Dolly Parton was born in 1946, the fourth of twelve children. She was raised in a one room shack on the banks of Little Pigeon River in Pittman Center, Tennessee. She would go on to write more than 3000 songs and sell more than 100 million records.
But “I Will Always Love You” is a triumph of a different kind—a standard, a stunner, and a showstopper; a nakedly emotional ballad bestowed to forever test the pipes and power of the great divas.
So where did all that passion come from? Who is the titular “You” in Dolly’s tune?
Porter & Dolly
Dolly moved to Nashville the day after she graduated from high school and quickly established herself as a charting country songwriter. Her big break as a performer came in 1967 when singer and entertainer Porter Wagoner invited Dolly to join his weekly syndicated television program. She became a fixture on The Porter Wagoner Show and the host’s favorite duet partner.
Porter & Dolly reached the country Top 10 with their very first duet—“The Last Thing On My Mind.” Over the next six years, they repeated the feat with nearly every new release.
Dolly also produced a wealth of solo material during this time, including her 1973 country chart-topper “Jolene.”
In fact, it was during the very same songwriting session that Dolly composed both “Jolene” and a moving tribute to her duet partner called “I Will Always Love You.”
In one of history’s great understatements, Dolly would recall years later, “that was a good night.”
Solo Dolly (1974)
Dolly composed “I Will Always Love You” as both a love letter and breakup note to her duet partner. She released the power ballad in March of 1974, one month before Porter & Dolly performed their last show together. By that summer, “I Will Always Love You” had reached #1 on the Billboard Hot Country Charts.
Dolly was well on her way to solo superstardom.
In fact, Elvis Presley was so taken with the song that he asked to record it. However, as manager Colonel Tom Parker explained it to Dolly, it was convention to sign over half of all royalty rights when bequeathing a song to the Elvis.
Dolly reluctantly declined the offer. This, as it turns out, was a pretty good move.
Dolly Does it Again (1982)
A number of artists would record lesser-known covers of “I Will Always Love You” in the coming years.
Noteworthy among them are a 1975 cut by an ascendant Linda Ronstadt and a 1979 take by South African singer Caroline du Preez.
But the next person to enjoy major charting success with “I Will Always Love You” was…Dolly Parton.
Nearly a decade after its composition, Dolly included a re-recorded version on the soundtrack for The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Starring in the film alongside Burt Reynolds, she once again rode the song to #1 on the Billboard Hot Country 100. Dolly holds the rare distinction of topping the charts twice with two separate recordings of the same song.
It was the mid-80s, and “I Will Always Love You” was now a country standard.
Whitney Rising (1985)
At just 19 years of age, teen model (and daughter of 70s soul singer Cissy Houston) Whitney Houston signed with Arista Records. In 1985, she released her self-titled debut.
The chart-topping record spawned her first hit, and began her still-unmatched run of seven consecutive #1 singles.
Whitney closed out the decade as one of the biggest superstars in the world, and began the next decade with a standard-bearing performance of “Star Spangled Banner” at Super Bowl XXV.
By 1992, she stood shoulder to shoulder with Madonna and Michael Jackson at the top of the pop universe, but her signature achievement was just ahead.
The Bodyguard (1992)
Long in search of an opportunity to cross over into acting, Whitney co-starred with Kevin Costner in The Bodyguard. It was a box office hit. Critics had mixed feelings on the film and Whitney’s performance.
It was the soundtrack, however, that launched Whitney into another stratosphere. Co-producing and adding six of her own recordings, Whitney anchored the record with a cover of Dolly’s two-time country chart-topper.
In Houston’s hands, it soared to new heights. “I Will Always Love You” became a milestone recording in the history of pop music, amassing a list of record-breaking achievements that can only be properly presented in bullet form.
Whitney Shatters the Record Books (1993-1994)
Released as the first single from The Bodyguard soundtrack, “I Will Always Love You”:
- Held the #1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 for 14 weeks (a record at the time);
- Held the #1 spot on the R&B chart for 11 weeks (a record at the time);
- Topped the Adult Contemporary Chart for 5 weeks;
- Sold 20 million copies, making it the best-selling single of all time by a solo female artist;
- Became Houston’s first RIAA-certified Diamond single (and only the third by a female artist ever); and
- Earned Houston the 1994 Grammy for Record of the Year.
It also catapulted the soundtrack to bullet-list worthy success. The Bodyguard:
- Held the #1 spot on the Billboard 200 for 20 non-consecutive weeks;
- Became the first album in the Nielsen SoundScan era to sell 1 million copies during Christmas Week (in 1992);
- Was certified 18x platinum, on the way to worldwide sales of 45 million;
- Won the 1994 Grammy for Album of the Year; and
- Remains, to date, the biggest selling soundtrack of all time.
The album also included charting hits “I Have Nothing” and a cover of Chaka Khan’s “I’m Every Woman.” With her followup singles, Whitney became the first female artist to chart three singles in the Top 11 at once.
The combination of single and album also earned Whitney:
- A record-setting 8 American Music Awards
- 11 Billboard Music Awards
- 3 Soul Train Music Awards
- 5 NAACP Image Awards
- 5 World Music Awards
- And a Brit Award
Both the NAACP and Soul Train named Whitney Houston Entertainer of the Year. She wrapped 1994 with a massively successful world tour and a White House state dinner performance honoring South African President Nelson Mandela.
Back to Dolly
Things worked out pretty well for Dolly Parton too. In an interview with Country Music Television, she reflected on the difficult decision to turn down Elvis:
“I said, ‘I’m really sorry,’ and I cried all night. I mean, it was like the worst thing. You know, it’s like, Oh, my God… Elvis Presley.’ And other people were saying, ‘You’re nuts. It’s Elvis Presley.’ …I said, ‘I can’t do that. Something in my heart says, ‘Don’t do that. And I just didn’t do it… He would have killed it. But anyway, so he didn’t. Then when Whitney’s came out, I made enough money to buy Graceland.”
Certainly, Whitney’s was now the definitive version of “I Will Always Love You.” Still, the song held deeply personal meaning for Dolly. She remained close with Porter Wagoner throughout his life. When he passed away in 2007, Dolly was at his side. She performed the song at his funeral.
In the years following Whitney Houston’s milestone achievements, she spiraled into drug abuse and endured humiliating tabloid coverage. Her career was increasingly overshadowed, and eventually entirely derailed, by her tempestuous marriage to New Jack Swing singer Bobby Brown.
Still, the world was shocked to learn of her sudden passing—a drug-included bathtub drowning—on February 11th, 2012.
The words “I will always love you” are etched on Whitney’s gravestone.
The Canonization of Dolly
On a happier note, Dolly Parton remains an American institution and a national treasure. In 2022, Dolly was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She humbly declined the honor, on the grounds that she is not a rock and roll musician.
They inducted her anyway.
Dolly—not content to be enshrined without due merit—is preparing, at age 76, to release her very first rock and roll record.
Bonus Tunes: The Whitney Covers
Not only is Whitney’s biggest hit a cover, but so are many of the tunes that launched her career in the mid-80s. Here are a few side-by-side comparisons: