This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010, as well as, the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their lists, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. “RS: Song XXX” means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.
RS: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.
Song #21: I Will Always Love You by Dolly Parton (+) covered by Whitney Houston.
The story of “I Will Always Love You” by Dolly Parton is one of the more interesting and multi-faceted stories in this entire countdown. It is a song with an almost unparalleled record of success; especially, in terms of the entire musical history of female singers. It is a story of a song that involved famous men in supporting roles. It is, also, a story that involves some of the greatest philanthropic work being done in America today. One song. Two female superstars. One history of record-shattering excellence. Here is the story of a song that is not a love song but that sounds like one, “I Will Always Love You” by Dolly Parton and Whitney Houston.
When Dolly Parton was just beginning her career, her sparkling personality and good looks attracted a lot of attention. One of those people drawn to her was legendary country star, Porter Waggoner. At the time, Waggoner has made a name for himself with a string on #1 songs, as well as, the sparkling suits he always wore on stage. In any case, Porter Waggoner really took a shine to Dolly Parton. He believed that this sweet, young singer had a lot of potential and offered to help her career in any way she saw fit. So, in the first few years of her career, Dolly toured with Porter Waggoner. She, also, worked with members of his band and his songwriting team. It can honestly and truly be said that Porter Waggoner’s calming influence played a part in helping to successfully launch Dolly Parton’s career in those early days. But, there came a time when Parton wasn’t sure she was going to continue in the Music Business. She had a few albums not sell well. Her management was worried about sales figures and spoke about dropping her. Her own marriage was also in a transitory stage that many performers find themselves in, as they attempt to balance work life commitments with family commitments. So, Dolly decided that she needed to step away and re-evaluate what she wanted to do and, if she was to continue, how best to do so in ways that worked for her and her family. This meant saying goodbye to a man who had been nothing but kind and generous to her, Porter Waggoner. To thank him for the impact he had on her life, Dolly Parton wrote him a song. That song was, “I Will Always Love You”. It was not meant as a romantic song. “I Will Always Love You” was meant as a “goodbye song”. She wrote it to acknowledge that she needed to take her life in a different direction but, that she would be forever grateful to Waggoner for all he had done for her and that she had wished him well in the future and would always be his friend.
As a bit of music trivia, Dolly Parton wrote, “I Will Always Love You” on the same day that she wrote another huge hut song called, “Jolene” *(which you can read about here). The album, “Jolene”, from which the two previously mentioned songs came from, became a huge hit for Parton and served to resurrect her career. “I Will Always Love You” became a #1 hit in 1972 and then, again a decade later, it hit #1 again, when it was included on the soundtrack to the movie, “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas”. Along the way, the song was covered by many artists, all of whom had fair to moderate success with it. But, it wasn’t until a new rising star named Whitney Houston came along, that the song rose to another level of recognition and success and became the legend that it has.
As singers approached Dolly over the years, she was always very polite and accommodating but, in her mind, she had a certain singer in mind for a re-make. That singer was Soul star, Patti LaBelle. However, Labelle hmmed and haaed and hesitated for too long of a time. While she was thinking things over, Whitney Houston, who had a few hits under her belt by then, decided to follow in the footsteps of Elvis Presley and expand her presence in America by becoming an actress. She was a beautiful looking, fresh-faced woman so Hollywood was keen to cast her in lead roles. The first one that came along was a movie with Kevin Costner called, “The Bodyguard”. Houston knew that she would provide songs for the soundtrack and, at first, asked to sing, “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” by Jimmy Ruffin. But, that song was being considered for another movie at the time so, Costner suggested, “I Will Always Love You” by Dolly Parton. Houston agreed that the song had potential so she approached Parton and was given the green light to remake the song. Whitney Houston’s version of “I Will Always Love You” was a much more soulful, Gospel-inspired rendition and, as we all know by know, it became a huge hit for Houston and for the movie soundtrack. In fact, Whitney Houston’s cover of “I Will Always Love You” went on to sell over 20 million copies, making it the biggest selling single by a female artist of all-time. The success of her song propelled the soundtrack into the stratosphere as well, making it the biggest selling soundtrack song of all-time, too. For my money, it is one of the single best vocal performances ever! Her voice is so clean and pure and powerful and yet, at the same time, almost restrained, as she reaches the crescendo that concludes the song. At the time, she was the biggest music star in the world. Her future looked dazzlingly bright.
But, here is where several stories intertwine and meet. When Dolly Parton first released “I Will Always Love You” in 1972, she was approached by, none other than, the King, himself, Elvis Presley, who wanted to do his own cover of that song. Dolly was very honoured that Elvis would have thought her song to be worthy of his voice. She was prepared to give him permission when, suddenly, the business acumen for which she has become known, began to assert itself. As was always the case when Elvis covered a song, he did so in a bit of an extortive manner by demanding a 50% share of the songwriting royalties in exchange for him lending his name to another songwriters work. In the case if those who were struggling to make it in the music business, having Elvis lend the weight of his name to their work was seen as a big break so many, many songwriters signed that bargain with The King. However, Dolly Parton was not a struggling nobody. She had a few hits and, in fact, her own version of “I Will Always Love You” had done very well. Something about Elvis’ demands didn’t sit well with her so, against the wishes of her heart, she turned him down and, as a result, Elvis went to Las Vegas with out her song in his back pocket.
Fast forward to the 1990s…..when Whitney Houston approached Dolly and asked her for permission to cover her song for “The Bodyguard” soundtrack, Dolly said “Yes” but, she did so in exchange for a cut of the royalties of sales from the single and from the soundtrack album. Because of the fact that Whitney Houston sold the most singles in History, as did the movie soundtrack, millions of dollars in royalty cheques have continuously poured into Dolly Parton’s bank account. But, as we know, Dolly Parton was never a person who viewed her career as a means for personal fame and fortune. Throughout the course of her life, she has been extremely generous by bankrolling many programmes that have had a huge impact of the lives of others; everything from school lunch programmes, to her free book/literacy initiatives, all the way through her support of vaccinations during the Covid-19 pandemic. Revenues from sales of Whitney Houston’s cover have continued to play a direct role in financing these helpful programmes that Dolly Parton has set up. So, once again, by not selling away her songwriting rights to Elvis, Parton has been able to weaponize the money generated by her song, “I Will Always Love You” and has ensured that a lot of lives have been made better as a result.
The only regret Dolly Parton has ever expressed, with regard to the story of “I Will Always Love You” was how it all ended for Whitney Houston. Without going into the gory details, the sad descent of Houston into drug addiction, mental health challenges and of being a victim of domestic abuse, is one of the great tragedies in the history of music. An angelic voice was lost forever as a result. From the perspective of Dolly Parton, she says that she tried to reach out but, by then, Whitney Houston’s drug addiction was too strong for her to make any tangible difference. Upon the news of Houston’s death, Parton declared that the version she sang on “The Bodyguard” soundtrack was now the definitive version of the song. Parton ended by saying how proud she was that her song had become even more beautiful under Whitney Houston’s skillful touch and that, like the song says, when you say good bye to someone special, you wish them well and tell them, “I Will Always Love You”, which is what she did.
The link to the video for the song, “I Will Always Love You” by Dolly Parton, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Dolly Parton, can be found here.
The link to the video for the song, “I Will Always Love You”, as covered by Whitney Houston, from the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack to the movie, “The Bodyguard”, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Whitney Houston, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Rolling Stone Magazine, can be found here.