On Sunday night’s Grammy Awards, Jennifer Hudson paid tribute to the late Whitney Houston , who was found dead a day earlier in Beverly Hills, by delivering a teary-eyed rendition of her most famous song, “I Will Always Love You.” What many do not know is that “Love You” is a tune with a long and interesting musical history that dates back to 1974 and has a connection to the King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley.
“I Will Always Love you” was written by country superstar Dolly Parton on June 6, 1974, as the second single from Parton’s 13th solo studio album, Jolene. That’s right, by 1974, Dolly Parton had already released 13 albums. And it may interest fans of the song to know that while “I Will Always Love You” is most certainly a love song, it’s not really about the deeply passionate parting of two lovers that was conveyed in Houston’s cover; the song is about Parton’s professional parting of ways with her onetime partner and longtime mentor Porter Wagoner.
The song went all the way to #1 on the country charts, and along with “Jolene,” arguably one of Parton’s finest songs, propelled her out of Wagoner’s shadow and onto the country A-list in her own right.
The song brought Parton a fan in the unlikely form of rock god Elvis Presley, who expressed interest in recording a cover version of the tune. This, of course, delighted Parton.
There was a catch, however: Elvis’ formidable manager, Tom Parker, insisted that she sign over 50 percent of the publishing royalties to Presley. That was a problem for Parton, who had a policy against signing away her publishing rights — no matter how big the star wanting to record her track.
“He was planning to record my song, ’I Will Always Love You.’ He invited me down to the studio, and the day of the studio, Colonel Tom Parker called and said that they only recorded songs that they had the publishing on, and I couldn’t do that,” Parton told David Letterman in 2010. “That broke my heart, because I loved Elvis.
“I cried all night. Other people were saying, ’You’re nuts. It’s Elvis Presley. I mean, hell, I’d give him all of it,’ ” Parton said. “I said, ’I can’t do that. Something in my heart says don’t do that.’ And I just didn’t do it, and they didn’t do it.”
Parton re-recorded the song herself in 1982 and included it on the soundtrack to her film “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.” It again went to #1 on the country charts, making Parton the first artist ever to earn a #1 record twice with the same song as a singer.
(Once Houston’s cover hit the top of the charts, she became the first songwriter ever to hit #1 three times with the same song.)
Like so many other iconic moments in pop culture, Houston’s cover of “I Will Always Love You” wasn’t even supposed to happen. She originally intended to cover Jimmy Ruffin’s “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” as the lead single from “The Bodyguard” until she found out the song had been used just one year earlier in the 1991 film “Fried Green Tomatoes.” Houston’s “Bodyguard” co-star Kevin Costner attempted to remedy the situation by introducing the singer to Linda Ronstadt’s 1975 version of “I Will Always Love You,” and Houston loved the song. She decided to rearrange it as a soul ballad with producer David Foster, and a classic was born.
Houston and Foster, it seems, were not intent on owning the song’s publishing rights.
With Houston’s legendary voice laid on the track, “I Will Always Love You” went on to become one of the biggest singles in music history, spending 14 weeks at the top of the Billboard charts — a record at the time — and helping “The Bodyguard” soundtrack sell 44 million copies worldwide to become the biggest soundtrack of all time.
Eternally good-hearted, Parton complimented Hudson on her performance of the song at the Grammys and praised Houston’s amazing gift in a statement earlier Monday (February 13), saying, “I was brought to tears again last night, as I’m sure many were, when Jennifer Hudson sang ’I Will Always Love You’ on the Grammys in memory of Whitney. Like everybody else, I am still in shock. But I know that Whitney will live forever in all the great music that she left behind. I will always have a very special piece of her in the song we shared together and had the good fortune to share with the world. Rest in peace, Whitney. Again, we will always love you.”
For her part, Hudson was overjoyed to have a chance to say goodbye to her mentor at the Grammys. “It was the greatest honor of my life to be able to be the one to pay tribute to Whitney’s memory,” Hudson said in a statement Monday. “It was from my heart. I haven’t stopped crying since she passed. Her family is in my prayers.”
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