Ukulele Heroes (3): Tiny Tim

By: Matthew Battles
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.

What do you think?

  1. Terrific item. Speaking of the Postmodernist generation, I’m tempted to describe Tiny Tim as a Neo-Dadaist mis-celebrated — by the Johnny Carsons of the world — as a Pop Artist. It’s tragic to see Tiny Tim causing audiences to laugh at material which he obviously loves despite a certain ironic distance. Pop Art laughs at something in order to render it palatable for consumption; Neo-Dada laughs at something in order to render it uncanny, and for that reason protected from what Clarke Cooper calls debasement by acclaim.

  2. A few years before he died, Tiny Tim was the grand marshal for the alternative Mardi Gras parade that ran through the Soulard neighborhood of St. Louis. He was charming, funny, gracious and a delight to hang out with. He put on an amazing performance at the Venice Cafe — I, along with a couple of others, were his backup band, not that he needed one. At one point he was on the floor, on his back, spinning around, while playing and singing. We were in awe. I think Joshua’s assessment of neo-Dada is spot on.

  3. I saw him play on a tiny stage on Rte. 1 in Massachusetts, in the late ’90s, and we were in awe, too. No laughter, just adoration. He was a prophet without honor among his own generation.

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