Canadian ukulele star Ralph Shaw (www.ralphshaw.ca) sends out a regular email newsletter, the Ukulele Entertainer, that’s always interesting. In his most recent edition Ralph stands up for the late Herbert “Tiny Tim” Khaury, who some ukulele fans unfairly characterize as having set the ukulele back. Ralph comments that he was surprised when, at the Saturday night show at this year’s Reno Ukulele Festival, there was very little crowd reaction when impressionist Tom LaGravinese, who had been ably hosting the evening’s “Lost Sullivan Show” with his spot-on impression of Mr. Sullivan, emerged for the grand finale from a magician’s box, made up to look like the spitting image of Tiny Tim.
I agree with Ralph. Tiny Tim seldom gets his deserved accolades. My own Tiny Tim fandom goes back to 1968 when I worked at Antioch College’s FM station, WYSO, and we received a copy of the “God Bless Tiny Tim” album from a record promoter. My colleagues and I loved the album, with “all those great old songs” that no one had performed in decades. (Given the historic context of 1968, we were especially impressed with Tiny Tim’s rendition of what I still believe is Irving Berlin’s only anti-war song, “Stay Down Here Where You Belong.”) Tiny Tim absolutely loved and respected some of America’s greatest tunes, i.e., the type of music that I play. He was a one-man human sheet-music encyclopedia. And when he insisted that Johnny Carson bring Nick Lucas along when Tiny Tim appeared on The Tonight Show, it exposed the wonderful Lucas to an entire new generation of music lovers. (It was a bit like the Rolling Stones refusing to appear on Shindig a few years earlier, until the producers agreed to book blues pioneer Howlin’ Wolf.)
While overall the crowd at Reno was a bit subdued for the finale, when LaGravinese emerged from the box as Tiny Tim resurrected, I was hooting and hollering as loud as I could. I loved it. But I fear that among today’s festival crowds are folks who not only don’t know who Tiny Tim was (or what he meant to classic songs), but who, worse, are under the impression that the first person to actually play a ukulele was Jake Shimabukuro. No knock on Jake, but I do a 45-minute scripted show that salutes Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards and his connection to the Gershwins. No one remembers Edwards, either. In fact, no one remembers the Gershwins. One night one of my two songs at a local open mic was “Fascinating Rhythm.” After my 10 minute slot, an attendee came up to me at the bar, shook my hand, and said, “Hey, that was a great tune … did you write that?” Hmmm. Don’t I wish.
And finally, speaking of “no one remembers,” as “Ed Sullivan” LaGravinese made a remark about the Sullivan Show not being “heavy with ukuleles” back in the day. I assumed he was making a great insider ukulele joke, but I was on the only one at our table who laughed. So maybe he didn’t know (and I had to explain to my table-mates) that the first time the Beatles appeared on the Sullivan Show (in February 1964), with a nod to Great Britain, Sullivan also booked and presented the fabulous banjo-uke’ing and singing “Two Ton” Tessie O’Shea. Talk about “heavy with ukulele”! And as you can see, above, John, Paul, George and Ringo were long-time fans.