Tiny Dancer: Elton John; Tim McGraw; John Frusciante

Hello there! This is the third installment in our new feature: “Tim’s Cover Story Goes To The Movies.” In this series, we discuss a famous song that makes an important contribution to a major movie. As is our custom, we will also review the artist(s) that performed the song, and we will compare a couple of covers of the song.

Our focus today is on Tiny Dancer, a lovely pop song written by Elton John and Bernie Taupin. It was featured in the 2000 movie Almost Famous, written and directed by Cameron Crowe.

The two covers we will review are by Tim McGraw and by John Frusciante.

Elton John, Tiny Dancer:

Elton John is one of the most productive and successful pop artists of all time. We have previously reviewed his cover of Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds, and his song Rocket Man. Here, we will give a brief review of his life and career.

Elton John was born Reginald Dwight in a suburb of London in 1947. He adopted the stage name “Elton John” as a composite of Elton Dean, saxophonist in his first band, and blues singer and mentor Long John Baldry.

At age 11, Elton John was awarded a junior scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music. Elton’s recollection is that although he was able to play many compositions after hearing them just one time, he was not a diligent student and was not particularly attracted to classical music. Elton subsequently left high school at age 17 to pursue a career in pop music.

Below is a photo of Elton John in 1972; at right is Marc Bolan of the group T Rex.

A unique feature of Elton John’s career was his decades-long collaboration with lyricist Bernie Taupin. The two were introduced in 1967 when each of them answered an ad for musicians in the British magazine New Musical Express.

Following the first big Taupin-John hit Your Song in 1970, Elton John embarked on an incredibly productive and versatile career. During the 70s he came out with one blockbuster album after another. Taupin and John produced ballads, rocking tunes and funky cross-over hits.

Tiny Dancer was a song on Elton John’s fourth album, the 1971 release Madman Across the Water. Bernie Taupin has said that the lyrics for Tiny Dancer were meant as a tribute to the many beautiful women whom he met on a 1970 trip to California.

The song describes a lovely West Coast woman who hangs out with the members of a band.

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.

… But oh how it feels so real
Lying here with no one near
Only you and you can hear me
When I say softly, slowly

[CHORUS] Hold me closer tiny dancer
Count the headlights on the highway
Lay me down in sheets of linen
You had a busy day today

As was their custom, Bernie Taupin would write a series of lyrics and mail them to Elton. John would then open the package and read Taupin’s lyrics.

Sitting at his piano, Elton would attempt to improvise a song on the spot to correspond with Taupin’s lyrics. Elton claims that he would move on to the next set of lyrics if he did not succeed within an hour.

Amazingly enough, Taupin and John were able to collaborate on over 100 songs in this manner. They never composed in the same location, and yet seemed to share a remarkable chemistry.

Here is a rare video of Elton John discussing the song Tiny Dancer. Seated at his famous white piano, Elton outlines his thought processes upon reading Taupin’s lines. By the way, this interview took place before the song was recorded.

Isn’t this fascinating? Elton discusses the verses and the chorus. He describes how he decided to re-organize Taupin’s lyrics, and then sings a couple of verses while playing the melody on his piano.

Elton talks about the distinct change in style between the verses and the chorus. This is a rare and revealing glimpse at the completely unique Taupin-John collaborative process.

The song Tiny Dancer has a fascinating history. It was released as a single in the U.S. in 1972, and for an Elton John song, it pretty much bombed, never reaching higher than #41 on the Billboard pop charts. It was considered sufficiently uninteresting that it was never even released as a single in the U.K.

The prevailing wisdom at the time was that the song did not contain a “hook,” and that it takes a long time to get to the chorus. However, this argument is bogus; as we will see from the scene in Almost Famous, the song has a compelling structure. The verses build slowly but inexorably to a rousing chorus.

