Tiny Tim, the ukulele-plucking crooner who bemused and amused millions by trilling the whimsical love ditty “Tiptoe Thru’ the Tulips,” died after falling ill as he performed his signature song.
Tiny Tim, who had a history of heart trouble, was stricken Saturday night during a benefit for the Women’s Club of Minneapolis. His widow, Susan Khaury, said he cut short “Tulips” and told her he was not well. She was trying to help him back to their table when he collapsed.
“I don’t think he had time to feel pain,” Khaury said Sunday. “He died singing ‘Tiptoe Thru’ the Tulips,’ and the last thing he heard was the applause, and the last thing he saw was me.”
Tiny Tim died at a Minneapolis hospital late Saturday. A hospital spokeswoman said the cause apparently was cardiac arrest, but a final determination would be made later.
He said a few weeks ago that he was born April 12, 1932, making him 64, although over the years he had sometimes fibbed or hedged about his age.
Born Herbert Khaury, Tiny Tim built his career on his single hit song in 1968, his stratospheric falsetto, an asexual and childlike stage persona and a flair for self-promotion.
The 6-foot-1 entertainer with long, frizzy hair was given his stage name in 1960 by an agent who had been working with midget acts. He made his first national television appearance on “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-in.”
In an era of acid-tinged performers such as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Led Zeppelin, the older Tiny Tim seemed to offer a benign, comic foil. “Tiptoe Thru’ the Tulips” dates from the late ‘20s, but Tiny Tim appropriated the song on behalf of the flower generation.
“He would sing in this very high voice and play his ukulele and act like a child almost. If we had renegade rockers on one side, he was the other side,” said T. Dennis Brown, a historian of American popular music at the University of Massachusetts.
His 1969 marriage to Vicki Budinger on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” attracted an audience of 40 million viewers. They had a daughter, Tulip Victoria, before they divorced.
Though known for his falsetto, he also sometimes sang in a baritone. His albums include “God Bless Tiny Tim,” “Prisoner of Love,” “Rock,” and “Girl.”
In recent years, he found an audience with the retro-music crowd and an enthusiastic welcome from broadcast hosts, including Howard Stern and Conan O’Brien. He moved to Minneapolis in 1995 after marrying his third wife.
Tiny Tim had suffered from congestive heart failure, diabetes and other problems. He fell off a stage on Sept. 28 after suffering a heart attack during a ukulele festival in Massachusetts and was hospitalized for 11 days.
“If I live 10 years, it’s a miracle. Five years, it’s even more of a miracle,” Tiny Tim said after his release.
His doctors warned him he might live only another year or two.
Memo: “I am ready for anything that happens,” he said. “Death is never polite, even when we expect it. The only thing I pray for is the strength to go out without complaining.” A funeral was scheduled for Wednesday in Minneapolis.