There’s an old snatch of video footage from 1970 that is as close to real-time alchemy as you’re ever likely to see. Sat at a white piano, an early-twenties Elton John pulls out a crumpled sheet of paper that looks like a schoolboy’s dashed-off homework and flattens it against the music stand.
The singer had seen Bernie Taupin’s Tiny Dancer lyrics for the first time just days earlier, and when he recites the first verse without accompaniment – ‘Blue jean baby/LA lady/seamstress for the band/pretty-eyed/pirate smile/you’ll marry a music man’ – it seems flat and prosaic.
Then he reaches the catalytic keyword – “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 raises his hands to the keys, walking through his work-in-progress as the wistful soul chords flood the lyrics with colour. Throughout, John gives the unfussy commentary of a plumber changing a pipe: “It starts off… then it sort of changes, y’see, to this verse… different tempo… then it builds up… the drums will be quite heavy by the time it’s finished.”
It’s an intimate moment befitting what began as an intimate song. Taupin confirmed in a 1973 Rolling Stone interview that his Tiny Dancer lyric was a love letter to future wife Maxine Feibelman, and she later told the New York Post about hearing it for the first time at Trident Studios in 1971.
“I knew it was about me," she explained. "I had been into ballet as a little girl and sewed patches on Elton’s jackets and jeans. I had goosebumps. That song was like having your really good friends give you the best gift you could ever receive.”
But John clearly had grand ambitions for his new composition. After all, Tiny Dancer would open 1971’s Madman Across The Water album, where it was given a marathon six-minute run time. While that allowed for an epic string and choir arrangement, it also killed Tiny Dancer’s chances as a single (not helped by the second verse’s Bible Belt-baiting opening gambit: ‘Jesus freaks/out in the street’).
“People forget,” wrote John in his autobiography, “that when Tiny Dancer came out as a single, it flopped. It didn’t make the Top 40 in America, and the record label in Britain wouldn’t release it at all.”
Yet Tiny Dancer had legs. To connoisseurs, the song was always an under-appreciated gem, but it took a film snippet to elevate Tiny Dancer to its status as a non-negotiable setlist perennial. Released in 2000, director Cameron Crowe’s comedy-drama Almost Famous was a candy-sweet portrait of a fictional rock band on the road. But one scene, at least, did capture the bonhome of a tourbus heading for horizons unknown, as one-by-one the Stillwater lineup breaks into John’s lost song.
"When it turned up on the soundtrack of Almost Famous, I think a lot of people had no idea what it was, or who it was by," wrote John in his memoirs. "In fact, that scene turned Tiny Dancer into one of my biggest songs overnight."