I thought we’d share a little country music this week, focusing on the ladies.
Today’s selection: Dolly Parton.
Dolly Rebecca Parton (born January 19, 1946) is an American singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, actress, author, and philanthropist, best known for her work in country music.
Beginning her career as a child performer, Parton issued a few modestly successful singles from 1959 through the mid-1960s, showcasing her distinctive soprano voice. She came to greater prominence in 1967 as a featured performer on singer Porter Wagoner’s weekly television program; their first duet single, a cover of Tom Paxton’s “The Last Thing on My Mind”, was a top-ten hit on the country singles charts, and led to several successful albums before they ended their partnership in 1974. Moving towards mainstream pop music, Parton’s 1977 single “Here You Come Again” was a success on both the country and pop charts. A string of pop-country hits followed into the mid-1980s, the most successful being her 1981 hit “9 to 5” (from the film of the same name), and her 1983 duet with Kenny Rogers “Islands in the Stream”, both of which topped the U.S. pop and country singles charts. A pair of albums recorded with Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris were among her later successes. In the late 1990s, Parton returned to classic country/bluegrass with a series of acclaimed recordings.
Non-musical ventures include the creation of Dollywood, a theme park in the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee, and her efforts on behalf of childhood literacy, particularly her Imagination Library, as well as Dixie Stampede and Pirates Voyage.
She has composed over 3,000 songs, the best known of which include “I Will Always Love You” (a two-time U.S. country chart-topper for Parton, as well as an international pop hit for Whitney Houston), “Jolene”, “Coat of Many Colors”,”9 to 5″, and “My Tennessee Mountain Home”. Parton is one of the most successful female country artists of all time, with an estimated 100 million in record sales.
As an actress, she starred in the movies 9 to 5, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Rhinestone, A Smoky Mountain Christmas, Steel Magnolias, Wild Texas Wind, Gnomeo & Juliet, Straight Talk, Unlikely Angel, Blue Valley Songbird, Joyful Noise.
1967–75: Country music success
In 1967, country entertainer Porter Wagoner invited Parton to join his organization, offering her a regular spot on his weekly syndicated television program The Porter Wagoner Show, as well as in his road show.
As documented in her 1994 autobiography, initially, much of Wagoner’s audience was unhappy that Norma Jean, the performer whom Parton had replaced, had left the show, and was reluctant to accept Parton (sometimes chanting loudly for Norma Jean from the audience). With Wagoner’s assistance, however, Parton was eventually accepted. Wagoner also convinced his label, RCA Victor, to sign Parton. RCA decided to protect their investment by releasing her first single as a duet with Wagoner. That song, a cover of Tom Paxton’s “The Last Thing on My Mind”, released in late 1967, reached the country top ten in January 1968, launching a six-year streak of virtually uninterrupted top-ten singles for the pair.
Parton’s first solo single for RCA, “Just Because I’m a Woman”, was released in the summer of 1968 and was a moderate chart hit, reaching number seventeen. For the remainder of the decade, none of her solo efforts – even “In the Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad)”, which later became a standard – were as successful as her duets with Wagoner. The duo was named Vocal Group of the Year in 1968 by the Country Music Association, but Parton’s solo records were continually ignored. Wagoner had a significant financial stake in her future: as of 1969, he was her co-producer and owned nearly half of Owepar, the publishing company Parton had founded with Bill Owens.
By 1970, both Parton and Wagoner had grown frustrated by her lack of solo chart success, and Porter had her record Jimmie Rodgers’ “Mule Skinner Blues”, a gimmick that worked. The record shot to number three on the charts, followed closely, in February 1971, by her first number-one single, “Joshua.” For the next two years, she had a number of solo hits – including her signature song “Coat of Many Colors” (number four in 1971) – in addition to her duets. Top-twenty singles during this period included “The Right Combination”, “Burning the Midnight Oil” (both duets with Porter Wagoner, 1971), “Lost Forever in Your Kiss” (with Wagoner), “Touch Your Woman (1972), “If Teardrops Were Pennies” (with Wagoner), “My Tennessee Mountain Home” and “Travelin’ Man” (1973). Though her solo singles and the Wagoner duets were successful, her biggest hit of this period would be “Jolene”. Released in late 1973, the song topped the singles chart in February 1974, and reached the lower regions of Billboard’s Hot 100 (it eventually also charted in the UK, reaching No. 7 in 1976, representing Parton’s first UK success).
