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Flashback: Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt Charm on ‘Tonight Show’

Today marks the 31st anniversary of superstar trio’s Number One single and biggest hit, “To Know Him Is to Love Him”

With the hectic schedules of three in-demand performers to consider, it’s a wonder the long-discussed and often-delayed LP project that combined the supreme talents of Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt ever came to fruition. The three had collaborated on several one-off recordings together since first becoming fans of one another’s work, then friends. On New Year’s Eve 1978, Harris and Ronstadt flew from their homes in L.A. to Nashville, to Parton’s Nashville home, where Dolly’s mother stopped by with black eyed peas, a Southern dish as traditional at that time of year as “Auld Lang Syne.”

But nearly a decade later, only a handful of records had the three performing the glorious, heaven-sent harmonies that fans longed to have captured on a full-length album. In March 1987, that album, simply titled Trio, arrived. Produced by George Massenberg, who had engineered and produced albums by Ronstadt, Little Feat and bluegrass acts Tony Rice and the Seldom Scene, Trio was a showcase for each singer as lead vocalist and solid proof that their voices together were magnificent and magical.

Although it contained mostly traditional-leaning country, including two songs penned by Parton (“Wildflowers” and “The Pain of Loving You,” the latter written with Porter Wagoner), the rather surprising first single released from the collection was a Fifties pop classic. Written by famed (and now notorious) songwriter-producer Phil Spector, “To Know Him Is to Love Him” was inspired by the words carved on his father’s tombstone. Spector, 19 at the time, cut the song with his vocal group, the Teddy Bears and watched it charge up the pop charts. It hit Number One in December 1958, eventually selling more than two million copies. Less than a year later, the group disbanded.

Subsequent takes on the song were cut by Nancy Sinatra, Bobby Vinton and British duo Peter and Gordon, with the first hit country version by singer Jody Miller making the Top Twenty in 1972. The Trio version, with Harris taking the lead vocal, hit Number One 31 years ago today, on May 16th, 1987, with the album in the third of its five weeks at Number One on the country chart.

Naturally, one of the biggest sticking points for the timing of the Trio record was making sure all three artists were free to promote it, which they did extensively, including a lengthy guest spot on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, during which they sandwiched “To Know Him Is to Love Him” in between performances of “Those Memories of You” and “Hobo’s Meditation,” spotlighting Parton and Ronstadt on lead, respectively. 

The three also joined Carson for a nearly 10-minute interview during which Parton joked that “People are always askin’ what’s Johnny Carson really like,” to which the quick-witted host replied, “Well, why don’t you find out sometime.” In addition to typical talk-show chat about men, makeup, superstitions and their diverse musical backgrounds, the women talked about the now-legendary musicians who joined them for this performance, including guitarist (and surgeon) John Starling, fiddle and mandolin player Mark O’Connor, drummer Russ Kunkel, guitarist and mandolin player David Lindley, bassist Leland Sklar, Herb Pedersen on guitar and banjo, and Steve Fishell on Weissenborn guitar and Dobro.   

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