When it comes to larger-than-life personalities, few compare to the likes of Dolly Parton and Elvis Presley. Both singers dazzled on stage and screen by the time their paths crossed in the 1970s. But not many people knew how the two artists interacted – and why it ended in rejection for The King himself.
By the time Parton had her first hit album in 1967, Presley had already been famous for years. He achieved his first number-one single in “Heartbreak Hotel,” which hit airwaves in 1956. A slew of hit songs followed, making him the star of the rock-n-roll scene – and a sought-after movie and TV star, too. In other words, it was a rarity to see The King rejected.
And by 1967 both Presley and Parton had committed to their partners. He wed Priscilla Beaulieu that year, and Parton got hitched to Carl Thomas Dean – to whom she remains married – in 1966. But the famous halves of each couple came together in the 1970s, a meeting that left the songstress heartbroken for decades to come.
After turning down Presley, Parton admitted that she had sobbed for hours. According to NME, she admitted, “I cried all night long, ‘cause I was so disappointed… I loved Elvis. And I’m sure he was as disappointed as I was because he had it all worked up and ready to go…”
The pain of the rejection that she made still hurts Parton too. She has said that she wished she could have had just one more conversation with Presley to smooth things over. The songwriter has even said that she would tell him, “I still dream about you singing that song.”
So what led to this great heartbreak, of which Parton has yet to let go? You won’t find the story written into any of her released songs or any of Presley’s. Instead, she had to tell the story by herself many years later – and it’s a surprising tale, to say the least.
Dolly Parton has graced stages and screens as both a singer and an actress. But to her, the most important part of her illustrious career has always been her songwriting. As she told American Songwriter magazine in 1989, “I’ve always prided myself as a songwriter more than anything else. That’s my personal feelings…”
Indeed, Parton is a prolific songwriter – you can probably name at least one of her songs off the top of your head. “Coat of Many Colors.” “To Daddy.” “Jolene.” The Grammy-winning “Nine to Five.” But for the legendary songstress, her craft isn’t about winning awards, but rather the satisfaction she feels personally after writing something great.
Parton said, “It’s therapy. It’s fun. It’s creative. I love getting on a big writing binge and staying up a couple days working on a song and knowing at the end of those two or three days that I’ve created something that was never in the world before. It’s like a feeling of creating, not that the same stories ain’t been told before, but it ain’t been told through my point of view…”
Many of Parton’s songs have ended up on her own records. But she also enlists other artists to record or even re-record her work too. She told the magazine, “I’m always flattered that anybody would record my songs, even if they change them…” The “Jolene” singer said that she felt that way even when she didn’t quite agree with another artist’s interpretation of her lyrics.
Parton’s songwriting has been the crux of her more-than-50-year music career. Before her 1967 debut album Hello, I’m Dolly, she had written songs for other artists. And she has recorded a whopping 46 solo studio albums since, which have sold more than 100 million copies and made her country music’s top-selling female artist of all time.
Of course, Parton has earned that accolade with an impressive slate of peers by her side throughout her decades-long music career. For example, at the start of her career, she stood alongside giants such as Elvis Presley in the industry. And he has become the top-selling musical artist of all time, having sold more than one billion of his records.
Presley was certainly a showman, and, like Parton, he delved into both music and film. But his career differed from the “Coat of Many Colors” songstress in one major way: he did not write most of his songs. Instead, he recorded the works of more than 140 different songwriters.
Most of those writers said that The King had more than earned his nickname – at least, when it came to recording their songs in a satisfactory way. They said that he was an expert at understanding the feelings at the core of their compositions, but he still made every single track his own.
And that keen sensitivity – and unique delivery – made it possible for Presley to cover a range of musical genres and topics throughout his recording career. He seamlessly shifted from rockabilly tunes to bluesy tracks to introspective love ballads to songs that highlighted social issues from his era. One example from the latter category was his 1969 comeback hit, “In the Ghetto,” which told the tragic story of an impoverished child born in Chicago.
Around the same time, Parton’s career hit a turning point too. She had become a series regular on country musician Porter Wagoner’s eponymous TV show in 1967. But by the early 1970s, she felt ready to set out on her own. Indeed, the “Jolene” singer had always envisioned a career as a solo artist – not as one half of a duo.
When Parton wanted to leave the show, though, she was met with opposition from Wagoner. As she recalled to CMT in 2011, “There was a lot of grief and heartache there, and he just wasn’t listening to my reasoning for my going.” To better understand her own emotions about the situation, she knew what she had to do: she had to write a song about it.
Out of that heartbreak came one of the greatest songs in Parton’s archive. She said, “I went home and out of a very emotional place in me at that time, I wrote the song, ‘I Will Always Love You.’” She wasted no time in playing it for Wagoner either.
When Parton went into work the next day, she played the song for Wagoner, and her mentor couldn’t hide how emotional it made him. She described the moment to The Tennessean in 2015, saying, “He started crying. When I finished, he said, ‘…If you feel that strong about it, just go on – providing I get to produce that record because that’s the best song you ever wrote.’”
Although many people interpret “I Will Always Love You” as a romantic ballad, Parton wrote it to encompass how fond she was of Wagoner, although she knew she had to walk away from him and his show. She told CMT, “It’s saying, ‘Just because I’m going don’t mean I won’t love you. I appreciate you, and I hope you do great, and I appreciate everything you’ve done, but I’m out of here.’”
