We recently spoke with author Justin Martell about his fascinating book Eternal Troubadour: The Improbable Life of Tiny Tim. Here's what Justin had to say about the ’60s pop culture icon.
Like many folks, my exposure to Tiny Tim was via Laugh In and The Tonight Show. But I was blown away that Dylan connected with him. The Band backed him on several sides, Peter Yarrow worked with him. What did these so-called “serious” artists see that was perhaps shortchanged in his TV appearances?
Tiny was revered and celebrated by many of his contemporaries and peers. I think what people like Peter Yarrow, Bob Dylan and The Band experienced Tiny as he was meant to be experienced; in the intimate setting of small nightclubs in New York City. I think that by viewing those more intimate performances, they understood Tiny's complexity, sincerity about his art as well as the breadth of his musical ability and knowledge. In short, they were experiencing Tiny Tim in context, where they could hear his various explanations for his different vocal styles and song choices, and came to understand his significance as a performer and musicologist.
When Tiny became a household name in early 1968, he was suddenly thrust into huge stadiums and given bit parts on all the popular television programs. While this exposure was what Tiny had always wanted, it was not degistable for most viewers as they were experiencing Tiny Tim out of context. There are many examples of what I am explaining, but one comes to mind: During his December, 1968 appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, Tiny performed a version of “School Days” in the style of Byron G. Harlan. Harlan had been a popular recording artist during the cylinder-era and, as he had been born in 1861, was somewhat older than the other popular recording artists of the time like Billy Murray and Irving Kaufman. Byron's singing style was unique as his age seemed audible on record, in that, he sounded like he had no teeth. Whether he did or did not have teeth, I am unsure. But Tiny would perform Harlan's songs as if he had no teeth, and curl his lips over his teeth create the sound and look the part of a toothless old man. When I watch Tiny Tim singing “School Days” on the Ed Sullivan Show like Harlan, I understand what he is doing because I am watching the performance in context. Most people watching that appearance at the time had no idea and, while they may have been titilated by Tiny's bizarre delivery, found it too odd to take seriously.
All of that said, however, I do believe that Tiny's management during the height of his fame — Campbell, Silver, Cosby from 1968-1969 and, later, Deblasio, Wald & Day from 1969-1970 — were correct in attempting to establish Tiny as a modern artist and not just a nostalgia act. The New Vaudeville Band, Ian Whitcomb, and the Temperance Seven had already capitalized on that fad a few years earlier and had already worn out the vo-de-do-de-o-do revival. I also think that Tiny's first producer Richard Perry did a good thing when he insisted that he retain half of the song choices on God Bless Tiny Tim and Tiny Tim's Second Album and pushed Tiny to record modern songs. In my opinion, booking Tiny on all of the popular programs of that era was not necessarily mistake as all of the initial PR around Tiny was sort of aimed at establishing him as hip, albeit peculiar.
In my opinion, Tiny's inability to sustain his mainstream career was not the result of being shortchanged by the media. In my opinion, after exhausting all of the available for outlets for Tiny as a performer (records, TV shows, The Royal Albert Hall, Vegas, festival appearances, merchandising), the right thing to do would have been to explore some other outlets for Tiny, such as acting. In fact, Tiny's manager Ron DeBlasio tried to do just that and almost had Warner Bros. sold on the idea of producing a children's show featuring Tiny. The deal was botched when Tiny refused to show up for a concert for children which DeBlasio had planned to use a proof of Tiny's appeal as an entertainer for children. Something like that children's show would have allowed Tiny to remain in the mainstream while he went back to the drawing board and came up with fresh ideas for his career to explore after.
As is detailed in the book, by the end of 1969, Tiny had become very temperamental and ditched his well connected and creative managers to sign a deal with a group of wiseguys who had neither the creativity or connections to do anything but be reactive rather than proactive, and had no other choice but to accept any and every gig which was offered to Tiny. Unfortunately, those gigs became fewer between and less prestigious as the 1960's turned into the 1970's and soon Tiny found himself "washed up."
I was amazed at the level of detail and research you presented in the book. How did you uncover all of the dates and facts?
The book is the culmination of research that I began in 2002 when I became obsessed with Tiny Tim at age 15. After absorbing all of the official releases I could track down on Ebay (this is before YouTube and torrents), I found a small but loyal online community of devoted Tiny Tim appreciators. They traded everything from memorabilia to photocopies of rare newspaper clippings to unreleased recordings and videos. In time, my collection became quite voluminous. The 100+ interviews I conducted for the book and acquisition of 19 of Tiny's personal diaries filled in the gaps in information and a very detailed, exhaustive book was born.
