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153 C hap t e r 9 The Growing Underground Movement The expectations are so deliciously low for all of us that it’s only up from here. —Jim Beloff, 1998 Tiny Tim’s prime-time television debut—a medley of “A Tisket, A Tasket” and “The Good Ship Lollipop” while strumming a ‘ukulele fished out of a shopping bag—left Laugh-In cohost Dick Martin openmouthed in mock disbelief. “A little surprise for you there,” said his partner Dan Rowan after the longhaired performer had exited, blowing kisses to the studio audience. “You searched high and low for that one, didn’t you?” Martin said with a grin. “It kept him out of the service,” Rowan replied—a reference to the Vietnam-era military draft that drew a big laugh.1 The next morning, the Los Angeles Times’ television critic reported that Tiny Tim “has to be seen to be believed,” referring to what he thought was intended as a spoof of rock ’n’ roll singers.2 But within six months of his startling appearance on the January 22, 1968, premiere of the irreverent comedy-variety show, Tiny Tim (1934–1996) had become a full-fledged pop culture sensation, with six network television appearances, a best-selling LP (God Bless Tiny Tim), a book (Beautiful Thoughts), a movie (You Are What You Eat), and bookings at venues ranging from San Francisco’s Fillmore to the Royal Albert Hall in London.3 From the beginning, Tiny Tim inspired hyperbole, both from his critics and his admirers. To Albert Goldman of the New York Times, Tiny Tim offered “the most perfect impersonations of old singers ever heard.” Life called his LP “one of the most dazzling albums of programmed entertainment to come along since . . . Sergeant Pepper,” while Time called him “the most bizarre entertainer this side of Barnum & Bailey’s sideshow ” and a Chicago Tribune reviewer wrote that “his efforts at entertaining are so fraudulent that an audience is embarrassed before it turns resentful.”4 Chapter 9 154 While Tiny Tim’s instrumental technique was rudimentary and he occasionally had trouble keeping time, contemporary reviewers rarely mentioned his ‘ukulele playing, focusing instead on his shoulder-length hair, extraordinary looks, fluttering hands, falsetto voice, and encyclopedic knowledge of vintage Tin Pan Alley tunes. Even so, Tiny Tim—who credited Arthur Godfrey for spurring him to pick up the ‘ukulele—defined the instrument for modern audiences.5 It’s almost impossible for American journalists to write about the ‘ukulele today, more than forty years later, without mentioning Tiny Tim.6 As with his inspiration Godfrey, television played a critical role in his career: Building on his previous appearances, his wedding to Miss Vicki, broadcast live on the Tonight Show on December 17, 1969, attracted one of the largest late-night audiences ever.7 Despite his inescapable association with the instrument, however, Tiny Tim has been largely irrelevant to the international ‘ukulele revival that began to pick up momentum in the 1980s. Some critics would argue that the new interest in the ‘ukulele took place despite his role in shaping the public’s perceptions. Tiny Tim was not the first performer to swim against the popular music tide of the sixties with a ‘ukulele. English native Ian Whitcomb (b. 1941) launched his career with a piano-driven falsetto novelty, “You Turn Me On,” which was a top-ten hit on the American charts in the summer of 1965. The following year, he scored a regional hit in southern California with his remake of Al Jolson’s 1916 recording of “Where Does Robinson Crusoe Go with Friday on Ian Whitcomb defied popular music trends in the 1960s by performing with his pawnshop ‘ukulele—years before Tiny Tim. Courtesy of Ian Whitcomb. The Growing Underground Movement 155 Saturday Night,” accompanying himself on the Martin ‘ukulele he had picked up in a Los Angeles pawnshop three years earlier.8 That September, at a wellreviewed show at the Troubadour in Los Angeles, Whitcomb showcased a series of English music hall and ragtime songs—“A Lemon in the Garden of Love,” “She Was Poor but She Was Honest,” “I’m Shy, Mary Ellen”—accompanying himself on the ‘ukulele and piano.9 “I was reviving the ukulele in the era of rock ’n’ roll, but doing it in a straight and unfreaky way,” said Whitcomb, who appeared playing the ‘ukulele and singing the Beatles’ “You Won’t See Me” on Dick Clark’s Where the Action Is in 1966—probably...


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