Olly Murs singing “Dance With Me Tonight” with The Muppets is the greatest X Factor guest performance of all time: discuss.

Olly Murs in rehearsals for The X Factor with The Muppets, November 2011. Image credit: Idil Sukan / Draw HQ

With The X Factor finally given its official resting by ITV earlier on this year after 18 series, the dust has largely settled on the obituaries that said it should have happened sooner being delivered, and has hopefully now allowed the opportunity to, despite its many retrospective faults, reflect on the show when it was at its best and appointment viewing on weekends in the run up to Christmas.

Most people that were fans of the show (and I was one of them) would agree that the four series that ran between 2008 and 2011 are regarded as the peak years of the show; not least because of the new talent they bought us (Leona Lewis, Little Mix, JLS) who have subsequently become pop legends in their own right, but also for the truly iconic bits of pop telly it gave us to boot once the live show stages of the competition got under way.

Nowhere was this truer than the Sunday night guest performance slot on the results show, which, if you were a superstar artist and you got it at the time, was a very big deal indeed, and could sometimes determine the success of your whole album campaign. Debate has fiercely raged on for years as to what the greatest of these performances was.

Yes, there was Alexandra Burke discombobulating all over Beyoncé. Yes, there was Cheryl Cole in her ripped soldier trousers doing “Fight For This Love”. Yes, there was Lady GaGa in a bath singing “Bad Romance”. All iconic, and all brilliant, but I would argue that none of them hold a candle to the performance that was on the results show this weekend 10 years ago, by one of the show’s very own alumni – and may I add, one of its best – Mr Olly Murs.

To tell the story properly, let’s set the scene. In the autumn of 2011, Olly was approaching two years removed from his series of the show, which he had finished as runner up to Joe McElderry (although I did refer to him exclusively as “the Witham geez” for the first four or five weeks of his series. Sorry Olls if you’re reading this). His self titled debut album had done well, being certified double platinum, spawning several hits, including a BRIT Award nominated debut number one single (“Please Don’t Let Me Go”) and a sold out theatre tour.

Olly Murs in rehearsals for The X Factor with The Muppets, November 2011.
Image credit: Idil Sukan / Draw HQ

Around the same time, from my halls room at university, I had just started running and editing Olly Murs Daily, a fansite on Tumblr (or OM Daily as it came to be affectionately known). I launched the site just after his first theatre tour, which I’d gone to see at Hammersmith Apollo in London in May of that year. There was fansites for pretty much all my favourite pop bands on the internet at that time, but I noticed there were none for Olly.

Over the next four years, it went onto be the biggest such fansite on the internet about him, also launching a YouTube channel that had over 5m hits. It was a time that was an incredibly exciting one, as he was about to release his second album, In Case You Didn’t Know. The first single, “Heart Skips A Beat”, with Brighton based hip hop duo Rizzle Kicks, had been another huge success, giving him his second number one that August.

Added into all of this was his first venturing into the world of TV presenting, hosting spin off show The Xtra Factor on ITV2 with Caroline Flack, and they proved to be a winning combination from the off. Now yes, his first album had done well – that was almost agiven territory for anyone that got to the final of their series of The X Factor at least. But very few to that point had ever continued or bettered that success into a second album and ultimately, a long career.

None had also gone into such territory whilst also adding another string to their bow in terms of a career in entertainment as presenting. But then, I would argue that not only is he one of showbiz’s grafters (and, I can attest without bias from numerous meetings down the years, one of it’s most genuinely nicest), Olly has never delivered the expected or the typical. Which can certainly be said of the song that, even to this day, he is perhaps most known for.

The genesis of “Dance With Me Tonight” is a brilliant one that I still love reading about; it came out of a writing session for the album with Olly’s two long time collaborators, Grammy Award winning songwriter Claude Kelly (Whitney Houston, Britney Spears) and producer Steve Robson (Take That, Busted), and was borne out of his fatigue with modern day dating being so centred around the then burgeoning social network sites of the time.

Speaking in an interview in 2012, he said “Everytime I meet a girl they’re like ‘Just add me on Facebook, or Tweet me’, and it’s like why don’t we go out on a proper date like we used to back in the early 2000s, go for a proper drink and get to know her? So I went into the studio and just went, ‘OK, I wanna write a really old, classic song about seeing a really fit girl in a club and taking her out on a date.'”