Parton and Wagoner performed their last duet concert in April 1974, and she ceased appearing on his TV show in mid-1974, though they remained affiliated, with him helping to produce her records through 1975. The pair continued to release duet albums, their final release being 1975’s Say Forever You’ll Be Mine.
In 1974, her song, “I Will Always Love You”, written about her professional break from Wagoner, went to number one on the country music charts. Around the same time, Elvis Presley indicated that he wanted to cover the song. Parton was interested until Presley’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker, told her that it was standard procedure for the songwriter to sign over half of the publishing rights to any song Elvis recorded. Parton refused, and that decision is credited with helping to make her many millions of dollars in royalties from the song over the years.
Parton had three number-one singles in 1974 (“Jolene”, “I Will Always Love You” and “Love Is Like a Butterfly”), and a further chart-topper in 1975 with “The Bargain Store”.
1976–86: Branching out into pop music
From 1974 to 1980, she consistently charted in the country Top 10, with eight singles reaching number one. Parton had her own syndicated-television variety show, Dolly! (1976–1977). During this period, many performers, including Rose Maddox, Kitty Wells, Olivia Newton-John, Emmylou Harris, and Linda Ronstadt, covered her songs, and her siblings Randy and Stella both received recording contracts of their own.
It was also during this period that Parton began to embark on a high-profile crossover campaign, attempting to aim her music in a more mainstream direction and increase her visibility outside of the confines of country music. In 1976, she signed with the Los Angeles public-relations firm Katz-Gallin-Morey, working closely with Sandy Gallin, who served as her personal manager for the next twenty-five years.
With her 1976 album All I Can Do, co-produced by herself with Porter Wagoner, Parton began taking more of an active role in production, and began specifically aiming her music in a more mainstream, pop direction. Her first entirely self-produced effort, 1977’s New Harvest … First Gathering, highlighted Parton’s pop sensibilities, both in terms of choice of songs – the album contained covers of the pop and R&B classics “My Girl” and “Higher and Higher” – and the album’s production. While receiving generally favorable reviews, however, the album did not achieve the crossover success Parton had hoped for. Though it topped the country albums charts, it stalled at No. 71 on the pop albums chart; the album’s single, “Light of a Clear Blue Morning” only reached No. 87 on the Hot 100.
After New Harvest’s disappointing chart performance, Parton turned to high profile pop producer Gary Klein for her next album. The result, 1977’s Here You Come Again, became her first million-seller, topping the country albums chart and reaching No. 20 on the pop albums chart; the Barry Mann-Cynthia Weil-penned title track topped the country singles chart, and became Parton’s first top-ten single on the pop charts (reaching number three). A second single, the double A-sided single “Two Doors Down”/”It’s All Wrong, But It’s All Right” also topped the country singles chart and crossed over to the pop top twenty. For the remainder of the 1970s and into the early 1980s, many of Parton’s subsequent singles charted on both pop and country charts, simultaneously. Her albums during this period were developed specifically for pop-crossover success.
In 1978, Parton won a Grammy Award for Best Female Country Vocal Performance for her Here You Come Again album. She continued to have hits with “Heartbreaker” (1978), “Baby I’m Burning” and “You’re the Only One” (both 1979), all of which charted in the pop singles Top 40, and all of which also topped the country-singles chart; 1979’s “Sweet Summer Lovin'” became the first Parton single in two years to not top the country singles chart (though it still nonetheless reached the top ten). During this period, Parton’s visibility continued to increase, with television appearances in 1977, 1978 and 1979. A highly publicized candid interview on a Barbara Walters Special in December 1977 (timed to coincide with Here You Come Again’s release) was followed by appearances in 1978 on Cher’s ABC television special, and her own joint special with Carol Burnett on CBS, Carol and Dolly in Nashville. She also served as one of three co-hosts (along with Roy Clark and Glen Campbell) on the CBS special Fifty Years of Country Music. In 1979, Parton hosted the NBC special The Seventies: An Explosion of Country Music, performed live at the Ford Theatre in Washington, D.C., and whose audience included President Jimmy Carter.
Parton’s commercial success continued to grow during 1980, with three number-one hits in a row: the Donna Summer-written “Starting Over Again”, “Old Flames Can’t Hold a Candle to You”, and “9 to 5”, which topped the country and pop charts in early 1981.
