One of country icon Dolly Parton’s most famous songs, “I Will Always Love You,” has had a deeper meaning for many people over the years. For Parton herself, the 1974 song represented her fraught relationship with her songwriting and duet partner of several years, Porter Wagoner.
The No. 1 smash hit – now in the Grammy Hall of Fame – was about Parton trying to free herself from Wagoner’s control. She recorded it for the Jolene album, as well as for the soundtrack of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, her 1982 movie with Burt Reynolds. Naturally, Whitney Houston later made it one of history’s biggest pop hits.
But “I Will Always Love You” also had a special meaning for rock and roll legend Elvis Presley and his wife, Priscilla Presley. In Parton’s new memoir, Dolly Parton, Songteller: My Life in Lyrics (released on Nov. 17, 2020, and written alongside Robert K. Oermann), Parton reveals the story behind the song – and Elvis’ surprising connection to it.
Wagoner and Parton began to clash while working together
After a lengthy collaborative partnership that involved several duet albums and many songwriting sessions, Parton and Wagoner began to clash, she writes in her memoir. The now-74-year-old singer began to feel caged in by Wagoner, who grew increasingly possessive of Parton and her burgeoning career.
In Dolly Parton, Songteller: My Life in Lyrics, Parton writes that Wagoner didn’t want anyone else to “have anything to do with her” in terms of the music business – and wanted more control over her career than she ever wanted to give him. She began to realize that she would have to venture out on her own, as hard as that might have been.
Over time, she explains in her new book, their relationship became toxic and fraught with arguments.
“He was trying to control something that’s not controllable, and that was making him miserable and me miserable,” she explains.
Parton wrote ‘I Will Always Love You’ to represent her troubled relationship with Wagoner
Despite her sweet demeanor, Parton wasn’t one to be pushed around. All of her feelings came tumbling out in a single writing session. Thus, “I Will Always Love You” was born.
Parton writes in her memoir that the hit song “came straight from the bottom of [her] heart.” Tears fell from her eyes as she took pen to paper and explained all of her bittersweet feelings for Wagoner over the years.
When he first heard the song, even Wagoner couldn’t deny how beautiful it was.
“He said, ‘That’s the best song you ever wrote. And you can go, if I can produce that song,’” writes Parton. “I said, ‘It’s a deal!’”
Elvis wanted to record the song first
While the story behind “I Will Always Love You” was all Parton’s, she wasn’t initially going to record it. Instead, the King of Rock and Roll himself was the original choice.
“Elvis loved the song and wanted to record it,” Parton reveals, adding that that would have been a dream come true. But his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, demanded half of her publishing rights – and she knew she couldn’t give those up.
“It broke my heart, but I couldn’t give up my copyright,” Parton writes in Songteller. “I cried my eyes out, because I could just hear Elvis singing it. But sometimes you just have to stand your ground.”
Parton’s decision was especially important to her at the time when it came to that song, which was about standing up for herself and breaking free of those who tried to hold her back. If she was ever going to back down about anything, it would not be about “I Will Always Love You.”
Priscilla told Parton the song held an even deeper meaning for her after her divorce
Parton’s famous song also played a surprising role in Elvis’ divorce proceedings with his wife, Priscilla.
Elvis met Priscilla when she was just 14 years old and he was 24, according to Biography. They married in 1967 and became doting parents to their only child, daughter Lisa Marie Presley, just nine months later.
But Elvis and Priscilla’s love life dwindled after their daughter’s birth. What’s more, the crooner often stepped out on his wife, both before and after they tied the knot. Eventually, Priscilla had her own fling outside of the marriage, and she decided to leave her husband for good.
While Elvis never recorded “I Will Always Love You,” he did sing it to his soon-to-be-ex-wife as their surprisingly amicable divorce played out in 1973.
“Priscilla told me years later that it was the song he sang to her when they were leaving the divorce courtroom,” Parton writes in her memoir. “So that touched me even more.”
While the reasons for both Parton’s choice to write the song and Elvis’ rendition of it might have been bittersweet at best, it’s obvious that “I Will Always Love You” has the power to touch hearts in the most difficult and poignant moments.