The History Of ‘I Will Always Love You’ By Dolly Parton 

“I Will Always Love You” is undoubtedly one of the most iconic songs of all time.

By

Madeleine O’Connell

| Posted on

February 21, 2024

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Dolly Parton; Photo by Andrew Wendowski

Dolly Parton didn’t realize it at the time, but we now know that when she wrote “I Will Always Love You,” she started a cultural phenomenon.

Who Sang The Original Version of “I Will Always Love You?”

The song originally debuted as a chart-topping country hit by Parton and was later taken to new heights and made wildly popular when Whitney Houston recorded her own version for the film, The Bodyguard. 

Dolly Parton - Jolene Cover Art
Dolly Parton – Jolene Cover Art

What Is The Story Behind “I Will Always Love You?”

The song’s tender narrative about letting go of something that you love but keeping the memories forever in your heart served as Parton’s sentimental goodbye to her time on The Porter Wagoner Show. The country music icon performed on the hit syndicated television show for seven years before deciding to move on with her own solo career. So, in order to tell her longtime friend and musical partner that their run was coming to an end, Dolly Parton wrote him “I Will Always Love You.”

“I was trying to get out, go out on my own, and it was taking a big hunk out of his show and the fact that we had one of those love-hate relationships, it was just hard to move on,” Parton told Bobby Bones on The Bobby Bones Show. “He wasn’t listening to anything I had to say. So I went home and wrote that song, took it back the next morning and said, ‘sit down. I need you to hear something.’ I sang it and he was crying, so he said, ‘okay, you can go provided I can produce that record. So he did.”

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The Story Behind Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” Recording

Parton’s delicate version went on to become a No.1 hit on the US Hot Country Songs chart and appeared on her 1974 album, Jolene. Then a new opportunity arose for Parton to share the song on a much broader platform. During a 2022 interview on The Kelly Clarkson Show, Parton explained that actor, filmmaker, and musician, Kevin Costner called her to ask if he could use “I Will Always Love You” for the 1992 film The Bodyguard starring Whitney Houston. The “9 to 5” singer accepted the offer without knowing how the song would be used in the film or who would sing it. 

“They had a song that was going to be the theme, and just before they got ready to do the movie, someone else covered the song they were going to use. So they had to find another song…somebody said, ‘There’s a Dolly Parton song I love, ‘I’ll always love You.’ I think it would just fit this.’ And he said, ‘Oh yeah, I love that song.’ So they contacted me about using it and I said, ‘Absolutely.’”

She went on to tell Bones that she didn’t hear another word about whether or not they actually decided to use the song as the soundtrack of the film until one day she was driving to her house in Brentwood, TN and she heard Whitney Houston’s vocals come across the radio.

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It turns out Houston would be the one to make the song her own and bring it global success. Parton recalled the very first time she heard Houston’s powerful vocals bring the ballad to life in a new way. 

Did Dolly Parton Like Whitney Houston’s Version?

“I just heard Whitney singing the acapella part…I thought, ‘Well, that’s weird,’ you know, something caught my attention. It was only when she went into the course of ‘I will always love you’ that I realized what I was listening to. It was so overwhelming I almost wrecked,” she admitted. “Just the greatness and the bigness and the fact that that was my song, it was just so out of nowhere. And I have to honestly say that it was one of the biggest thrills and one of the most overwhelming feelings I’ve ever had about anything in my life.”

Houston’s version spent 14 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, an achievement that broke a record at that time and served as her longest run atop the chart. The song also reached No. 1 in over a dozen countries and went on to win two GRAMMYS in 1994 for Record of The Year and Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female.

Whitney Houston - I WIll Always Love You Single Art
Whitney Houston – I WIll Always Love You Single Art

Eventually, it was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Recording Registry in 2020, and certified diamond by the RIAA for more than 10 million units sold in 2022. 

Whitney Houston completely raised the bar for many female singers of her time, as well as those who are currently using her talent as inspiration for their own budding careers. 

Other Artists Who Hoped To Record The Timeless Hit

Before the “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” singer recorded the Dolly Parton-fueled tune, there were several other artists who hoped to add it to their catalog. 

The first was Patti Labelle, who revealed on Watch What Happens Live with Andy Cohen, that she was originally in talks with Parton to try her hand at the song. 

“I said to Dolly, ‘Oh yes, I want to do that song, honey!’” LaBelle said in 2019. “But before I could say real yes, it was in the movie and Whitney killed it.”

“I was so happy Whitney got that song and it just went like it did. But Dolly Parton and I had planned, ‘Patti, you’re going to sing that song,’” LaBelle continued.

Dolly Parton; Photo by Andrew Wendowski
Dolly Parton; Photo by Andrew Wendowski

Did Dolly Parton Want Elvis To Sing “I Will Always Love You?”

Then there was Elvis Presley. In a 2021 interview with W Magazine, Parton reflected on her meeting with Colonel Tom Parker, Presley’s manager at the time, in which they discussed the potential of the “Jailhouse Rock” singer taking it into the studio. However, despite the fact that Presley “loved the song,” Parton would have had to relinquish half of the publishing rights. This led her to make the difficult decision to turn down the offer. 

“I said, ‘I’m sorry, but I can’t give you the publishing.’ I wanted to hear Elvis sing it, and it broke my heart — I cried all night,” Parton admitted. “But I had to keep that copyright in my pocket. You have to take care of your business!”

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How Dolly Parton Honored Whitney Houston’s Legacy

After Whitney Houston’s sudden passing on February 11, 2012, Dolly Parton found a way to spend her royalties from “I Will Always Love You” that would honor Houston’s legacy.  In 2021, she opened up about her plans on Watch What Happens Live with Andy Cohen, revealing she had invested the money she made from the song in a Black community in Nashville.

“I bought a property down in what was the Black area of town, and it was mostly just Black families and people that lived around there. It was off the beaten path from 16th Avenue and I thought, ‘Well, I am gonna buy this place — the whole strip mall.’ And I thought, ‘This is the perfect place for me to be,’ considering it was Whitney,” she said.

Parton continued, “I thought this was great — I’m just gonna be down here with her people, who are my people as well. So, I just love the fact that I spent that money on a complex and I think, ‘This is the house that Whitney built.’”

 It’s been over 30 years since Whitney Houston released “I Will Always Love You” came out, and yet, it remains the best-selling single of all time by a female artist.

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Madeleine O’Connell graduated from North Central College with a bachelors degree in Journalism and Broadcast Communications before deciding to pursue her studies further at DePaul University. There, she earned her masters degree in Digital Communication & Media Arts. O’Connell served as a freelance writer for over two years while also interning with the Academy of Country Music, SiriusXM and Circle Media and assisting with Amazon Music’s Country Heat Weekly podcast. In addition to Country Now, she has been published in American Songwriter, Music Mayhem, and Holler.Country. Madeleine O’Connell is a member of the Country Music Association and the Academy of Country Music.