At 69 years old, Dolly Parton is nothing less than a global icon. Just last summer, she stole the show at England’s Glastonbury Festival and released her latest album, the well-received Blue Smoke. But until 1974, Parton was a 28-year-old “girl singer,” as she often says, who had come to national attention via TV’s Porter Wagoner Show and as his duet partner on record and on stage since 1967.
On February 19th, 1974, on the strength of her blockbuster single, “Jolene,” which had just topped the country chart, Parton took the first major step toward independence (and world domination) by announcing her split from Wagoner. By April, she was no longer touring with him. On March 21st, 1979, Wagoner, who had once lavished the singer with jewelry and a royal blue Cadillac, sued Parton for breach of contract, demanding she pay him $3 million.
By that time, Parton had made the nearly seamless transition from country superstar to multimedia sensation, and it had been three years since the pair had even spoken. Things wouldn’t improve between them for years, but by 2007, they had mended fences. In May of that year, she was on stage with him at the Grand Ole Opry, to help celebrate his 50th anniversary as an Opry member. Parton, of course, serenaded her old boss with “I Will Always Love You,” the heart-tugging ballad she wrote for him in ’74 in hopes it would ease what she knew would be a difficult split for both of them. (Watch her perform the song on one of her last appearances on Wagoner’s show above.)
Since she first wrote and recorded it, Parton has taken “I Will Always Love You” to the country chart three times (including once as a duet with Vince Gill). In 1992, Whitney Houston recorded it for the soundtrack of her film, The Bodyguard, and it topped the Billboard Hot 100 for a then-record 14 weeks. It remains one of Parton’s signature songs and the closing number of most of her live shows.