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JWB Tiny Tim (1932-1996) opinions on his music? (65* d) RE: Tiny Tim - opinions on his music? 06 May 06

You may scoff if you like, but I think Tiny Tim was prodigiously talented. Narrowly so, but prodigious, nonetheless. I know because I played a gig with him in the early 1990s, at a club in Niantic, Connecticut, on St. Patrick's Day.

My band Finest Kind (the New England one, not the Canadian, with Bill on mandolin, me on guitar, and Gary on tuba) was hired to open for Tiny Tim at a seaside restaurant and club, and the manager asked if we'd be willing to stay on and play back up for Tiny Tim, who was the headliner. Why not, we all said.

When we arrived we were shown to the green room, and there he was, looking much like I remembered from his TV appearances: a beak of a nose, sallow complexion, long lank hair. He was shy, retiring, and conversation was not free-flowing. We decided to talk business.

Did he have a set list? No, he wasn't sure exactly what songs he'd be doing. Did he want us to do anything in particular when he performed? No, whatever we came up with was fine. Shall we tune up? OK. He picked up his uke and played a G chord. It didn't take us long to figure out he was a half-step higher than the three of us. Would he mind tuning to us, since the tuba had limited ability to move? Oh no, that would never do he'd be lost and he wasn't exactly sure how to tune the uke anyway. Bill offered to do it for him, but he emphatically refused to let anyone touch the instrument.. The implication for Bill and me was to slap on a capo at the first fret. For Gary, it meant a night of transposing, in his head, up half a step: Tim had no charts.

We did our set to a distracted audience and then girded our musical loins as Tim was introduced to an enthusiastic welcome. There were a disproportionate number of middle-aged women in the house, and they pressed eagerly to the edge of the stage, holding signs with such statements as "I Love You".

Bill and I got our capos in place, and Gary jammed his tuning slide in as far as it would go. Tim turned to us and said "Grand Old Flag in D" and started to sing. For the next 45 minutes he DID NOT STOP! I mean literally he did a 45-minute medley of songs from the Gay Nineties to the Roaring Twenties, all delivered in a fine, true baritone. Some were well known, some we vaguely remembered, and some we'd never heard before. Bill can play anything, so he was OK; I managed to find a couple of chords to play for each song. Poor Gary (who's day job at the time was first chair tuba for the Coast Guard Band) was able to pick out a bass line for just about everything, whether he was playing in D#, G# or C#.

When Tim finally stopped singing, we were amazed, fagged and sore. He, however, seemed just as fresh as when we'd started. He then did his signature number, and that was what the crowd had come for they threw dozens of tulips on the stage (I remember there were even some carved from wood). This was the only song he did in falsetto all night. To prolonged applause, cheers and whistles, we all retired to the green room.

During the break we learned that Tim was a walking encyclopedia of the popular songs of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He knew who composed each song, who first popularized it, who the publisher was and who'd subsequently recorded covers of it. It was striking, the difference between his knowledge of the music and ability to deliver it and his social ineptitude (his public persona was not an act, unless he was acting for us). It seemed to be, almost, an idiot-savant type of thing.

We did another set just like the first. It was really astonishing how he let the songs flow, changing keys but rarely tempo. I do believe he didn't have a set list planned out, he just channeled the music. I don't know what he made for that gig, but Gary, Bill and I earned every damned penny we were paid that was hard work.

He thanked us and his driver took him back to Manhattan (Tim didn't drive). He died a couple of years later.

He really ENTERTAINED his audience. He believed in the songs he sang, and he brought out their real essence. I learned from being on stage with him that night that technical skill was no substitute for passion. While I don't have any of his recordings, I imagine that if you want to hear a classic song done right you can't go wrong listening to Tiny Tim.

And that's the truth.


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