Only a handful of musicians have earned the
right to be called a “legend,” and one of them is Elton John. His songs have become legends of their own,
particularly hits like “Rocket Man” and “Tiny Dancer.” Here’s what inspired these famous Elton John
hits. A fan favorite from Elton John’s 1971 album
Madman Across the Water, “Tiny Dancer” was a minor hit upon initial release and didn’t
truly become one of the singer’s best known songs until its inclusion in Cameron Crowe’s
early ’70s period piece Almost Famous, where a bus full of rock musicians triumphantly
sings the tune. It’s not about a real-life ballerina that
fit in John’s pocket, nor is it about Tony Danza, as a famous mishearing of the song
would suggest. It’s the song’s lyricist and long-time Elton
John collaborator, Bernie Taupin, who has shed some light on this one. He’s said it’s a reflection about the time
they spent in sunny California, and the women they met there. “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. They were free spirits, sexy in hip-huggers
and lacy blouses, very ethereal, the way they moved.” So those are the “dancers,” but why exactly
are they “tiny”? Taupin chalked that up to a little bit of
poetic license. Elton John’s 1973 hit “Daniel” isn’t a romantic
love song or an allegorical tale. The titular fellow is a Vietnam War veteran
struggling to readjust to his regular, civilian life after enduring some horrific combat experiences,
a period made more difficult by Americans’ polarized attitudes about that conflict. Taupin explained: “I’d seen this […] story about how many
of the soldiers that were coming back from ‘Nam were these simple sort of down home country
guys who were generally embarrassed by both the adulation and, depending on what part
of the country you came from, the animosity that they were greeted by. For the most part, they just wanted to get
back to a normal life, but found it hard.” All that is made abundantly clear with the
song’s final verse, which ultimately got cut from the song altogether. According to Taupin, it wasn’t a big deal. ” […] that used to happen all the time with
our songs. I would often overwrite, and Elton felt it
necessary to edit somewhat. But believe me, it didn’t say anything that
the rest of the song didn’t say.” Elton John played piano and sang backup on
John Lennon’s 1974 single “Whatever Gets You Thru the Night.” Lennon didn’t think the song would go over
that well, but John thought he knew a #1 hit when he heard one. So, the Beatle placed a friendly wager with
the “Benny and the Jets” songwriter: If the song topped the charts, Lennon would have
to join him on stage at a future concert. In November 1974, “Whatever Gets You Thru
the Night” hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, and Lennon, true to his word, joined John
onstage at a concert at Madison Square Garden. That would ultimately be Lennon’s last live
performance before he was shot to death outside of his New York apartment by an unhinged,
obsessed fan in 1980. Elton John and Bernie Taupin were devastated
by the loss, and the latter tried to process his grief by penning the words to “Empty Garden
(Hey Hey Johnny).” Taupin has talked about how he doesn’t actually
remember writing it, and says that the song just kind of happened. Elton John had a similar experience writing
the music, saying, “It said everything I wanted to say without
sounding too cloying. I thought it was so perfect for me that I
just sat down and wrote the song immediately.” “Candle in the Wind” was Elton John’s song
about the brief, fragile nature of life, and even though it first appeared on his 1973
album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, it didn’t hit the top 10 in the U.S. until John released
a live version in 1987. Both versions discuss the life and tragic
end of screen legend Marilyn Monroe, who died at age 36 in 1962. Then, in 1997, John and Bernie Taupin altered
the song into a tribute to Princess Diana, who died, like Monroe, at age 36. Lyrics were changed from “Norma Jean” to “English
Rose”, and John sang it at the beloved royal’s televised funeral. A recording of that performance was released
under the title “Candle in the Wind 1997,” where it went on to become the best selling
single in U.K. history and topped the U.S. pop chart for 14 weeks, with the proceeds
benefiting some of Diana’s favorite causes. And yet the sentiment and feeling behind the
original isn’t absolutely about just Monroe. Taupin has said: “It’s not that I didn’t have a respect for
her. It’s just that the song could just as easily
have been about James Dean or Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain. I mean, it could have been about Sylvia Plath
or Virginia Woolf. I mean, basically, anybody, any writer, actor,
actress, or musician who died young.” “Border Song,” the first Elton John song to
hit the charts in the U.S., stalled at #92 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1970. A choir-driven, gospel-tinged tune that showcases
John’s vocals range and piano work, the track from Elton John made quite the auspicious
bit of exposure for the legendary performer. It’s such a legit piece of music that Aretha
Franklin covered it later in 1970, and she took it into the top 40. So what’s it about? Taupin doesn’t claim the song is about anything
or anyone in particular, while John thinks some of the most powerful lyrics suggest that
it’s about the alienation and outsiderness Taupin felt when he moved from his home in
rural England into big, bustling, foggy London Town in the late 1960s. One of the best and most popular athletes
in the world in the mid-1970s was tennis superstar Billie Jean King. The highest ranked player in the world at
