Elton John’s song Tiny Dancer is a legendary part of rock history, but it wasn’t always that way. The track has a winding and intriguing history from its inception to a delayed but wild success. Today, it is one of the first songs that come to mind when we think of the singer—yet he has described early performances of the track in the UK as going over like a “lead zeppelin.”
So what is the story behind Tiny Dancer, and how did it go from a massive flop to one of the biggest hits of his career?
Composition And Release
As with most of John’s tracks, Tiny Dancer was written in collaboration with his songwriting partner Bernie Taupin. It dates to very early in their time together; he and Taupin wrote it after their first US roading tour in the early 1970s. He recorded it for his 1971 album Madman Across The Water and released it as a single in the US the following year.
As with many of his songs, the track is arranged as a piano ballad with subtle percussion. Most notably, it features a choral accompaniment, making it a standout—most of his songs are solo pieces.
The Meaning And Inspiration
Fans and critics alike are no strangers to trying to decipher Tiny Dancer. The song’s lyrics continue to provoke reflection and even argument. Many believe that the track is about Maxine Feibelman, Taupin’s then-girlfriend and eventual first wife.
The lines “Blue jean baby, L.A. lady, Seamstress for the band” are often cited as evidence, since they describe some of her qualities. She often traveled with the band in its early days, sewing costumes and fixing or altering their wardrobe. Of course, there is also a nod in the line “You’ll marry a music man.”
Madman Across the Water even includes a dedication “with love to Maxine” in the song’s credits. And John himself once said that Taupin wrote it about Feibelman. The two were married from 1971 to 1976.
Taupin acknowledged at least once, in a 1973 interview with Rolling Stone, that Tiny Dancer was inspired by Feibelman. But later, he said that the inspiration came from his experiences in California in the fall of 1970. He was struck by the “sunshine” of the people there and wanted to capture their spirit, which he felt was particularly noticeable in the women.
He later described them as free spirits who were both sensual and “ethereal,” strikingly different from the women he knew from England. These women often wanted to sew patches into the jeans of musicians.
The track’s lyrics, in Taupin’s telling, reflect on these women. He adds that “tiny” was a bit of poetic license to fit the song’s meter. The women he met were all petite, and he thought “tiny” sounded better than “small” or “little.”
Feibelman said in 2019 that she believed the track was about her. She noted she was involved in ballet as a young girl and sewed patches onto John’s costumes. Popular opinion now seems to hold that the song was inspired in general by Taupin’s experiences in California and more particularly by Feibelman.
Release And Later Success
Despite its current popularity, Tiny Dancer was not initially a big success. Some of this could be attributed to the song’s length; with a radio edit over six minutes long, it was not a prospect that many radio stations considered promising.
It also caused hesitation in DJs because of the lyrics, which included the lines “Jesus freaks out in the streets.” American radio stations were concerned that this would cause controversy and avoided playing the track altogether.
Subsequently, it only reached number 41 on the US single pop chart. However, it was a bigger success in Canada, as well as Australia, where it hit number 13 on the charts.
Ironically, since the song’s later rise in popularity, the full-length version is now a staple for rock and contemporary stations all over the world, including in the US and the UK.
Additionally, the radio edit took away many key components of the track. Many critics and fans now hold that this was to the song’s detriment. Notably, the radio edit removed the brilliant string arrangement by Paul Buckmaster. This meant that nothing connected with John’s solo piano and vocals to end the track, unlike their cohesiveness in the full-length version.
The full-length version incorporates pedal steel and a choir reminiscent of gospel performances. The radio edit felt truncated for many critics and fans and eliminated much of the song’s build-up. This took away from the overall power of John’s performance, which is now recognized as legendary.
The AOR format taking FM radio by storm in the 1970s eventually allowed for more song length. The full-length Tiny Dancer started making its way into the homes of those who didn’t own Madman Across The Water. Its popularity increased as it spread until it eventually cemented a place as a rock and roll classic.
A new boost of popularity happened almost three decades later when the track was featured in the 2000 film Almost Famous. John believed then that it would breathe new life into a song he had long thought best left buried. Tiny Dancer appears at a key moment in the film, wherein the characters begin singing the track together and it reminds them of their shared love of music.
Since the movie, the track has gone on to be an Elton John staple in performances and song collections.
Performances And Covers
John has performed the track a number of times both live and for other media. He first performed it in 1971 for the first series of The Old Grey Whistle Test. For decades, he regularly performed Tiny Dancer alongside Levon on his concert tours.
In 1986, he performed an orchestral version live with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. He included that performance on his 1987 album Live In Australia With The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.
Tiny Dancer has been widely covered by various artists and groups. John Frusciante of the Red Hot Chili Peppers first covered the song spontaneously in 1990, for the audience of Pinkpop. Tim McGraw released his own cover in 2002, on the album Tim McGraw And The Dancehall Doctors.
In the third season of the hit TV sitcom Friends, Lisa Kudrow’s character Phoebe Buffay remarks that Tiny Dancer is her favorite romantic song. She goes on to argue that the track was originally written for Tony Danza, mistaking the lyrics for “Hold me close young Tony Danza.” When the Friends: The Reunion episode came together, Courteney Cox invited John to perform a short cover with the wrong lyrics, along with Brandi Carlile and Ed Sheeran.
DJ Ironik and Chipmunk remixed the song in 2009, featuring John singing the chorus. It achieved number three on the UK Singles chart. In 2012, a charity single version was recorded by Mary Black, Paddy Casey, and Declan O’Rourke. Their version reached number one on the Irish Singles chart.
In 2022, there was a rumor that John was recording a new version of Tiny Dancer with Britney Spears. Eventually, he announced that he was working on a new song entitled Hold Me Closer. Spears confirmed that she was involved in the production process.
The track was released at the end of the summer, famously leaking a week ahead of schedule. Hold Me Closer is a duet featuring John and Spears. It incorporates verses from The One, his 1992 single, with the chorus of Tiny Dancer.
During its initial release, there was no Tiny Dancer music video; the song was released in an album and as a single—notably, it was released a decade before the advent of MTV, which would popularize music videos as a format.
In 2017, a contest called Elton John: The Cut was held in honor of 50 years of songwriting collaboration between John and Taupin. Artists debuted an official music video for Tiny Dancer at the Cannes Film Festival.
The competition called for independent filmmakers to submit their own music videos for John’s songs. Max Weiland won the live-action category with his video for Tiny Dancer, which featured residents of Los Angeles traveling around the city. Notably, Marilyn Manson and Iris Karina make appearances.
Tiny Dancer is now ranked number 47 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. But there were days when the track was one of John’s least successful performances. In the US, it would not be certified gold until 2005, and it would take until 2011 for it to reach platinum status. On the other side of the pond, in the UK, it wasn’t certified gold until 2018.
The song has become an essential part of John’s discography. Yet its long time in reaching that status is a lesson in perseverance and knowing that sometimes, it takes the right moment to create a masterpiece.
As the Head Editor and Writer at Music Grotto, Liam helps write and edit content produced from professional music/media journalists and other contributing writers. He works closely with journalists and other staff to format and publish music content for the Music Grotto website. Liam is also the founding member of Music Grotto and is passionate in disseminating editorial content to its readers.
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