With his fright wig tresses, rumpled Salvation Army duds, shopping bagful of sheet music and battered ukulele, no one ever fit in less than Tiny Tim. The consummate outsider, he nonetheless conquered the world with nothing but a head full of Rudy Vallee tunes and a proclivity for unprecedented shenanigans — his live-TV wedding ceremony on The Tonight Show pulled ratings no one has ever topped — and Tiny Tim navigated a tsunami of notoriety that ultimately left him a bereft castaway recalled only by a handful of equally offbeat acolytes.
Yet earlier this summer, when the most improbable string of words possible — new Tiny Tim album — were suddenly being bandied around, the notion engendered both queasy misgiving and hot anticipation. After all, before Tiny Tim’s 1997 death, he’d cut a lot of crap, often topical novelties unworthy of his bizarro genius, but the album, I’ve Never Seen A Straight Banana, demonstrates that the singer remains as unfathomable and spellbinding a figure as when he first astounded pop culture 40 years ago. Captured on tape circa 1976 by former Bongos front man Richard Barone, then a 16-year-old punk misfit, it ably reintroduces Tiny’s deliriously enigmatic power. Better still, it’s no mere crazy quilt of daft curiosities but a fully conceived set that Tiny and Barone discussed at length during the recording process, with a specific sequence and agreed-upon title track and single. Significantly, when Tiny Tim died, these tapes, along with Barone’s business card, were at his bedside.
The Tiny Tim formula — simplicity, purist zeal, expressive power, illimitable madness — was the elegantly odd antipathy to, and antidote for, the pop realm he once ruled. Yet his fans included Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Bob Dylan; Tiny Tim was also, thanks to Garth Hudson, a participant in the Band’s fabled Basement Tapes sessions, advising and even recording with them, a fact that highlights the singer’s boundless appeal and his behind-the-scenes, get-around modus operandi. Of course, in industry terms, it was a particularly garish freak show, albeit one that really bested expectations. His Reprise debut, God Bless Tiny Tim, was so successful that, at his late-1960s height, he was spending hundreds of dollars a day on cosmetics alone, hosting elaborate dinner parties in his hotel suite for long-dead Hollywood stars (where, as the sole sentient being in the room, he’d move from one place setting to another, channeling the likes of Jean Harlow and Rudolph Valentino for some lively conversation) and generally pissing away one jumbo payday after another.
When Barone began following Tiny Tim, recording everywhere, from Florida motel rooms to grotty punk-rock rehearsal studios, the Tiny one had suffered a severe fall from grace, endured the humiliation of seeing his ex-wife Miss Vicki laid bare in a nine-page layout for men’s mag Oui, and been reduced to the hotel-lounge circuit. “He had just gone through a really rough divorce that hurt him deeply, it was a terrible time for him,” Barone said recently. “He had played London’s Royal Albert Hall only six or seven years before, and here he was at the Travelodge, and if he cared about it, he didn’t let on. My friends and I followed him around Florida that entire summer, and he approached all these shows the same way he did Albert Hall — that left such an impression on me. Tiny Tim was perpetually fascinating, one contradiction after another, and beside those contradictions, he was an incredible talent, and this record shows his amazing range.”
It’s arresting from the get-go. The probing mysticism of opener “What Strange God Designed Me?,” an original specialty tailor-made for the singer, examines Tiny’s self-imposed legacy of weird with a penetrating depth worthy of such fellow musical mutants as David Allan Coe, Jimmy Scott and Johnnie Ray. From that disarming start, he rolls through a barrage of choice Tin Pan Alley rarities, along with several original compositions, all framed by breathlessly enthusiastic chatter, and for the most part, accompanied by his ubiquitous ukulele, with one guitar number and a few tastefully Barone-orchestrated and overdubbed full band treatments.
Whether it’s a hardcore throwback like “Mr. Phonograph,” the first song recorded on an Edison wax cylinder in 1898, or the gloriously felt mother’s love paean “Baby Shoes,” Tiny Tim imbues each with exquisite, interpretive involvement. That quality peaks on “Dear Tuesday,” his self-penned tribute to Tuesday Weld, mixing Technicolor fantasy and eager flesh reality with mad, moving effectiveness. Even wilder is his live show staple “Tiny Meets Dylan,” an account of a private audience with Mr. Zimmerman, where the star asked Tiny to tell him about Rudy Vallee, resulting in a dreamily ideal rendition of “Vagabond Lover” followed by lid-flipping examples of how Vallee would sound doing Dylan songs and how Dylan might take on a Vallee number. Apart from highlighting Tiny’s boundless gift as an entertainer, the album also showcases the extraordinary range of different voices Tiny had at his command, reaching far beyond his trademark falsetto, referencing Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor and dozens of additional, otherwise long-forgotten inspirations.
Putting the set together after decades was no easy task: “I spent a lot of time reconstructing the album, it was like making a movie,” Barone said. “The Tuesday Weld song was on a cassette that was unplayable, so I went to the Magic Shop in New York, which is the same place they restore tapes for the Smithsonian. We took it apart and rebuilt the cassette to make it usable.”
Whatever confluence of ghostly forces compelled Barone to finally make this available may be hard to tally, but I’ve Never Seen A Straight Banana easily rates among the most bewitching pop releases of the year, and trumps more than a few of them. The performances here are uniformly — and eerily — boss. “He would literally transcend,” Barone said. “You’d lose him during a song — he would be in another world, truly in a trance — he really let the spirits of these old singers take over.”
TINY TIM | I’ve Never Seen a Straight Banana | Collectors Choice