From the beginning of her career, many of Dolly Parton’s musical collaborations have been nothing if not unique, from a 1999 duet with Boy George and Culture Club to the Grammy-winning 2016 remake of “Jolene” with a cappella group Pentatonix. But with regard to the inspiration leading to Parton’s various collaborations, you’d be hard-pressed to find one more unusual that a TV commercial for LifeSavers featuring South African a cappella legends Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
Formed in 1960 by singer and songwriter Joseph Shabalala, the prolific group would become well-known throughout the rest of the world after Paul Simon recorded and toured with them for his landmark 1986 album Graceland. As the Graceland tour got underway in 1987, the group was pictured with Simon on the cover of Rolling Stone. Shabalala, who died Tuesday at age 78 in Pretoria, South Africa, had named the group after Ladysmith, the city in which he was born. The “Black” in the group’s name came from the ox used as local livestock and “Mambazo” from the Zulu word for axe, owing to the group’s vocal precision and sharpness.
In 1996, Parton was putting together an album of cover songs for her new label, choosing songs that she not only hoped would get her some country-radio airplay but also ones she loved from Merle Haggard, Neil Young, Mac Davis, Charlie Rich, Katrina and the Waves and more. Then 50 years old, Parton hosted a network TV special named after the album, Treasures, that featured performances and interviews with some of the artists and songwriters she covered — including Cat Stevens, who took the name Yusuf Islam after converting to the Muslim faith in 1977.
“I knew I wanted to include a song that would reflect my feelings about the world and the importance of peace and harmony,” Parton said in the special. “I recalled what, to me, was the most meaningful song of a prior generation. It was written and performed by Cat Stevens during the turbulent times of 1971.”
In his interview for the special, Islam noted, “In a world full of opposites, where conflicts are the norm, even generation gaps between fathers and sons, ‘Peace Train’ was an ideological ray of hope, if you like, and trying to bring everybody together at the same time to the same place.”
In an effort to update the song with a sound that would unify different races and cultures, Parton chose Ladysmith Black Mambazo after hearing their uniquely South African sound in the background of a LifeSavers commercial. While Parton’s request to the group was an honor for them, one of their members later recalled that the collaboration was of particular interest to the wives of the all-male ensemble.
“Dolly Parton – she is very famous to our wives,” the group’s Albert Mazibuko told the Oakland Press in 2014. “Even before we joined Paul Simon they were playing her music, so we were very excited to meet this lady. I remember when we met her we were in New York and we recorded the song called ‘Peace Train.’ We were talking with her for maybe 20 minutes or so, then she disappeared and came back with different attire from head to toe. We said, ‘Whoa, we are at a fashion show in the studio here!’ That was the most enjoyable recording that we had, and a great experience.’”
Parton and Ladysmith Black Mambazo would also record another cover in 1997, teaming on Bob Dylan’s early Seventies hit “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.”