Music

Life of a Song: Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, Whitney Houston and 40+ Years of 'I Will Always Love You'

Tsugufumi Matsumoto AP, ASSOCIATED PRESS, AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill

Career-defining songs don't come along every day. And songs that become signature tunes for multiple artists? Those are even rarer. But leave it to Dolly Parton to write a song that would top the charts three times (twice by Parton alone) and break records nearly 20 years after it was first recorded.

Parton famously wrote "I Will Always Love You" as a farewell to her friend and longtime collaborator Porter Wagoner when she made the difficult decision to leave The Porter Wagoner Show.

"Many people think that the song 'I Will Always Love You' was written about breaking up with some lover, but in fact I wrote it about Porter and the special, although painfully heart-wrenching, time we spent together," Parton wrote in her book Dolly: My Life and Other Unfinished Business.

Parton's song about her friendship and contentious relationship with Wagoner was featured on her 1974 album Jolene and hit No. 1 in June of 1974.

But it certainly wouldn't be the last time the song was a hit for Parton. In 1982, the Smoky Mountain queen recorded the song for the film The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, which she starred in opposite Burt Reynolds. Once again, the song topped the charts, putting Parton on the short list of aritsts to score a No. 1 hit twice with the same song.

The song was almost recorded by Elvis Presley, but the business-savvy Parton couldn't allow The King to record the song because of demands made by Presley's manager, Colonel Tom Parker.

"I still grieve over that...Colonel Tom said I had to give away half the publishing because Elvis didn't record anything unless he had half the publishing," Parton said in an interview on Late Night with Seth Meyers. "I said I couldn't do it because I was leaving that for my family."

As we all know, that turned out to be the right decision.

In 1995, Parton would record the song yet again -- this time as a duet with Vince Gill, marking the third time Parton had a top 20 hit with "I Will Always Love You."

Linda Ronstadt's Version

Linda Ronstadt's stunning version of "I Will Always Love You," featured on her 1975 album Prisoner in Disguise, is certainly not the most famous recording of the song. But Ronstadt's rendition would go on to play an important role in the life of the timeless song.

When preparing for her film debut in 1992's The Bodyguard, Whitney Houston was set to record Jimmy Ruffin's "What Becomes of the Brokenhearted." But the song was just featured in the 1991 film Fried Green Tomatoes, so Houston was in search of another song to record. (Record producer Clive Davis had already reached out to The Bodyguard director Mick Jackson to stress the importance of getting the right music for the film.) Houston's co-star Kevin Costner  just happened to be a fan of "I Will Always Love You" and he told music producer David Foster to check out the song. But the first version Foster heard was not Parton's, but Ronstadt's.

"I called Kevin and feigned sadness, like, 'Oh, Kevin, this is such a bummer. We can't use ["What Becomes of the Brokenhearted"] now!' He told me to listen to 'I Will Always Love You,' and that it was the perfect song," Foster told Entertainment Weekly in 2012. "So I ran down to a record store in Malibu and bought the Linda Ronstadt version -- that was the only one I could find. The minute I heard it, I knew I could make it work with Whitney."

Kevin Costner is shown in this March 7, 1991 photo. (AP Photo/Julie Markes)

Houston was hooked, even if her record company didn't think the song's a cappella opening would go over well. Both Houston and Costner held firm.

When Parton got word that Houston wanted to record the tune, she called Foster to deliver the song's final verse, which was missing from Ronstadt's recording: "I hope life treats you kind and I hope you have all you've ever dreamed of/ And I wish you joy and happiness/ But above all this, I wish you love."

The rest is movie and music history.

Whitney Houston's Version

Houston worked with producer David Foster to deliver her iconic, soulful version of "I Will Always Love You." To call Houston's recording a smash hit would be an understatement. The song topped the Billboard Hot 100 for 14 weeks and became the best-selling single by a woman in music history. "I Will Always Love You" is also the longest running No. 1 single from a soundtrack. (The Bodyguard soundtrack also featured Houston's songs "I Have Nothing," "Run to You" and "I'm Every Woman.")

Whitney Houston performs during the 21st American Music Awards at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, Ca., Feb. 7, 1994. Houston won a total of eight awards at the presentation. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

"When you think about how many rules that song broke for radio -- it was a ballad, it was an R&B singer doing a country song, it's got that a cappella part, it's long. It was a perfect storm," Foster told Entertainment Weekly. "I don't want to overdramatize, but it is the love song of the century."

Costner reflected on his friendship with Houston, her talent and incredible performance in The Bodyguard at Houston's memorial service.

When Houston passed away on February 11, 2012, her recording of "I Will Always Love You" was in heavy rotation across the world. Within a week, the song returned to the Billboard Top 100 and was a posthumous top 10 hit for Houston.

"Mine is only one of the millions of hearts broken over the death of Whitney Houston," Dolly Parton said in a statement to Billboard in 2012. "I will always be grateful and in awe of the wonderful performance she did on my song and I can truly say from the bottom of my heart, 'Whitney, I will always love you. You will be missed.'"

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Life of a Song: Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, Whitney Houston and 40+ Years of 'I Will Always Love You'