17 August 2008
Tiny Tim - Do You Think I'm Sexy?
Year of Release: 1982
I could wax lyrical for a long time about Tiny Tim - his is one of the great Icarus tales of showbusiness, going from rags to riches to ruins in a very short space of time. Born in New York as an only child to a Jewish mother and Lebanese father, he spent a great deal of his adult life locked away in his bedroom playing endless shellac 78s of crooners and big bands, imitating their vocal styles and dreaming of a time when he'd be equally as legendary. With his long hair, make-up, cheap ill-fitting suits and rather irregular features, he was deemed by many simply to be the local nutjob - or, as he commented half-jokingly, "I was always guaranteed a seat on the subway".
He spent most of the sixties doing his crooning and entertaining around bars in Greenwich Village, on the way befriending Bob Dylan. By the time the hippy movement came into full force, luck was finally on his side. An executive from Frank Sinatra's label Reprise caught an ill-attended live show of his, laughed his head off, and promptly signed Tiny to the label.
For the rest of the decade, it seemed he was the clown of the psychedelic movement, playing gigs with the Bonzo Dog Band and also performing at the Isle of Wight festival in England, having a number one hit in America with "Tip Toe Thru The Tulips", and countless appearances on chat shows where incredulous mainstream hosts watched the show being stolen from under their feet. Bing Crosby was one victim of Tim who was apparently left near-speechless, and numerous YouTube videos show the Tim effect in full. He was an absurd, ungainly and unquestionably odd man, but had become so aware of his eccentricities that he now used them for devastating comic potential. The "freak" had become the mainstream superstar.
For a whole variety of reasons, however - varying from questionable business decisions and changes of agent, and not least (I suspect) a certain lack of adaptability to the times - he quickly sank. By 1973 he was issuing a single called "I Ain't Got No Money" on his own label, Toilet Records ("Because that's where my career went"). Still he continued, however, touring his act around America and the world, taking his old big band tunes and crooning style and peculiar banter to any venue prepared to have him. He developed diabetes later in life and heart complications, and his doctor advised him to ease off his schedule. He refused, still determined he could have another chance if he put enough effort in, and died backstage of heart failure in 1996, just as the easy listening revival was in full effect and he might - might - have actually had another shot at the charts with a reinterpretation.
For all his retro leanings, Tiny Tim was strangely ahead of his time in many respects. His debut album "God Bless Tiny Tim" is an astonshingly lushly produced piece of work which was only recently reissued on CD, and contains a humorous ditty about global warming ("The Other Side"). It's a must for any fans of sixties music or indeed comedy, as a great many of his vocal tics and affectations appear to pre-date the likes of Emo Phillips, Weird Al Yankovic (who is shite, like a tenth rate Tiny, but an influence seems apparent nonetheless), and most curiously, David Walliams. Compare some of Tiny Tim's TV appearances to Emily on Little Britain, or even David in camp mode, and you will realise what I'm talking about almost immediately.
Musically, he also predated Mike Flowers with his ideas by a not inconsiderable margin, as you can witness from the 1982 single above.
I'm frequently surprised by how little known the man is in the UK. Britain has a global reputation for treasuring its own eccentric stars, and with Tiny I happen to think America completely out-bowled us - and perhaps we looked away as we felt beaten at our own music hall game. You should go away and buy "God Bless Tiny Tim" now, which retails for measly prices on various websites. Most of the content is far superior to the Rod Stewart cover above - but that's not to say that "Do You Think I'm Sexy?" doesn't have its own appeal too.
Whilst you're at it, visit the very detailed Tiny Tim tribute site here: http://www.tinytim.org/
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