I had also read numerous biographies on other artists that had been given the kind of exhaustive treatment which I attempted (and judging from feedback, succeeded in doing) to give Tiny Tim. There had been other books written about Tiny, but I had felt that they had focused too much on Tiny's eccentricities and not enough on his amazing career. What my research revealed to me was that Tiny had been a true phenomenon in the late 1960's and, by the early 2000's, was sort of just a footnote in the annals of pop culture. I wanted to write something that could reclaim history and show just how significant Tiny Tim had been, even if his mainstream career was over in a few years. I mean, his wedding his the second highest rating broadcast of the 1960's second only to man's first walk on the moon! I just can't believe no one did it before me.
Tiny’s legendary performance of “Do You Think I’m Sexy” on Carson was off the hook on every level and would be his final performance on The Tonight Show. What was he thinking? And why did Carson pull the plug on him after that?
This is a clip that circulates on the internet and, yes, the performance is ridiculous both in and out of context, but let's talk about context. By 1979, Tiny, when compared to KISS and Alice Cooper — who definitely capitalized on the precedent set by Tiny in the 1960's — did not have the edge he had had ten years prior. He was resorting to more and more outrageous tactics to get noticed by the mainstream; he had started wearing loud suits (custom made for him by artist Martin Sharp in Australia) and performing absurd material that tried to capitalize on current themes and trends, such as "TipToe Disco" and "TipToe To The Gas Pumps". He even considered doing a porno film.
In 1979, Tiny's commentary on the then gas shortage, "TipToe To The Gas Pumps," entered the charts and Tiny was booked on Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin and The Tonight Show. Tiny appeared on Douglas and Griffin first, performing both "Gas Pumps" and closing his segments with "Do You Think I'm Sexy?" Comparatively, those performances were tame. Perhaps looking to make a splash, and maybe force Carson into continued bookings by striking a nerve with viewers, Tiny decided to take his Tonight Show version of "Do You Think I'm Sexy?" to another level; while finishing up the song he ripped off his jacket and pulled his shirt up over his nipples. He belted out the final high notes on his knees, with his beer belly protruding over his waist, and finally collapsed to the floor and kicked his legs up in the air like an overturned tortoise. Carson was visibly stunned. He even mouthed the words "I don't believe it." When I spoke to Carson's nephew, Jeff Sotzing, who had worked on the show at the time, he called the appearance "a deal breaker." By 1979 Tiny's last appearance on the show had been in 1974, and before that had been 1971. In my opinion, Carson had given Tiny those bookings in 1974 and 1979 out of respect and as a favor, but when Tiny finally jumped the shark with his striptease, Carson saw Tiny's desparation and willingness to do just about anything to jumpstart his career, and decided to distance himself.
Tiny was very strange, and I thought, perhaps, putting us all on. After reading your book, he’s strange all right, but perhaps more of an idiot savant. At tthe minumum, he comes across as very childlike and almost pure. Who do you think Tiny Tim was?
Tiny described himself as the 'master of confusion,' and I agree with him that that is the most accurate description. Beyond that, he represents one of the most incredible success stories in show business history. That's Tiny Tim AKA Larry Love AKA Darry Dover AKA Texarkana Tex AKA Vernon Castle AKA Judas K. Foxglove AKA Herbert Khaury.
So you now have a Kickstarter campaign for a musical based on your book. That’s very cool. What can you tell us about that?
Yes! Eternal Troubadour: The Improbable Life Of Tiny Tim has been lovingly and passionately turned into a stage musical by John Landis and Jay Wollin. Titled simply TINY, the musical will fuse together extracts from Tiny's diary entries with the "extraordinary fantasy lens through which he saw life and art." I agree with the creators of the show that Tiny's life is a great foundation for a musical because Tiny's outlook as a romantic structured his existence. The theatrical nature of his signature songs, too, lend themselves well to the stage.
The show will have two workshop performances at the historic Lancaster Opera House in Lancaster, NY. From there, we are aiming to bring it to New York City and other major cities. Contributors to the kickstarter campaign get can get copies of Eternal Troubadour, copies of the new album Tiny Tim's America, tickets to the show, and, if they can't make it, an exclusive video of the show.
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