25 years ago this week, one of the best selling records of all time…and still the all-time best-selling record by a female solo artist…was released.
“I Will Always Love You” was used on the soundtrack to the Whitney Houston/Kevin Costner film “The Bodyguard” and dominated the charts in the early 1990s.
But it still comes as a surprise to most people that this tender and gentle heart-breaker wasn’t even written specially for the film. In fact, its trip to the top of the charts in the early 1990s wasn’t even the first time the song had been a big hit.
To add to the intrigue, this all-time monster hit record for one of the greatest female soul singers who ever set foot inside a recording studio was originally written by an instantly-recognisable Country artist 20 years earlier.
Dolly Parton is one of the greatest songwriters of the 20th Century, but hides her talents well under her “aw, shucks” down-home girl image. Most people think she just turns up and sings what other people have written for her.
Nothing could be further from the truth. And if you need proof, there’s no better evidence than her solo writing credit for “I Will Always Love You”.
This wasn’t written with a band of “songwriters for hire”, like so many chart-topping acts who claim to write their own material these days.
In fact the song is such a tender and emotional song precisely because it tells the story of a deeply personal experience of Dolly Parton’s.
When she first broke through into the upper reaches of the country music industry, she worked with Porter Wagoner. A well-established and very popular country star who had built up a huge following for his TV show.
Dolly Parton was very much cast in the role of his support act. Her lighthearted personality, her talent and her hard work meant she quickly became a pivotal, if always “below the title” part of the TV shows.
But she outgrew this arrangement, as all talented people do. To give her credit, Dolly Parton didn’t breeze off at the first sign of a better offer. She stayed with Porter Wagoner for 7 years. If she owed him something for the “leg up” into the music business, she loyally repaid that favour for much longer than most other people would have felt obliged to do.
The time came, though, when Dolly Parton’s need to give vent to her creative talents grew too strong. Her talent had outgrown her support-act billing years previously. Staying put would only have led to unhappiness with life and talent unfulfilled.
Eventually Dolly Parton’s solution was to do what all songwriters do when they’re struggling with emotions they don’t know how to talk about. She wrote a song to convey the feelings in music she found so difficult to say in conversation.
The song Dolly Parton wrote, and played for Porter Wagoner, was “I Will Always Love You”.
On his first hearing, Porter Wagoner was reportedly in tears. And who wouldn’t be, especially when you realise that one of the most amazing love songs of all time had been written just for you.
Although Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner were professional colleagues, and not in an intimate relationship, Dolly Parton very cleverly tapped into the same emotions everyone feels in a break-up situation. That’s what accounts for the song’s timeless quality, and indeed its position at the top of the all-time best-selling singles list.
“I Will Always Love You” was the last song Dolly Parton ever sung on Porter Wagoner’s show before she set out on her own.
And she never looked back, becoming one of the leading stars of the last 40 years in country music, the mainstream charts and even in the movies.
Although, in what I’m sure was a monumentally heartbreaking experience for them both, Dolly Parton did sing the song for Porter Wagoner in person one more time, at a special concert in his honour as he was dying from cancer.
Great songs are timeless. They’re also capable of being completely appropriate in a range of different settings. A chart-topping song about a romantic break-up which is equally appropriate as a song for someone who you know has very little time left on this earth is a very special song indeed.
Even if she had never written another song, Dolly Parton would, for me, be one of the greatest songwriters of the 20th Century on the strength of “I Will Always Love You” alone.
Dolly Parton went on to take “I Will Always Love You” to the top of the country charts in 1974. It hit the top again in 1982 when it was used in the soundtrack to the film “The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas”.
For most songwriters, that would be an extremely creditable and career-defining moment. But there was yet more to come for this exceptional song.
Kevin Costner reportedly championed including “I Will Always Love You” in “The Bodyguard” because he was a big fan of Linda Ronstadt’s version of the song (and who wouldn’t be — Linda Ronstadt is one of my favourite singers of all-time).
Linda Ronstadt played a pivotal role in making country music accessible to a pop and rock audience. She was a huge star in the 1970s and was the first woman to headline sell-out arena tours across the country. Her role at the interface between country music, pop and rock led to her former backing band becoming the monster-selling group we know today as The Eagles.
Without Linda Ronstadt, we’d never have had “Hotel California”, still one of the best-selling albums of all time. And she also played a pivotal, if entirely unconscious, role in making “I Will Always Love You” into one of the best-selling records in history after Kevin Costner heard Linda Ronstadt sing her own version of Dolly Parton’s song.
Back in the early 1990s, Whitney Houston’s voice was one of the best on the planet. Her talent and versatility made her later descent into a very troubled life all the more tragic. In the end, her talent deserted her. But her recordings from times gone by, like “I Will Always Love You”, have secured her place in music history.
That said, Dolly Parton’s 1974 original is no mean performance. There’s a softer, more tender edge to Dolly Parton’s version. While Whitney Houston’s version might be more technically brilliant, Dolly Parton pulls at the heartstrings even more…and Dolly’s no slouch in the vocal delivery department either.
For me, one of the defining moments in “The Bodyguard” is when Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner are holding one another close in a bar, swaying gently in one another’s arms in time with Dolly Parton’s version of “I Will Always Love You” playing softly on a jukebox in the background. It’s a subtle, but important, tribute to the lady who wrote such a great song.
More than being able to write a nice tune, and sing it beautifully, Dolly Parton really has a way with words as well. I can’t imagine a verse which sums up the feelings swirling around in the middle of a break-up better than this…
That’s all I’m taking with me
So goodbye, please don’t cry
We both know I’m not what you need
Whitney Houston’s performance is rightly seen as a career-defining moment. Her version is incredibly well-known, given its success in reaching the top of the charts around the world, but if you need a refresher, you can find it here…https://youtu.be/3JWTaaS7LdU
Linda Ronstadt’s amazing version, without which Kevin Costner might never have championed “I Will Always Love You” for “The Bodyguard” movie is here…https://youtu.be/D090T2MSxKY
But it would seem churlish not to make a special feature of Dolly Parton’s original version in this article.
“I Will Always Love You” is a song that achieves songwriting nirvana. It’s actually about a deeply personal experience, but it’s written so beautifully that everyone in the world thinks “I Will Always Love You” was written especially for them.
For all the records Whitney Houston sold, I don’t think there is a more heartbreaking version of this song than Dolly Parton’s original version of the song she wrote to put into words how she felt about moving on from Porter Wagoner’s TV show. Here it is…
Sadly Dolly Parton’s version isn’t on Spotify at the time of writing, but you can listen to Whitney Houston’s version of “I Will Always Love You” here… https://open.spotify.com/track/4eHbdreAnSOrDDsFfc4Fpm