Over the years, Tiny Dancer has become one of the best-loved songs from the Taupin – John catalog. A couple of years ago Rolling Stone magazine asked readers to name their favorite Elton John songs, and Tiny Dancer came out #1 in that list!

So the song has held up remarkably well over the years. From a tune that was considered too weak to release as a single in England, it is now a staple on classic rock radio stations.

Almost Famous and Tiny Dancer:

Almost Famous is a 2000 film written and directed by Cameron Crowe. It chronicles the experiences of a (very) young man who writes about rock bands for Rolling Stone magazine, a fictional band Sweetwater that is the subject of an article by the journalist, and a groupie named Penny Lane who is traveling with Sweetwater.

The movie is highly autobiographical. Cameron Crowe was hired as a journalist by Rolling Stone magazine when he was only 16 years old. Crowe traveled with and wrote articles about Poco, the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Led Zeppelin and the Eagles, and the group Sweetwater is a thinly-disguised composite of those  bands.

Poster for the 2000 movie Almost Famous.

At left is the movie poster for Almost Famous. This film was the break-out role for Goldie Hawn’s daughter Kate Hudson, who played a worldly-wise aging groupie who is having an affair with a rock guitarist. In addition, the performances by Frances McDormand (who plays the young protagonist’s mother) and Philip Seymour Hoffman (as acerbic rock critic Lester Bangs) were also outstanding.

The main character in Almost Famous is William Miller (Patrick Fugit). He manages to escape his over-protective mother and garner an assignment from Rolling Stone magazine, whose editor was under the mistaken impression that Miller was much older than 16 years.

William convinces the magazine to assign him to travel with Sweetwater and write an article about them, and he strikes up a friendship with their lead guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup). Miller also develops a major schoolboy crush on Penny Lane (Kate Hudson).

Penny realizes that she has reached an age where she will soon have to abandon her life as a groupie. Although she loves Hammond deeply, it is clear that she has no long-term future with the married guitarist.

Penny is hurt by the callous treatment that she endures from Hammond and the members of the band. She is also humiliated and insulted by Hammond’s wife, who joins the tour at one point.

After this incident, Penny takes an overdose of Quaaludes, but her life is saved by William’s intervention. Meanwhile, William keeps trying to publish his story about Sweetwater. Russell, worried that revelations in William’s work might damage the band’s image, tells the magazine that William’s story is false.

Eventually, with help from Penny, William is able to confront Russell and gain permission to print his story, which appears “on the cover of the Rolling Stone” (to quote a song by Dr. Hook).

Here is a clip from Almost Famous that features the song Tiny Dancer. The members of Sweetwater board their tour bus following a gig where Russell became seriously wasted on LSD. Following a series of interpersonal incidents, there is a great deal of tension and everyone sets off seriously bummed.

However, the song Tiny Dancer is playing as the band departs. Gradually, everyone begins nodding and humming along with the tune. Someone begins to sing along; eventually, everyone on the bus chimes in, and even the hung-over Russell joins in on the chorus.

William tells Penny that he needs to return home, as his mother is frantic at his absence. Penny tells him “You are home,” and William shares an intimate moment with Penny.

What a great, uplifting scene. I can personally attest that singing along to Tiny Dancer will raise your spirits – try it yourself!

Almost Famous had an interesting history. It received considerable critical acclaim; for example, Roger Ebert rated it the best movie of the year. Cameron Crowe won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, and the film won Golden Globe awards for Best Picture and Best Supporting Actress for Kate Hudson.

Various elements of Crowe’s story had the ring of truth to them. In fact, several of the bands Crowe had covered claimed that they were the inspiration for the fictional Sweetwater.

For example, Gregg Allman confirmed that the scene in the movie where the stoned Sweetwater guitarist jumps off a roof into a swimming pool was based on a real incident involving his brother Duane Allman.
“the jumping off the roof into the pool, that was Duane—from the third floor of a place called the Travelodge in San Francisco.”

