood, after all, the fondly-remembered tuneful noodlings of the parents and grandparents of his silent-majority audience. Like them, (like Carson himself) Tiny Tim was a member of the Postmodern generation — although with his stringy locks, his pallor, and his ukulele palsy, he signified the freaky fringe of youth culture. He presented as a defanged avatar of sixties weirdness, but — like the Anti-anti-utopian Bob Dylan, only in a different key — he was reminding his audience that the American weird was much older.
He could be a performer with greater range and charisma than his iconic Carson and Laugh-in appearances would seem to indicate. Here he is on Australian TV singing in his natural baritone, switching back to ukulele from guitar (which, unlike the uke, he played right-handed):
Tiny Tim liked singing into megaphones to give his voice the tinny quality of early jazz-age recordings made using Edison horns. His performance of “There’ll Always Be an England” at the 1970 Isle of Wight festival was also delivered by megaphone:
For Tiny Tim, the old songs comprised an anti-anti-utopia, a musical rock candy mountain that was always already broken. And in that broken utopia he was marooned, caught between the calcified nostalgia of his generation and the ahistorical freakout of hippiedom. His was a courageous insularity.
Third in a series of four posts on the uncanny power of the ukulele in twentieth-century culture.