With less time to spend songwriting as she focused on a burgeoning film career, during the early 1980s Parton recorded a larger percentage of material from noted pop songwriters, such as Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Rupert Holmes, Gary Portnoy and Carole Bayer Sager.
“9 to 5”, the theme song to the feature film 9 to 5 (1980) Parton starred in along with Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, not only reached number one on the country charts, but also, in February 1981, reached number one on the pop and the adult-contemporary charts, giving her a triple-number-one hit. Parton became one of the few female country singers to have a number-one single on the country and pop charts simultaneously. It also received a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Original Song.
Parton’s singles continued to appear consistently in the country Top 10: between 1981 and 1985, she had 12 Top 10 hits; half of those were number-one singles. Parton continued to make inroads on the pop charts as well with a re-recorded version of “I Will Always Love You” from the feature film The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982) scraping the Top 50 that year and her duet with Kenny Rogers, “Islands in the Stream” (written by the Bee Gees and produced by Barry Gibb), spent two weeks at number one in 1983. Other chart hits during this period included Parton’s chart-topping cover of the 1969 First Edition hit “But You Know I Love You” and “The House of the Rising Sun” (both 1981), “Single Women”, “Heartbreak Express” and “Hard Candy Christmas” (1982) and 1983’s “Potential New Boyfriend”, which was accompanied by one of Parton’s first music videos, and which also reached the U.S. dance charts.
She also continued to explore new business and entertainment ventures such as her Dollywood theme park, that opened in 1986 in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.
By the mid-1980s, her record sales were still relatively strong, with “Save the Last Dance for Me”, “Downtown”, “Tennessee Homesick Blues” (all 1984); “Real Love” (another duet with Kenny Rogers), “Don’t Call It Love” (both 1985); and “Think About Love” (1986) all reaching the country-singles Top 10. (“Tennessee Homesick Blues” and “Think About Love” reached number one. “Real Love” also reached number one on the country-singles chart and also became a modest pop-crossover hit). However, RCA Records did not renew her contract after it expired that year, and she signed with Columbia Records in 1987.
1987–94: Return to country roots
Along with Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt, she released the decade-in-the-making Trio (1987) to critical acclaim. The album strongly revitalized Parton’s somewhat stagnant music career, spending five weeks at number one on Billboard’s Country Albums chart, selling several million copies and producing four Top 10 country hits including Phil Spector’s “To Know Him Is to Love Him”, which went to number one. Trio won the Grammy Award for Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal and was nominated for a Grammy Award for Album of the Year. In 1987, she revived her television variety show, Dolly.
After a further attempt at pop success with 1987’s Rainbow (including the single “The River Unbroken”, Parton refocused on recording country material. White Limozeen (1989) produced two number-one hits in “Why’d You Come in Here Lookin’ Like That” and “Yellow Roses”. Although it looked like Parton’s career had been revived, it was actually just a brief revival before contemporary country music came in the early 1990s and moved all veteran artists out of the charts.
A duet with Ricky Van Shelton, “Rockin’ Years” (1991) reached number one but Parton’s greatest commercial fortune of the decade came when Whitney Houston recorded “I Will Always Love You” for the soundtrack of the feature film The Bodyguard (1992); both the single and the album were massively successful.
Parton’s soundtrack album from her own 1992 film, Straight Talk, however was less successful, though her 1993 album Slow Dancing with the Moon won critical acclaim, and did well on the charts, reaching No. 4 on the country albums charts, and No. 16 on the Billboard 200 albums charts.
She recorded “The Day I Fall in Love” as a duet with James Ingram for the feature film Beethoven’s 2nd (1993). The songwriters (Sager, Ingram, and Clif Mangess) were nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song and Parton and Ingram performed the song on the awards telecast.
Similar to her earlier collabrative album with Harris and Ronstadt, Parton released Honky Tonk Angels in the fall of 1993 with Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette. It was certified as Gold Album by the Recording Industry Association of America and helped revive both Wynette’s and Lynn’s careers.
Also in 1994, Parton contributed the song “You Gotta Be My Baby” to the AIDS benefit album Red Hot + Country produced by the Red Hot Organization.
A live acoustic album, Heartsongs, featuring stripped down versions of some of Parton’s hits, as well as a number of traditional songs, was released in late 1994