Inside Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s ‘Tiny Dancer’
The mere mention of “Tiny Dancer” often brings up the classic song’s appearance in Cameron Crowe’s semi-autobiographical Almost Famous. But even before that 2000 movie came out, the Elton John–Bernie Taupin composition, which opens 1971’s Madman Across the Water, was a staple of classic-rock radio playlists.
It also has a rich backstory.
There’s video of John talking about and playing the song shortly after he started writing it. “These are all lyrics, and I just sift through them,” John says as he sorts through a pile of papers. “There’s one here I did just the other day called ‘Tiny Dancer,’ which is about Bernie’s girlfriend. I looked through all the lyrics and this is the one I fancied writing, mainly because I knew Bernie would like me to do this one, because it’s about his girlfriend.”
As he reads the opening lyrics, he says, “Look at the words. As soon as you get to the word ‘ballerina,’ you know it’s not going to be fast. It’s going to be gentle and sort of quite slow.”
Watch Elton John Perform ‘Tiny Dancer’ in 1970
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In Madman Across the Water‘s liner notes, the song is dedicated to Maxine Feibelman, who was the “seamstress for the band” and had become Taupin’s first wife by the time the album was released. Taupin told Rolling Stone in 1973 that she was the song’s muse. But, as he revealed to Gavin Edwards in his 2006 book Is Tiny Dancer Really Elton’s Little John?: Music’s Most Enduring Mysteries, Myths and Rumors Revealed, it was more about the women he encountered on his famous first trip to Los Angeles than one in particular.
“We came to California in the fall of 1970, and sunshine radiated from the populace,” Taupin recalled. “I was trying to capture the spirit of that time, encapsulated by the women we met — especially at the clothes stores up and down the Strip in L.A. They were free spirits, sexy in hiphuggers and lacy blouses, and very ethereal, the way they moved. So different from what I’d been used to in England. And they all wanted to sew patches on your jeans. They’d mother you and sleep with you — it was the perfect Oedipal complex.”
But for all the lyrics’ romanticism and that gorgeous melody, the song’s secret weapons are B.J. Cole’s pedal steel guitar, which adds a dose of wistful longing, and Paul Buckmaster’s orchestral arrangement, which enters the picture during the first chorus and proceeds to ebb-and-flow throughout the track.
“How do you separate the strings of ‘Tiny Dancer’ from that original recording?” Ben Folds asked rhetorically in a Facebook eulogy upon Buckmaster’s death in 2017. “It’s the part of the composition that makes you feel the denim that was on the cover of the album.”
Folds, who worked with Buckmaster a few times, said he believed the arranger was more of a “composer, roaming alone, who parked his work inside ‘the folk music of the day,’ as he put it to me once. It’s an arranger’s job to ornament, accent and fill out, which is quite an intense gig in and of itself.
“Paul seemed to identify the genetic code of a song, and then add the thing that you didn’t know was there before — that explained it all — as the last touch, as rock arrangements are nearly always placed atop an otherwise finished recording. To have added the last word to so many songs, and have that part be the revelation, and often the hook, was an incredible feat that he just kept shaking out of his sleeve, for at least four decades.”
Speaking to The Guardian in 2010, Buckmaster gave a bit of insight into his role in the process. “One general rule is to hold back as much as possible, to give the listener the chance to let the song grow and unfold, introducing new sonic elements, such as new instruments or sectional groupings,” he explained. “If you use everything from the beginning, you have nowhere to go.”
In 2017, John launched a contest for independent filmmakers to create music videos for some of his biggest hits of the ’70s. Max Welland’s clip won the live-action category for his interpretation of “Tiny Dancer,” which includes an appearance by Marilyn Manson as the man in the van with the snake.
Watch Elton John’s ‘Tiny Dancer’ Video
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“For me, ‘Tiny Dancer’ is a classic driving song and L.A. is a driving town,” Welland said. “The city’s identity is in its highways, boulevards, cars and people. This video is a bittersweet love letter to the phenomenon of the city, and an attempt to capture its dynamic, elusive energy.
“We see L.A. through the eyes of its people, their disparate lives unified momentarily as they listen to ‘Tiny Dancer’ on their radios. It is their shared soliloquy. It connects their stories as we feel their struggle and their joy.”