For an artist today largely perceived as little more than a gimmicky product of his time, the mere notion of a full collection of Tiny Tim singles is a somewhat laughable prospect. Surely such a collection could simply fill the space of a 7-inch, “Tip-Toe Thru The Tulips With Me” on the A-side and, well, maybe another version of the same song on the B-side? But the fact of the matter is, Tiny Tim (born Herbert Khaury) was a walking repository of American popular song, possessing an encyclopedic recall of hundreds, if not thousands, of songs stretching from the modern era back to the heyday of Tin Pan Alley. And it’s within the basic premise of the latter, coupled with a knack for vaudevillian showmanship that Tiny Tim operated.
The fact he came to brief public prominence in the 1960s merely reflects the openness of a decade in which popular culture was for the first time truly discovering itself. In truth, Tiny Tim could have existed at any point during the 20th Century. His approach to popular song proved so trans-generational that, save his odd falsetto, his music could and often did appeal to the vast majority of the listening public. Granted there was something of a freak show element to his appeal: his towering presence, miniature instrument of choice (the ukulele), odd looks, and childish good nature all coming together to create a sort of public curio, all capped off by his televised marriage to Miss Vicki on The Tonight Show in December of 1969 for which some 40 million (!) viewers tuned in.
And yet for all his notoriety and public perception of being little more and an oddball byproduct of the hippie generation, he eschewed substances of any kind, was patriotic to a fault and largely in spirit more a product of a bygone, simpler era. So deep was his knowledge of American music, he’s often been referred to as a musical archivist, a sort of cultural preservationist who helped maintain interest in and awareness of the golden age of American popular song.
A quick glance at the track listing of The Complete Singles Collection (1966-1970) shows a collection of songs spanning the first half century of recorded music. From the traditional “In the Pines", here retitled “Little Girl” (1917) to the aforementioned “Tip-Toe Thru The Tulips With Me” (1929) to “Great Balls of Fire” (1957) to “Fill Your Heart” (1968), the music here represents a snapshot of the first half of 20th Century American music. The problem throughout, however, is that his musical proclivities spanned such a broad spectrum that he was, in conjuncture with his odd appearance, virtually impossible to market as anything other than a novelty singer.
Because of this, The Complete Singles plays as a largely unfocused, hit-or-miss collection of gems, oddities and complete failures. In this, Singles’ main purpose is to provide a convenient package of Tiny Tim’s Reprise singles, as well as several pre- and post-Reprise singles, all of which until now have been scattered across a series of compilations. Not quite a best-of or career-defining, definitive statement, this collection affords a glimpse into the musical landscape that gave birth to Tiny Tim, major label recording artist.
Presented largely in chronological order, the quality begins to wane right along with the public’s interest. By the turn of the decade, his singles had become unfocused, messy productions that often displayed a misguided, tone-deaf take on antiqued xenophobia (“Don’t Bite the Hand That’s Feeding You” and “What Kind of American Are You?” are particularly cringe-inducing). The fact that these two come immediately in the wake of “What the World Needs Now Is Love” is all the more troubling. Coupled with the kid-friendly singles from his For All My Little Friends album, these sentiments feel as muddled and confused as his legacy itself. And while it’s certainly nice to have all of these tracks collected in one place for the first time, the latter half begins to tarnish the collection’s stellar opening moments.
Fortunately, the majority of the collection is well worth exploring. His collaborations with producer Richard Perry in particular represent an artistic high point. Of these, the Zappa-esque “The Other Side” may well be the pair’s creative zenith. Innovative production, impressive arrangements and a virtuoso performance by Tiny Tim help to make it one of the most impressive moments in his wildly varied catalog. The post- Perry singles tend to suffer from an overblown, second-rate stab at recapturing the sound and feel of his early singles. But without famed producer’s seemingly golden touch, something that proved an ideal foil for Tiny Tim’s idiosyncratic interpretative skills, the tracks devolve into little more than filler, rough approximations of what had been.
It’s an unfortunate coda to what could have been a very interesting career. Regardless, these are fascinating performances that fully represent the open-mindedness that was the music industry in its prime. Tiny Tim was a singular talent, one who never pretended to be anyone other than himself, and deserves to have his career reevaluated and seen as something more than the novelty act it was marketed as. While this collection won’t necessarily help accomplish this, it’s certainly an integral piece of the puzzle.