Most people are familiar with Tiny Tim—real name Herbert B. Khaury—for his rendition of “Tiptoe through the Tulips”. This song showcased his sometimes campy personality, with his high-pitched vocals being at once amusing and impressive. This popularity as a novelty act belies the serious musicianship that he possessed, however. He was a brilliant historian of early 20th Century American music, being able to recall obscure songs at the drop of a hat. His love of music formed very early, when his father brought home a 78rpm record player and Tim found himself lost in the music.
Tiny Tim didn’t always sing falsetto, though he’s known principally for that range. He started out singing in a natural voice. Upon discovering that he could sing in a very powerful falsetto, he decided to use the voice as his mainstay. It added a level of humor to his music, to be sure, but it also introduced many people to the ukulele. He was a strummer more than a technician with the instrument, but he knew how to use its range and even its stage presence to add to his performances. His rather large size made the ukulele look even smaller, which audiences found amusing.
To concentrate on his comedic aspects is not to diminish his importance as a musician. There is a long line of comedians who made use of the ukulele as a combination of instrument and stage prop. While this may not have lent to the ukulele the respect it deserves as a serious instrument, it did at least get it in front of the eyes of the general public. A slew of exceptional Hawaiian players would cement the instrument’s reputation as a viable one for art music, but he managed to bring the fun of the instrument together with an encyclopedic knowledge of early 20th Century music.
The fact that the ukulele enjoyed its first explosion of mainland popularity in the 20s fit well with Tiny Tim’s expertise in those areas of music. Songs such as "You are My Sunshine" propelled him to fame and he became something of a cult icon in his time. Far from a one-off novelty act with one hit under his belt, Tiny Tim did very well as a Las Vegas performer, earning a great deal of money and consistently packing the concert venues where he performed. The ukulele was a featured part of his act.
While Tiny Tim may not have set the fretboard on fire in the fashion of a player like Jake Shimabukuro, he did bring back a lot of the spirit that made it so popular in the early 20th Century. He knew how to deliver a catchy tune in a very memorable way, making him part historian and part musician, with a lot of vaudeville aesthetic in his blood. He is remembered today as one of the most popular musicians of the mid-1900s and his music continues to delight a wide audience.
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