Dolly Parton’s Creation of ‘I Will Always Love You’: Unveiling the Story

Dolly Parton was raised in a humble family in the mountains of Tennessee, specifically in a place called Locust Ridge. On the other hand, Whitney Houston had a privileged upbringing in Newark, the largest city in New Jersey. She was born into a family with a strong musical background, as her mother Cissy was a Grammy-winning gospel artist. Additionally, Dionne Warwick, a renowned musician, was her first cousin, and she was distantly related to the opera legend Leontyne Price.

The story behind the iconic love song “I Will Always Love You” is truly remarkable, as it brings together two individuals from vastly different backgrounds. This timeless track has a connection that spans across various influential figures, including Elvis Presley and his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, actor Kevin Costner, and even Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

Dolly Parton wrote and recorded the song in 1973, but it wasn’t inspired by a romantic breakup. Instead, it was written about the end of a long-standing professional relationship. Porter Wagoner, a well-known country star with his flashy outfits and styled hair, played a significant role in launching Parton’s career. He signed her to a long-term deal on his widely broadcasted musical variety show, and together they achieved great success with their performances and country hits.

As time went on, Parton began to desire more freedom in both her creative and financial pursuits. She yearned to separate herself from the man who had played a significant role in her career. However, she faced the challenge of finding a way to part ways with him while still maintaining a sense of grace and gratitude.

“We were constantly going back and forth,” Parton revealed in a 2015 interview with The Tennessean, reflecting on her decision to end her partnership with Wagoner. “I was trying to find a way to make him understand how grateful I am for everything, but also convey the fact that I need to move on. He just wasn’t receptive to my reasons for wanting to leave!”

“When I returned home, I pondered over my strengths and it hit me – songwriting. With a surge of emotions, I took a seat and poured my heart out into crafting this very song.”

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In Ken Burns’ documentary “Country Music,” Parton shared her reaction to Wagoner’s response. According to her, Wagoner said, “It’s the best thing you ever wrote.” He offered her a deal, allowing her to leave the show only if he could produce the record. Parton agreed, and the rest, as they say, is history.

“I Will Always Love You” reached the top spot on the country charts in 1974, along with another song that Dolly Parton wrote on the same day she bid farewell to her former boss, “Jolene.” These songs not only solidified her position as one of the best-performing artists in country music but also showcased her exceptional songwriting skills in Nashville.

Presley enters the story at this point. Parton’s hit song had caught the attention of the rock legend through his manager, Parker. According to Parton, “[Elvis] loved the song and wanted to do it. They had already worked on it and even asked me to come down to the studio and listen to part of the song.”

Unfortunately, the Presley cover of Parton’s love song never materialized. The recording was scheduled for the next day, but Parker informed Parton that he had a policy of not allowing Presley to record anything unless he received fifty percent of the publishing rights.

“I regretfully declined the offer to publish,” Parton shared with W magazine. “It was a painful decision for me because I longed to hear Elvis sing it. I found myself in tears throughout the night. Nonetheless, I had to prioritize protecting my copyright. It is crucial to be diligent in managing one’s business affairs.”

Dolly Parton, as it turned out, possessed not only incredible talent as a singer and songwriter, but also remarkable business acumen. She recognized the significance of her intellectual property and was unwilling to relinquish it, even to the legendary Elvis Presley himself.

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One of the greatest divas in R&B, how did she end up performing Dolly Parton’s country ballad? It all started when Costner, a renowned actor in America, became enamored with the song. Coincidentally, he was also producing a movie called “The Bodyguard” in 1992, where he starred alongside Houston. Intrigued by the song, he reached out to Parton to inquire about using it in the film’s soundtrack. Parton enthusiastically agreed, but was left in the dark about how the song would be incorporated into the movie, or if it would be used at all.

During an appearance on Kelly Clarkson’s syndicated TV show, she expressed her uncertainty about whether they had it or if they had done it.

Dolly Parton, like many Americans, first came across the song while cruising around town in her car. She recalls, “I was just driving along, with the radio playing in the background. When I heard it, I was completely taken aback. I had to pull over because I genuinely thought I might crash. It was an incredibly intense moment.”

The impact of the song was felt not only in America but also across the globe. It quickly rose to the number one spot on the Billboard charts, where it remained for an impressive 14 weeks, setting a record at that time. Additionally, it dominated the U.K. charts for 10 weeks and went on to sell over 20 million copies worldwide.

Dolly Parton’s refusal to give up her publishing rights and reject offers from Parker and Presley proved to be a wise move for her business. In fact, it turned out to be one of the best decisions she ever made. Parton proudly shared with a reporter that the royalties she earned from Houston’s cover alone were enough for her to purchase Graceland.

Houston’s rendition of “I Will Always Love You” remains the highest-selling single ever recorded by a female artist. However, it’s worth noting that Dolly Parton, the original songwriter, still holds the record for the highest-selling single ever written by a female artist.

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The tale of “I Will Always Love You” is a truly American narrative. It revolves around a gifted white woman hailing from the picturesque Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. Little did she know that her creation would be given new life by a remarkable black female vocalist from urban New Jersey, who would introduce it to the world in ways beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.

There was no discussion about cultural appropriation, neither by Parton, Houston, nor anyone else. Both women were engaging in a common practice among American musical artists: drawing inspiration from various forms of music and incorporating it into their own unique style. In America, musicians are not only safeguarded against the unauthorized use of their work through free enterprise and intellectual property rights, but they are also motivated to share their music with others, transcending barriers of race, class, culture, geography, and time.

The song has been covered by numerous artists, including Linda Ronstadt and LeAnn Rimes. In a unique twist, one Middle East dictator, Saddam Hussein, was so enamored with the song that he commissioned Syrian pop star Mayyada Bselees to cover it in Arabic. This version even became his official campaign song during the 2022 election in Iraq. Despite winning with a suspicious 100 percent of the votes, Hussein’s reign was cut short, as he did not live to complete his seven-year term.

The question of which version of the song is the best remains subjective, and it is not for me to decide. However, one thing is undeniable: the Houston cover of “I Will Always Love You” had a profound impact on both the writer and the singer, forever altering their lives and bringing them considerable wealth. Moreover, this rendition has also contributed to making the world a more enchanting and delightful place.

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