However, the movie was somewhat of a commercial flop; it grossed less than $50 million worldwide, against a production budget of $60 million. Too bad – my colleague Glenn Gass describes Almost Famous as “an almost perfect movie about a rock ‘n roll band.”

Now back to Elton John. Here he is singing Tiny Dancer. This is from a 1986 concert in Sydney, Australia.

This is a fascinating performance. Elton is dressed in his best Mozart look-alike costume, complete with beauty mark and powdered wig. He is backed up by his band, featuring lead guitarist and arranger Davey Johnstone. Many of those musicians have been with Elton for up to 45 years.

In addition, Elton is accompanied by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. The only touch that might be missing from the original recording is a pedal steel guitar, and even that might be present here, though I am unable to verify that.

Over a nearly 50-year span, Elton John has established one of the greatest, most productive and enduring careers in rock music. He
has sold more than 300 million records, making him one of the best-selling music artists in the world. He has more than fifty Top 40 hits, including seven consecutive No. 1 US albums, 58 Billboard Top 40 singles, 27 Top 10, four No. 2 and nine No. 1. For 31 consecutive years (1970–2000) he had at least one song in the Billboard Hot 100. His single “Something About the Way You Look Tonight”/”Candle in the Wind 1997” sold over 33 million copies worldwide and is “the best-selling single of all time”.

The period 1970 -1990 was what I call Elton John’s ‘manic phase.’ In addition to his phenomenal productivity, Elton trotted out some of the most flamboyant costumes in the music industry.

Nothing seemed too outrageous for Elton – gigantic embossed glasses; feather boas; ruffles and lace; you name it, Elton appeared in it. In 1988 some 2,000 items of his memorabilia were auctioned off at Sotheby’s and raised $20 million.

During that period, Elton John’s tremendous productivity and over-the-top antics were fueled by a serious cocaine habit. At the same time, Elton was also dealing with an eating disorder, and trying to sort out his sexual preferences.

In a 1976 interview with Rolling Stone magazine Elton admitted to being bisexual. Following a brief marriage and subsequent divorce, Elton came out as gay in 1988. In 1993 he began a relationship with Canadian advertising executive David Furnish, that culminated in their marriage in 2014. This relationship seems to have brought stability and happiness to Elton.

Elton John has been an outspoken and articulate advocate for the GLBT community and in particular for AIDS sufferers. He has been quite courageous about combating public prejudice in this area, particularly since his advocacy might have negatively affected his career. His Elton John AIDS Foundation has raised hundreds of millions of dollars for AIDS research and HIV/AIDS research and education.

It would take an entire blog post just to list Elton John’s myriad honors and awards. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994 and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1998. In addition, Elton John
has received six Grammy Awards, five Brit Awards … an Academy Award, a Golden Globe Award, a Tony Award, a Disney Legend award, and the Kennedy Center Honors in 2004.

At age 70, Elton John continues to perform today, one of the most successful pop stars of all time. Keep on rocking, Sir Elton!

Tim McGraw, Tiny Dancer:

Tim McGraw is a country music superstar. He is also half of a country-music power couple, as he has been married to country music star Faith Hill since 1996. Below are Tim McGraw and Faith Hill at the Academy of Country Music Awards show in 2017.

Tim McGraw was born in 1967. His father was Tug McGraw, a relief pitcher for the New York Mets. However, McGraw was raised by his mother and stepfather, and only realized that Tug McGraw was his biological father when he discovered his birth certificate at age 11.

Initially, Tug McGraw denied that he was Tim’s father, but Tug eventually acknowledged his paternity when Tim was 18. Tim was a fine baseball player, but a knee injury ended his athletic career.

Tim then began playing guitar, dropped out of college, and moved to Nashville in search of a career in country music. He broke through in a big way with his album Not a Moment Too Soon. This became the biggest-selling country album of 1994.

