THE HARRY SMITH OF TIN PAN ALLEY Tiny Tim

There was a lot more
to the outsider music maven born Herbert Khaury than tip-toeing through the
tulips and TV weddings.

 

BY STEVEN ROSEN

 

The rehabilitation of Tiny Tim’s legacy – from weirdo
novelty artist with a bizarre falsetto to gifted American original – has been
going on ever since his death in 1996. He’s now becoming recognized as a sort
of Harry Smith of Tin Pan Alley, a man who cherished, discovered and preserved
old standards when nobody else was interested. It would have been nice if he
could have benefited more from it while alive; he spent a lot of his last years
paying bills by grinding out amusing versions of rock hits like “Highway to
Hell” and performing, his trusted ukulele by his side, songs from the early 20th Century American songbook in less than optimum club situations.

 

One of the posthumous albums that has emerged – 2003’s Tiny Tim Live! At the Royal Albert Hall,
a 1968 show with an orchestra directed by Richard Perry – shows just how
enchantingly magical he could be, with his extensive range and intonations,
behind musicians capable of as much coloration instrumentally as he had
vocally. Had he lived to see this respect for his work, he more than likely
would be performing with pops orchestras around the world today, a revered if
eccentric musical figure. His “standards” albums would be perennial sales
generators, if not quite as big as Susan Boyle.

 

The recently released I’ve Never Seen a Straight Banana (Collectors’ Choice Music) isn’t an album
of Royal Albert Hall musical
importance, but it does have its charms. Best of all, it’s not out to exploit
Tiny Tim’s weirdness, but rather to let him enjoy himself – and some of his
favorite songs and stories – in a natural, intimate environment. He responds
free of shtick, offering a glimpse into how much he loved his music.

 

The album has an unusual story, which echoes a bit the
Robert Johnson recording sessions in a San Antonio hotel. In 1976, a
16-year-old Richard Barone – who would go on to be in the Bongos and have a subsequent
solo career – wasn’t able to get into a Tiny Tim show at a TraveLodge bar in Tampa because he was
underage. But he and two female friends listened from the lobby. The singer
emerged after the show, asked them what they thought, and when they said they
couldn’t get in to watch he invited them up to his motel room for an unrushed
private audience, just him and his ukulele. Barone returned the next night with
a stereo tape deck to record another relaxed motel-room show.

 

Tiny Tim introduces the provenance of each song, and changes
his flexible voice to recall each original (and obscure) singer of his
material, be it Billy Murray, Henry Burr, Byron G. Harlan, Lewis James and
other forgotten names of the recording industry’s early days. He also performs
and explains some of his own compositions, including his mash note to Tuesday
Weld, “Dear Tuesday,” and “You Are Heaven Here on Earth,” written for a “Miss
Snooky” that he met while performing at a Greenwich Village bar “where the
girls liked each other” in 1963. (Tiny Tim had a very complicated relationship
with women.)

 

Although the CD’s liner notes are unclear on this point, it
appears Barone got Tiny Tim into a studio on a return visit for several more
songs. But the material thereafter just sat there while Barone began a career
and Tiny Tim ended one, never released until now. Barone has fiddled with the
recordings a bit – to the detriment of historic authenticity yet at the same
time showing his good taste in arrangements. Added is a string arrangement
featuring Deni Bonet to a mysteriously dreamy song called “What Strange God
Designed Me?,” which may be a Tiny Tim original. He also added backing vocals
to the comic title song, a perky vaudeville relic; and an accordion part by
Bonet to a 1930 ballad, “With My Guitar,” that sounds very much like Edith
Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose.” Tiny Tim plays guitar on it, a rarity, and sings in a
high-tenor-to-falsetto range that is remarkably sweet and heartfelt. His tiny
motel-room audience breaks out in spontaneous applause after he finishes.

 

By now, Tiny Tim’s friendship with Bob Dylan is well-known –
Dylan wrote about it in Chronicles and Tiny Tim sings about it on Royal
Albert Hall.
But he gives Barone and friends a funny account of being a
guest at Dylan’s home, punctuated with him singing a snippet of Dylan’s “Like a
Rolling Stone” in Rudy Vallee’s delicate croon and then doing Vallee’s “My Time
Is Your Time” with Dylan’s stretched-out, drawling enunciation. The story ends
with Tiny Tim recounting that Dylan offered him a banana and he replied, “No, I
have my own fruits.”

 

Oddly, Tampa was very good to Tiny Tim. One of his last
albums, Prisoner of Love, took place
there in late 1994, when University of
South Florida music
teacher Paul Reller assembled an orchestra to back him on a tribute to the
crooner Russ Columbo, a contemporary of Bing Crosby and Vallee who died in a
1934 shooting accident. In a splendid voice close to Columbo’s own gentle
baritone, clearly comfortable with the care and respect he was being given,
Tiny Tim responded with one of his best performances ever. It would be
wonderful if, as interest in Tiny Tim continues, this would be reissued.

 

[Photo Credit: Baron Wolman]

 

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