Tiny Tim is Signing Off: The Tragic Tale of an Artist’s Final, Fatal Performance
Twenty years ago, the ‘Eternal Troubadour’ collapsed on stage
“To my deathbed, I’ll try to make it one more time. When I look at these great entertainers — Kenny Rogers, Liza Minnelli, Sammy Davis Jr. — they may think nothing of me. But at one time, even if it was for a scratch, I shared the stage with these great artists. I was a success. It will be in the history books.”
~Tiny Tim to Entertainment Weekly, November 1996
Thanksgiving fell on November 28, 1996. According to his manager Gil Morse, Tiny Tim was in “severe pain” and spent the day in the hospital. By now, he had stopped taking his medication. “What difference does it make?” he asked his wife Sue when she questioned him about it. “One day it won’t matter.”
Tiny had been booked by Sue’s stepmother to perform at a benefit dinner hosted by the Women’s Club of Minneapolis called An Evening Under The Stars on November 30. Miss Sue and her stepmother had also purchased several hundred copies of his latest album Prisoner Of Love to give as gifts to those who had purchased a plate for the evening. That morning, Gil spoke with Tiny on the phone and begged him not to perform.
“I have to do this,” Tiny insisted. “If I was getting paid I could refuse to do it. But I’m not getting paid, and I don’t want them to think I am not doing it because I am not getting paid. I have to do it.”
That afternoon, as Sue and Tiny prepared to leave for the concert, Tiny left his last known recording on his friend Jim Foley’s answering machine. Foley’s wife had just given birth to their first child, a daughter.
“Congratulations,” he said, sounding tired. “Good afternoon, Mr. Foley, Mrs. Foley, this is Tiny Tim. I just got your call — your call came earlier, but I was either asleep or I had the phone shut — but I just got the message right now. Congratulations on the birth of your wonderful baby girl. May the Lord bless it real well and thank Jesus Christ, and I just pray that you both have the best, and I thank you for keeping me in touch, and we will keep in touch. Thanks again for letting me know, and congratulations to Mr. And Mrs. Foley, once more. Tiny Tim is signing off!”
As Sue and Tiny were getting into the limousine to take them to the event, Tiny became disoriented and fell to his knees as he got into the car. His legs were visibly swollen, and Miss Sue had to hold onto his arm and help him up the front steps of the venue. Although she had reservations about Tiny playing the show, she did not feel it was her place to tell her husband what to do. Even if she had, she says, it may not have made a difference. “I don’t think there’s anything more I could have done to stop him.”
A full band had been hired for the event, and Tiny Tim was slotted as a guest vocalist. Bandleader Bob Elledge had been not been informed that his band was supposed to accompany Tiny, however, and refused to do so, claiming that they were not familiar with Tiny’s material. Perplexed, Tiny Tim looked at him and said, “You don’t know ‘I’m Looking Over A Four Leaf Clover?’”
It was agreed that Tiny would accompany himself on the ukulele, and that his set would begin at nine o’clock. By ten, the band had not yet taken a break to allow Tiny to perform his set. Tiny was tired, and Miss Sue told her stepmother that she was taking him home. Her stepmother consulted with the event coordinator, who in turn asked the band to take a break to allow Tiny Tim to perform. Without ceremony or introduction of Tiny Tim, the bandleader abruptly stopped his band. Many of the event’s attendees, believing the night over, began to file out.
The event coordinator hurried to the microphone and, in an attempt to retain an audience, gave Tiny a rushed introduction. Tiny Tim took the stage to an almost empty room and began his set, performing with the same spirit as he had always done, playing five songs instead of the ‘two or three’ he had promised to do. In an article Miss Sue later wrote about her relationship with Tiny Tim, she remembered him looking at her intently as he sang “When I Grow Too Old To Dream.”
So kiss me, my sweet / And so let us part / And when I grow too old to dream / That kiss will live in my heart
After four songs, Tiny mustered up “the high voice” for the last time. He began his most famous song, “Tip-Toe Thru’ The Tulips With Me.” After a few bars, he suddenly cut the song short. The audience applauded as Tiny mumbled “God bless” and stumbled away from the microphone.
Sue rushed to his side and grabbed his arm. “Are you all right?” she asked.
“No,” he replied quietly. “I’m not.”
With that, Tiny collapsed into Sue’s arms and then slumped to the floor.
A shockwave went through the crowd. Three doctors in the audience began attempts to resuscitate him while Sue sat a few feet away. “When they weren’t able to bring him around by the first couple of tries, I knew he wasn’t going to make it,” she later recalled. Many in the audience were familiar, either through friendship or publicity, of Sue’s profound love for her husband, and they watched her with alarm.
An ambulance arrived and Tiny was rushed to Hennepin County Medical Center. “He isn’t going to make it, is he?” Sue said to the driver.
At the hospital, doctors tried for forty-five minutes to resuscitate Tiny. Twice they succeeded in reestablishing a heartbeat, only for it to give out again immediately. Eventually, they allowed Sue into the room, following her request to “be there when they gave up.”
“I had read that when a person dies, his spirit looks down at the body for awhile,” she later wrote. “I wanted him to see me there. They let me in and pulled a sheet up to his chin to hide the big needle in his chest, as if I hadn’t seen it. I silently hoped he had never regained consciousness, but I didn’t ask for details.”
The doctors stood back as Sue kissed Tiny on the forehead.
“I love you,” she whispered.
Tiny Tim was pronounced dead at 11:20pm on November 30 1996. He was sixty-four years old.
Shortly after Tiny died, Sue’s father joined her at the hospital.
“How is he?” he asked.
“He’s gone,” Sue replied.
A nurse delivered Tiny’s wedding ring and a Celtic cross necklace Sue had given him very recently. Then she and her father said a prayer in the hospital chapel and left. The same limousine that had ferried Tiny and Sue to the benefit now took her home. As she stepped out of the limo, she was greeted by the “most unbearable sight of the evening”—the footprints she and Tiny had left in the snow on their way out of the house.
Miss Sue, Tiny Tim’s widow, provides a special tribute to honor the 20th anniversary of her husband’s passing.
It has been twenty years since my late husband Tiny Tim passed away, and I continue to be grateful for the continued support by his fans and friends. I thank you all for your kindness. I am also amazed and gratified by all the new fans, friends, and projects such as the wonderful biography by Justin Martell.
I highly recommend this book, which has been so long in the making. It truly is the definitive work on the subject. Thank-you again, Justin, for all your work on this great book about Tiny, and thank-you again to all the people who have not forgotten what a dynamic personality he was. He tried in his own way to be a force for good in the world, and I will always respect that about him. ~Sue K.