His breakthrough album won 1994 Academy of Country Music honors for Tim McGraw for Album of the Year and Top New Male Vocalist. After that, everything has just kept on coming up roses for Mr. McGraw.

In 1996 McGraw headlined a major Spontaneous Combustion tour. His supporting act was country star Faith Hill. And “spontaneous combustion” was an appropriate term, as Ms. Hill broke off her engagement to her record producer, and in Oct. 1996 McGraw and Hill were married.

Here is a live performance of Tim McGraw singing Elton John’s Tiny Dancer.

Isn’t this enjoyable? Tim McGraw has a great voice, and he does a terrific job with this song. The arrangement is straightforward – McGraw essentially copies Elton John’s own orchestration.

You can see that Tiny Dancer is a great crossover hit; it works just fine as a country song. And you can see that the audience loves it; just as in the film Almost Famous, the crowd joins in to sing along with the chorus.

There is also video of a concert featuring a duet between Elton John and Tim McGraw, but I chose to go with this one, as I liked the audience participation here.

The song Tiny Dancer was released on McGraw’s 2002 album She’s My Kind of Rain. That album was unusual in that McGraw’s road band the Dancehall Doctors backed him up in the studio.

“What’s unusual about that?” you might ask. After all, it is standard for rock vocalists to be accompanied by their band on records. However, country music has traditionally used studio musicians to record albums, and to employ a different group on the road. So McGraw’s use of his own band in the studio was considered something novel.

Well, since they hooked up both Tim McGraw and Faith Hill have remained country superstars. Their joint tour in 2006 was the biggest-grossing tour in the history of country music, and was named “Major Tour of the Year” by Pollstar magazine, beating out lightweights such as Madonna and the Rolling Stones.

McGraw continues to break new ground. His duet with hip-hop artist Nelly became a gigantic cross-over hit, and he has also recorded songs with the hard-rocking group Def Leppard.

Tim McGraw is one of those people who seem to excel at everything they attempt. In the past decade or two, McGraw has taken on some acting roles. He received critical acclaim for his role in the 2004 high school football film Friday Night Lights, and also appeared in the 2009 movie The Blind Side.

In 2010, McGraw appeared as the husband and manager of (fictional) country singer Kelly Canter (played by Gwyneth Paltrow) in the movie Country Strong.

By all accounts, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill seem to have one of those extremely rare successful celebrity marriages. We wish them all the best, and hope they and their three daughters continue to prosper.

John Frusciante, Tiny Dancer:

John Frusciante is a guitarist who was born in 1970. He is best known for his two stints as lead guitarist with the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

That group had initially formed in LA in 1983. It consisted of lead vocalist Anthony Kiedis, bassist Michael “Flea” Balzary, drummer Jack Irons and lead guitarist Hillel Slovak.

The Red Hot Chili Peppers developed a local following on the West Coast, but their albums achieved only modest success. Then guitarist Hillel Slovak died of a heroin overdose in 1988, and drummer Jack Irons left after he experienced severe depression following Slovak’s death.

The Chili Peppers then replaced Irons and Slovak with drummer Chad Smith and guitarist John Frusciante. Frusciante had been something of a child prodigy on guitar, and was only 18 when he joined the Peppers.

Below are Flea (L) and John Frusciante (R) in 2016.

One of the reasons that Frusciante was signed by the Chili Peppers is that he had been obsessed with the work of former guitarist Hillel Slovak. Frusciante knew all of Slovak’s work by heart, and was therefore a natural addition for the band.

In 1989, the Chili Peppers released their album Blood Sugar Sex Magik. This album became a sensational smash hit. It sold over 12 million copies worldwide, and immediately established the group as one of the most prominent rock bands to combine the genres of funk and hip-hop. Rolling Stone magazine includes this album in their list of 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

The Chili Peppers subsequently embarked on a tour to promote their album, and opening acts on their tour were Nirvana, Pearl Jam and the Smashing Pumpkins. Wow — nothing like assembling every hot young band in the country for your album tour!

