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Who Was Tiny Tim? The 'Tiptoe Through The Tulips' Guy, Explained (Sort Of)

Music | February 6, 2018

Tiny Tim (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Tiny Tim, the "Tiptoe Through The Tulips" singer, was an odd one -- even by '60s standards. He was known for playing his ukulele on TV shows, singing songs from a different era in his high falsetto voice, as bewildered hosts looked on. What was up with this guy? Right there in the midst of the tumult of the late '60s, as the Woodstock generation was trying to reach e better place through peace, love, music and drugs, Tiny Tim was an entertainer who was -- as the saying went at the time -- doing his own thing. If the counterculture considered itself a nonconformist movement -- ukulele-toting Tiny Tim, "Tiptoe Through The Tulips" and all, was the nonconformists' nonconformist. He was weird.

Weird -- but charming. Nostalgia is a powerful emotion, and Tiny Tim's evocation of gramophone ditties and a bygone era endeared him to TV audiences. And he loved them back -- after all, what sort of man gets married on a talk show? One who understands the nature of his own celebrity completely. Tiny Tim was famous for "Tiptoe Through The Tulips" and a handful of other tunes not because they were really enjoyable to listen to (when's the last time you put on your old Tiny Tim records?) but because he performed them with so much conviction. He was the oddest of oddballs at a time when American music and entertainment was going to some pretty weird places.

The Future Tiny Tim Was Genuinely Drawn To Music Of A Previous Era

Source: Pinterest

From a young age, New York-born Herbert Buckingham Khaury, was attracted to old-timey music, and learned to play several instruments -- including the guitar, violin, mandolin, and, yes, ukulele. He was a different sort of kid, not a good student but passionate about the music he loved. He recalled that one day he was listening to a sing by Rudy Valee and found that he was able to sing in a falsetto, an upper register he was previously unaware of. The pieces were falling into place. 

Tiny Tim Wasn't The First Stage Name He Used

Source: Pinterest

When Khaury began playing his strange ukulele music, he ran through a number of different personae, trying to find the one that seemed just right. In the '50s, he played songs like "You Are My Sunshine" at amateur nights or otherwise free shows as Texarkana Tex, Judas K. Foxglove, Vernon Castle, and Emmett Swink. He wore outrageous outfits and adopted long-haired, white-faced look inspired by a cinema hero of the era he so loved, Rudolph Valentino. (His mother was, reportedly, a bit worried about her son, and wanted to have his head examined at New York's famous Bellvue Hospital.)

In 1959, he was calling himself Larry Love, the Singing Canary, and performing in Times Square at Hubert's Museum and Live Flea Circus. That name didn't stick, either. He tried others -- Dary Dover, Sir Anthony Timms -- and then, one fateful night, when the 6'1" tall Khaury was sharing the bill with some diminutive performers, his manager had the bright idea to bill his client with the ironic name of Tiny Tim. That one stuck.

Tiny Tim Takes His Act To TV

Tiny Tim on 'Laugh In.' Source: Pinterest

By the mid-'60s, Tiny Tim had become an underground phenomenon, and had appeared in a couple of small films. One of these led to his being booked on Rowan & Martin's Laugh In in 1968, which was then the premiere comedy show in America. Tiny Tim played "A Tisket A Tasket" and "Good Ship Lollipop," and the sheer weirdness of his persona affected even the hosts. Tiny Tim had found his venue -- in the grand production of comedy TV and late-night talk shows, he would be one of the most unusual character actors. He appeared on Laugh-In eight times during the show's five-season run.  

Late-Night TV Shows Couldn't Get Enough Of Tiny Tim, It Seems

Tiny Tim playing on late-night TV, date unknown. Source: Pinterest

Tiny Tim soon became a favorite of late-night TV. He appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show four times, The David Frost Show 13 times, and The Mike Douglas Show 15 times. But he practically set up a residency on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show, on which he was a guest a whopping 28 times, 25 of them between 1968 and 1971. For a big-time movie star who's plugging a couple of movies a year, frequent appearances on a talk show would be expected. But bear in mind -- Tiny Tim was a strange-looking man who played songs from his grandmother's hit list on a ukulele. That's what he did, and they kept asking him back.

Tiny Tim Got Married On 'The Tonight Show'

Tiny Tim marries Miss Vicki on The Tonight Show, 1969. Source: houseofthehits.com

Tiny Tim's special relationship with The Tonight Show had an extra-special dimension to it. On December 17, 1969, Tim married Victoria Budinger, or "Miss Vicki," on the show before an audience of 40 million. Together they had a daughter, whom they named (what else) Tulip Victoria. The marriage lasted just three years. Tiny Tim was married two more times -- his subsequent wives were known as "Miss Jan" (married 1984) and "Miss Sue" (married 1995).

Did You Know Tiny Tim Was Nominated For A Grammy?

Cover art for the 2016 compilation 'Tiny Tim's America.'

Though he was enjoyed more as a spectacle than a musician, Tiny Tim did release albums, starting with God Bless Tiny Tim in 1968. That LP contained "Tiptoe Through The Tulips," which was a bona fide hit for Tim, peaking at #17 on the pop chart. His 1969 album For All My Little Friends was intended for children, and was nominated for a Grammy in the category. 

Tiny Tim Died In 1996

Young Herbert Buckingham Khaury. Source: reddit

In 1996, Tiny Tim suffered a heart attack on stage in Minneapolis, and died soon after. He had been in failing health for several years, with both a heart condition and diabetes. 

He seemed to be one of those rare performers whose intentions are never completely clear -- was this all a joke? Or was Tiny Tim really like this when nobody was looking? Over time, culture watchers tended to believe the latter -- this high-voiced ukulele-strummer was really a man out of time. He gravitated toward music of the early 20th century not because he thought it would get him on TV (after all, there are easier ways) but because that's what he loved, and his oddball persona was genuine. It's fair to say that there will never be another Tiny Tim -- nope, not even close.

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Rebeka Knott

Writer

Rebeka grew up in the 1960’s & 1970’s and has always subscribed to the theory that a positive attitude will take you far! She is a wife and mother of 3 with a fun-loving spirit, believing that family and relationships are invaluable.