That message has clearly resonated with listeners since Parton released the song in 1974 – and the track was produced by Wagoner, sweetly enough. That version topped the country charts, as did the 1982 recording that she made for the soundtrack of her movie The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.
As with many Parton songs, though, other artists tried their hand at re-recording “I Will Always Love You” too. You can probably hear the most famous iteration now. Yes, it was Parton who wrote that 1992 Whitney Houston classic, which she covered for the soundtrack of her film The Bodyguard.
Houston’s powerhouse recording shot to the top of the Billboard charts and stayed there for a then-record-breaking 14 weeks. Many consider it to be the singer’s signature song. And it is certainly one of the most successful singles in the history of music, selling more than 20 million copies internationally.
And, interestingly enough, Parton had somewhat offhandedly agreed to allowing the song to be used in The Bodyguard. Kevin Costner, who produced and starred in the movie with Houston, had selected a different ditty, “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted,” for his co-star to sing. But then they got the word that the same song would be used in another movie, Fried Green Tomatoes.
So Costner landed on another song he loved: Parton’s “I Will Always Love You.” The songwriter told CMT.com in 2012, “They were just in a panic at the last minute. And so they asked me about the song. I sent it. I didn’t hear anything more.” That is, of course, until Houston’s soulful version of the ballad came out and took the world by storm.
Because Parton had written the song, she made money when Houston’s re-recording sold millions of copies. The success of her own take on the track earned her big bucks, too. Experts estimate that the “Jolene” songstress has made millions of dollars for writing the song and owning the rights to it all by herself.
There could have been one more incredible entry into the “I Will Always Love You” catalogue, though. Another huge star – one of Parton’s contemporaries in the 1970s – wanted his chance to record the iconic track. She wrote about it in U.K. variety magazine The Big Issue’s “Letter to My Younger Self,” as shared by NME in 2020.
Parton revealed that the mystery man who had wanted to record “I Will Always Love You” was The King himself. She wrote, “I’d been invited down to the studio to meet Elvis and be there when he sang my song…” As most music lovers would have at the time, she felt thrilled by the prospect of working with Presley.
Even as a bona fide superstar herself, Parton still said that having Presley record her song “was the most exciting thing that had ever happened to [her].” She then added, “Who doesn’t love Elvis?”A few days before the studio session, though, the songwriter received a phone call that changed everything.
The man on the other end of the line was Colonel Tom Parker, who managed Presley’s career at the time. Parton recalled the phone call he made to her in an interview with Canadian TV network CNBC in 2016. According to her, Parker said, “Now, you know Elvis don’t record anything unless we get half the publishing.”
When Parker referenced publishing, he meant that his client wanted his name on the copyright for the composition of “I Will Always Love You” alongside Parton’s. That way, Presley would receive half of the royalties any time the composition was used commercially ever again. To have him record her song, then, Parton would have to give up half of her rights to it.
In spite of the excitement she felt when Presley wanted to record her song, Parton couldn’t take the deal. She told CNBC that she had told Parker, “Well, this has already been a hit for me, and this is my publishing company, and I can’t give you half of it.” With that, Elvis’s manager called off his client’s re-recording of the track.
Parton added, “And I said well, ‘I am really sorry to hear that because I already told everybody Elvis was doing my song,’ but I thought you know, I can’t do it. And I didn’t. So I thought, ‘Well, it was just one of those first really hard business decisions I had to make.’”
Even though it was a business decision, it broke Parton’s heart. She wrote in The Big Issue, “And I cried all night long, ’cause I was so disappointed. It wasn’t Elvis: I loved Elvis. And I’m sure he was as disappointed as I was because he had it all worked up and ready to go. I know he loved the song.”
Of course, Parton’s decision ended up being the smartest, financially speaking. She retained the publishing rights for her song, which became a huge hit in the ’90s for Houston – and made the songwriter millions of dollars in the process. Still, she told CNBC that she would have liked to hear his version of the song.
Parton wrote in her Big Issue letter that she eventually found out that the song was special to Presley, according to his ex-wife, Priscilla. The songwriter recalled how his former spouse said “that he sang that song to her when they were coming down the steps of the courthouse after they divorced. That really touched me…”
Parton never had the chance to bury the hatchet with Presley, who passed away in 1977, only three years after she released “I Will Always Love You.” Perhaps that’s why she said that if she could have a conversation with anyone who had ever lived, it would be him, according to NME.
In fact, Parton had even imagined how that conversation would go. She said, “I’d probably talk about ‘I Will Always Love You’ and say, ‘Hey, I bet you were as disappointed as I was about all that, and I still dream about you singing that song.’” But that’s not the only way she has honored her would-be collaboration with The King.
Parton revealed, “Matter of fact, I even wrote a song called ‘I Dreamed About Elvis Last Night,’ and I had an Elvis sound-alike sing it with me…” The clever songwriter made sure that her new ditty contained five words in particular, so that she could almost hear Presley sing them: I will always love you.
Fans of Presley, Parton or both may be intrigued to hear the songstress’s ode to the one-time King of Rock-n-Roll. If you feel that way, you’re in luck. She revealed, “One day, I’m going to put that track out.” That track may not make as big of an impact as “I Will Always Love You,” but it will certainly close an emotional chapter for the legendary songwriter.