When I was a kid, quite a lot of people were trying to turn me on to the music of Elton John. They played me the tracks and showed me the photos. I liked the songs; the photos were sometimes a bit over the top, to say the least. One particular one comes to mind with Elton in his feather costume. I remember my dad looking at the picture and saying, “Please don’t ever come home dressed like that.” I told him I wasn’t planning to but he still looked worried. This was hilarious because my dad had quite a few of John’s early records. He just had no idea that the man in the picture had been Elton John – my dad didn’t read the entertainment news or music magazines. I still remember the expression on his face when he found out. “You mean that’s Elton John?” he asked in disbelief.
Anyway, regardless of my friends’ attempts to convert me and my dad singing “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” in the shower, I never truly saw the light. I tried to but never fell in love with Elton’s tunes to the extent where I would listen to his records over and over again. In retrospect, I can’t understand why as they are brilliant, especially fromTumbleweed Connection through to Captain Fantastic And The Brown dirt Cowboy – I’m sure I’m not the only one who thinks that the records Elton released between 1970 and 1975 contain some of the best pop music ever recorded. It doesn’t matter which one of these albums you play, they’re fabulous, each and every one of them.
I still remember the moment it all sunk in, the moment I realized just how good Elton John is. I was stuck in traffic in Chicago and “Tiny Dancer” started playing on the radio. It sounded bloody brilliant. A powerful voice singing powerful words of a seamstress “marrying a music man” and describing the LA street scene as well as this presumably sexy chick going about her daily business:
Blue jean baby, L.A. lady, seamstress for the band
Pretty eyed, pirate smile, you'll marry a music man
Ballerina, you must have seen her dancing in the sand
And now she's in me, always with me, tiny dancer in my hand
Jesus freaks out in the street
Handing tickets out for God
Turning back she just laughs
The boulevard is not that bad
Piano man he makes his stand
In the auditorium
Looking on she sings the songs
The words she knows, the tune she hums
With lyrics by Bernie Taupin, “Tiny Dancer” was first featured on John’s 1971 album, Madman Across the Water. The story the song tells was inspired by Taupin’s first visit to the US in 1970 and particularly the women he met in California. Says Taupin when interview by Behind The Song in 2014:
We came to California in the fall of 1970, and sunshine radiated from the populace. 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 hip-huggers 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.
While the lyrics are nothing short of brilliant, the thing that impresses me the most about this track is that it’s played and sung to perfection and mind you, this was way before you could fix the band’s performance in Pro Tools. If you wanted an excellent take, you had to play the track to death in the studio. So, it’s actually a bit of a miracle that there truly is nothing but pop/rock perfection here. As the fabulous piano intro ends and Elton begins delivering the mesmerizing melody, you realize you are listening to something absolutely spectacular. One of the things I never truly understood as a kid was what a great singer John is. His voice is strong and his phrasing’s spot on. On top of that, nobody quite sounds like him. However, “Tiny Dancer” is not simply Elton’s show. His backing band, including the former Spencer Davis Group members Nigel Olson (drums) and Dee Murray (bass), is incredibly hot. In addition, Elton’s decision to bring in B. J. Cole, a famous studio ace, to play steel guitar on the track was a great move indeed, as was to hire David Katz to add orchestration. No wonder, this tune continues to be one of John’s most loved classics.
Of course, the key to Elton John’s music is his songwriting partnership with Bernie Taupin, which began in the late sixties after they both answered an advert in the NME placed by a record company looking for talent. The way they ultimately came to work together was when Elton was given a stack of Taupin’s lyrics to compose music to. He did and the company liked what they heard. As a result, a meeting to bring the two writers together was set up. Once Elton and Bernie met in person, the deal was sealed, it was obvious to both of them that they didn’t just work well together, they connected and more importantly both of them were obsessed with music. Remembers Elton in an interview byThe Guardianfrom 2004:
We spent all our money on records. We used to go to Music Land in Berwick Street and listen to Joni Mitchell, Hendrix, Dylan, The Beatles. Both of us with headphones on, lying on the floor looking at the gatefold sleeves. It's a lovely, sweet image. I can't explain how we work so well together. It just works. It's lucky. It's fate.
When they started out, they were making about fifteen quid a week. Little did anyone know at that point that John and Taupin were on their way to becoming one of the most celebrated songwriting duos of the twentieth century.
Going back to my father’s relationship with Elton’s music, once he became aware of Elton’s costumes and image, he stopped listening to the records. What can I say, he is old school. I thought he’ll never listen to Elton again. Then one day, years later, the impossible happened. I drove over to see my parents and when I walked in through the front door, my dad was cooking and he had “Philadelphia Freedom” on. Flabbergasted, I asked him, “You’re listening to Elton John?” “Yes,” he answered. “I don’t care about the costumes or any of it,” he continued. “The music’s too good. I miss the songs. I’ve come to the conclusion that I love this guy, feathers and all,” my father firmly stated and turned up the volume.
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About the curator - Tommi Tikka
Tom Tikka is a linguist, poet, professional songwriter, recording artist and a music aficionado. He started playing guitar when he was four and writing songs when he was six. Consequently, he doesn't remember a time when he wasn't playing or writing. It's fair to say, music and lyrics are not just something he loves to engage himself in; to him, they are a way of life.