With Frusciante as their lead guitarist, the Red Hot Chili Peppers cemented their reputation as one of the great jam bands of the 90s. John was quite open about his goals as a rock musician. He wanted to experience the trifecta of “sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll.” As lead guitarist for a hot band, sex was no problem for Frusciante. He also quite deliberately developed a drug habit, partly to emulate his bandmate Flea.

Frusciante noted that Flea was a prodigious user of marijuana, and was seriously stoned at nearly all the band’s performances. So Frusciante decided to take up drugs; unfortunately, he chose heroin, and we will discuss the consequences of this choice later in this post.

As time went by Frusciante’s drug use escalated, to the point where he left the band in 1992. He continued to pursue solo work for the next six years, but was frequently incapacitated by his addictions.

Here is John Frusciante in a live performance of Tiny Dancer.

Frusciante appears solo here, accompanying himself on electric guitar. The audience in Hamburg is extremely appreciative; they can be seen swaying their arms in unison during the song.

Frusciante includes only the chorus here, so the video segment takes only one and a half minutes. As a result, it is difficult to assess Frusciante’s musical prowess just from this short clip.

Earlier we had mentioned that drug problems contributed heavily to Frusciante’s first departure from the Red Hot Chili Peppers. We try to keep this blog at a “PG-13” level, but it is instructive to chronicle the severe nature of Frusciante’s addiction.

Just before Frusciante left the Chili Peppers in 1992 and during the six years before he re-joined the group in 1998, Frusciante went through an extremely difficult period.

Frusciante is quite candid about his drug dependency; initially, heroin use was a conscious choice as he felt that it tended to lift his spirits and provide him with spiritual insight.

However, Frusciante’s continuing dependency on heroin put him in very dire straits. In 1993, Frusciante and actor River Phoenix embarked on an extended drug binge. This ended when Phoenix commenced having seizures and subsequently died.

Frusciante’s drug use continued for the next few years, when his health deteriorated in a frightening way.
An article in the New Times LA described Frusciante as “a skeleton covered in thin skin” who at the nadir of his addictions nearly died from a blood infection. His arms became fiercely scarred from improperly shooting heroin and cocaine, leaving permanent abscesses. He spent the next three years holed up in his Hollywood Hills home, the walls of which were badly damaged and covered in graffiti.

Eventually, in 1998 Frusciante checked into a drug rehab clinic to turn his life around. Upon his arrival at the Las Encinas clinic in Pasadena,
he was diagnosed with a potentially lethal oral infection, which could only be alleviated by removing all of his rotten teeth and replacing them with dental implants. He also received skin grafts to help repair the abscesses on his ravaged arms.

Frusciante has been able to maintain his sobriety with the help of yoga practice. In 1998, he re-joined the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and the group’s first album after his return, Californication, sold over 16 million copies worldwide.

Frusciante remained with the Chili Peppers until 2004, when he left the band to pursue a solo career. He is widely regarded as an exceptional guitarist. In 2003, Rolling Stone magazine ranked him at #18 in their list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.

In 2012, the Red Hot Chili Peppers were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Although Frusciante was one of the inductees, he did not attend the induction ceremony. We wish John Frusciante a long life and continued sobriety.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Tiny Dancer
Wikipedia, Elton John
Wikipedia, Bernie Taupin
Wikipedia, Almost Famous
Wikipedia, Cameron Crowe
Wikipedia, Tim McGraw
Wikipedia, John Frusciante

About Tim Londergan

Tim Londergan is professor emeritus of theoretical physics at Indiana University-Bloomington. He studies the properties of the quarks and gluons that form the internal structure of protons and neutrons. He also writes a blog "Tim's Cover Story" that compares covers of important songs in rock music history. He and his wife share their college-town life with two delightful cats, Lewis and Clark. His hobbies include tennis and ornithology, and he is a life-long fan of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team.
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