I remember very clearly where I was the first time I heard “Dance With Me Tonight”, when it was given its first ever air play on Chris Moyles‘ breakfast show on Radio 1 ahead of its release. With the charts then full of electronic dance music and big US superstars like Rihanna and Katy Perry, it was unlike anything else out at the time, with an old school jazzy meets Motown feel. It was quirky and cheeky, with the most uplifting chorus that compelled me, sat in my halls room with the radio on, to dance with wild abandon in my pants. Put simply, it felt like a pop classic in waiting.

I went to the recording of a TV show he filmed somewhere in London a few weeks after its premiere, where he performed the song in a five song set, and the reaction from the crowd was wildly enthusiastic (not least of all mine from about the 5:18 mark here. Bless my actual 2011 fanboy socks). However, because of the continued success of his previous single, when “Dance With Me Tonight” was first released, it took a while for it to register with the wider public, only entering the UK chart at #2 to begin with.

But then came The X Factor performance which I think ensured that it was going to become the hit it was destined to be. Writing in his 2012 book Happy Days, Olly said that when he found out he was going to be performing on The X Factor again, “I suggested an idea to appear with The Muppets, but almost everyone dismissed it as stupid. But … my product manager at my label was really into the idea and within a few weeks, he turned around an idea that went from being one no one wanted to an idea that had to be done!”

I’ve long been a fan of The Muppets, for I dare say probably much of the same reasons Olly does; I grew up watching all their films and The Muppet Show when I was little, and they are one of those rare breeds of public figures – or rather, frogs, pigs, bears and whatever Gonzo the Great is – that everyone loves and agrees on, with a wide universal and timeless appeal. And they’ve had their fair share of big name, much loved guest stars over the years, everyone from Elton John and Celine Dion, to Dave Grohl and Tony Bennett.

Olly Murs in rehearsals for The X Factor with The Muppets, November 2011. Image credit: Idil Sukan / Draw HQ

So Olly turning in a showstopping performance of the song with Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Animal, Stadler and Waldorf and a trio of singing penguins (because The Muppets, and because primetime telly) made perfect sense. It was a performance that matched the song in that it had the feel of old fashioned variety with a cool, modern twist. I remember it was one of those performances everyone was talking about for a good few weeks afterwards, what you would call a real ‘water cooler’ moment.

I went to the album launch for In Case You Didn’t Know to meet Olly at my local HMV in Chelmsford the day after the performance, and when I mentioned to him about how much I loved it, we both then descended into a solid minute of impressions of Animal on the drums, whilst his manager Sarah and tour manager Mark looked on, amused and also a tad baffled.

And from there, “Dance With Me Tonight” really took on a life of its own, finally climbing to the top of the UK chart and becoming his third number one single almost a month after its release. It went onto be nominated for an Ivor Novello award for songwriting and was voted as the guest performance of that series of The X Factor in a national newspaper reader poll. The In Case You Didn’t Know album similarly went stellar. It was his first of four consecutive albums to go straight to number one, selling over a million copies, and led to him selling out his first of several national arena tours off the back of it, beginning some of the most crazy but special adventures I have got up to in my short and beautiful life to date that I look back on fondly.

Speaking to the Official Charts website in 2014, he summed up it’s success: “To be honest with you, I just knew when we wrote the song that it was really, really good. People just love that old school sound and I knew people would really connect to it … I didn’t expect it to be my biggest single, but I kind of knew at the time that it was a special song.” In the same way “Baby One More Time” is always the first song people think of when Britney Spears is mentioned, or likewise how “Wannabe” is synonymous with the Spice Girls, “Dance With Me Tonight” is that career defining bop for Olly.

It’s current revival as a popular song choice on the video platform TikTok (none other than both Madonna and Hollywood superstar Drew Barrymore have filmed themselves dancing to it) highlights that its popularity is continuing to grow and is even finding him a new audience. But him performing it with The Muppets will always be one of my lasting memories of the song and of the huge part his music and him being one of my biggest inspirations has played and continues to play in my life, and is without question what I consider to be the pinnacle of when The X Factor was on the air.

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