David Browne
December 13, 1996 AT 05:00 AM EST

Remembering Tiny Tim

Long before Rick James, Tiny Tim was pop’s No. 1 super-freak. With his kinky mane, flour-power makeup, and beak nose, Tim — who died Nov. 30 at the age of 64 (although some reliable sources put his age as high as 74) — didn’t resemble a man-child so much as a man-penguin. Singing in an eerie falsetto, he strummed a ukulele and warbled long-forgotten Tin Pan Alley novelties. One of them, ”Tip-Toe Thru’ the Tulips With Me,” became his first and only hit (No. 17 in 1968); it was also the song he was performing when he collapsed on stage during a benefit for the Woman’s Club of Minneapolis. At press time, the cause of death was unannounced.

Long before Tony Bennett’s rediscovery, Tiny Tim was the first ironic mascot of pop’s counterculture. Were his fans responding to his fetishistic musicology? Were they laughing with him, or at him? Such was the eternal puzzle of Tiny Tim.

Born Herbert Khaury in New York City, Tim kicked around his hometown club scene under various stage names (Larry Love, Emmett Swink), becoming a cult camp figure. He parlayed his hip-novelty status (Eric Clapton was an early admirer) into a deal with Warner Bros. Records and, in 1968, the first of many appearances on The Tonight Show. One of those spots — his 1969 on-air wedding to Miss Vicki (nee Victoria Budinger), then 17, 20 years Tim’s junior — attracted 45 million viewers. Yet Tim’s fame proved to be exceptionally fleeting. His marriage to Miss Vicki, the first of his three wives, fell apart a few years later. (They had one daughter, Tulip Victoria, 25.) In the two decades since, he recorded for small labels, played no-name clubs, made personal appearances for a few hundred dollars — and even, in 1984, toured with a circus.

Moving from New York to Des Moines to, finally, Minneapolis, Tim never abandoned his love of obscure ditties or his hope that one day he would be famous again. Ironically, a small-scale Tiny Tim revival was under way this year, geared around two new albums (Girl and Tiny Tim’s Christmas Album, both on Rounder). ”To my deathbed,” he told Entertainment Weekly less than two weeks before his death, ”I’ll try to make it one more time. When I look at these great entertainers — Kenny Rogers, Liza Minnelli, Sammy Davis Jr. — they may think nothing of me. But at one time, even if it was for a scratch, I shared the stage with these great artists. I was a success. It will be in the history of the books.”

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