one point, by 1975, she’d amassed 12 Grand Slam singles tournament wins and 12 doubles
championships. That doesn’t even count her most famous match,
the 1973 “Battle of the Sexes” exhibition, in which she soundly beat male competitor
Bobby Riggs. In 1975, King temporarily refocused her energies
on building a new sports league she’d helped found: World TeamTennis. King also coached the member franchise Philadelphia
Freedoms in 1974, and around that time, Elton John was so enamored with her and such a fan
of King’s new venture that he asked Bernie Taupin to write up some lyrics. At first, Taupin balked, saying that tennis
just wasn’t something he could possibly write about. So he didn’t, not really. Instead, the song “Philadelphia Freedom” builds
on references to classic Philadelphia soul music and taps into the growing “Bicentennial
Fever” gripping the U.S. in the lead-up to 1976. Inspired by the dazzling human achievement
of space travel and particularly by NASA successfully landing men on the Moon in 1969, the late
’60s and early ’70s were a fruitful time for songwriters writing songs about space. Alongside David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” in
this mini-genre is Elton John’s “Rocket Man,” a meditation on the ho-hum, humdrum life of
an astronaut. “That’s a very nice rendering, Dave I think
you’ve improved a great deal.” Bernie Taupin says got the idea for the 1972
single while driving one night across in the tranquil English countryside and looking up
at the sky. He saw either a shooting star or airplane
streak across the sky, and it made him think of astronauts. By the early ’70s, NASA had launched half
a dozen manned flights into space, which, to Taupin, turned the once unthinkably awesome
profession into an almost “everyday occupation.” As Taupin kept driving, the song’s opening
lyrics popped into his head, fully formed. School and public shootings happen with alarming
regularity in the U.S. these days, and location names like “Parkland,” “Aurora,” and “Sandy
Hook” serve as shorthand for the horrible tragedies that happened in those places. But when it happened on American soil for
one of the first times, in the ’60s, it was sad, terrible, and also completely unexpected. On August 1, 1966, Charles Whitman walked
up to the observation deck of Austin’s University of Texas Tower and started shooting seemingly
at random. Over the course of 90 minutes, Whitman killed
17 people and injured more than 30, until he was killed by police. That terrible event led to a growing culture
of violence and fear. It also led to the Elton John/Bernie Taupin
collaboration “Ticking,” a cut off the Elton John’s 1974 album Caribou. When Elton played the song at a concert in
England in July 2003, he said, “It’s a song that deals with violence in America
in about the year 1973. When Bernie [Taupin] wrote the song, we thought
things would get better not worse. Well, here we are 30 years on, down the line,
and things have gotten worse. And so the song is more relevant than when
it was written.” The 1983 album Too Low for Zero is credited
to Elton John, but he let his loyal lyricist Bernie Taupin have the dedication: “Hey Toni, this one’s from me to you. Love, Bernie.” Toni is Toni Russo, a model, a sister of actress
Rene Russo, and Taupin’s second wife. Toni Russo is also the main inspiration for
the record’s catchy-but-maudlin breakout hit “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues.” Taupin was overseas and feeling vulnerable,
and so he wrote some correspondence that he later turned into a song. He later said: “Basically, it’s a letter home with a small
tip included about making the most of time, not wishing it away just because you can’t
be with the one you love. Time is precious; read books, paint a picture,
bake a cake. Just don’t wallow, don’t be content.” That letter became the song, although Taupin
regrets some of the lyrics. Looking at it in retrospect, he’s said “The whole ‘loving you more than I love life
itself’ is something I would never say now. It’s kind of a crass sentiment and totally
false.” “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” is one of
Elton John’s most anguished songs, and that anguish came from a very real place. It was written about coming back from the
brink of two heart wrenching and desperate situations in which Elton John actually found
himself, and which he survived both thanks to longtime friend Bernie Taupin, who then
essentially wrote this song about himself. In the late ’60s, John was playing in musician
Long John Baldry’s band when he met a woman named Linda Woodrow at a club. Planning to marry, they moved into an apartment
in North London and took in Taupin as a roommate. In the notes for the John/Taupin tribute “Two
Rooms,” John explained, “I went out and got drunk with Long John Baldry
and Bernie, and John said I shouldn’t get married. I knew he was right, but I didn’t know how
to get out of it, so I just got drunk and went home and said I’m not getting married.” Taupin added in Two Rooms that “Someone Saved
My Life Tonight” was also inspired by an incident in which John attempted to take his own life
while they were flatmates. Alerted that something was wrong by the smell
of gas one day, Taupin went into the kitchen the two songwriters shared. He recalls, “And there’s Elton lying on the floor with
the gas oven open. My immediate thing should have been ‘Oh my
god, he’s tried to kill himself.’ But I started laughing because he’d got the
gas oven open, he was lying on a pillow and he’d opened all the windows.” If you or anyone you know is having suicidal
thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).