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Flashback: See Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson’s Mournful ‘Happy, Happy Birthday Baby’

Celebrating her 72nd birthday today, Parton’s rare original 1965 version of this song became her very first pop chart entry

Dolly Rebecca Parton, born January 19th, 1946, in tiny Locust Ridge in the SmokyMountains of east Tennessee, turns 72 years old today. Having recently set two world records, Parton is presumably having a good birthday week. Probably a better one, at least, than the subject of the song she performs above with Willie Nelson. In the heartbroken “Happy, Happy Birthday Baby,” Parton – whose original 1965 vocal was used alongside Nelson’s new one in a 1982 recording of the song – and Nelson sing sad birthday wishes to one another even though they’ve now gone their separate ways. With a birthday cake between them, Dolly’s inimitable ad-libs sprinkled throughout, and powerful vocals from both, the performance is everything fans of these country-music icons could wish for in a three-minute clip. Watch the two perform the song (with new vocals from both) in the above clip, which originally aired as part of a star-packed TV special from 1985.

One of those certificates Parton received from Guinness World Records acknowledges her as the female artist with more hits on Billboard‘s Hot Country Songs chart, stretching back to her very first entry there, which was 1967’s “Dumb Blonde.” But, it’s rather ironic to note that in spite of the protestations of country traditionalists who didn’t like her crossing over to the pop world in 1977 with “Here You Come Again,” Parton’s very first Billboard chart entry, “Happy, Happy Birthday Baby,” was a pop record released as her second single for Monument Records in July 1965. Produced by singer Ray Stevens, Parton’s cover of the bittersweet 1957 doo-wop hit by the Tune Weavers reached Number Eight on the Bubbling Under the Hot 100 chart in early October 1965. Although it never reached the Hot 100, and got nowhere near the country chart, the song did get the virtually unknown artist booked on the nationally broadcast American Bandstand, with Monument Records’ head Fred Foster’s help.

Parton, however, was uncomfortable singing that kind of pop music at the time and begged Foster to let her record the songs she felt she was born to do. “I knew she could do anything,” Foster would say in an interview, quoted in author Nancy Cardwell’s excellent overview of the singer-songwriter’s recorded work, The Words and Music of Dolly Parton. “There was no doubt. When I told her that, she said, ‘You’re the craziest thing I’ve ever been around. You scare me, you’re so crazy.”

Foster, as it turns out, was anything but crazy, as his track record with Parton, as well as Roy Orbison, Kris Kristofferson and many others would prove. When he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in October 2016, Parton performed “Dumb Blonde,” her first Top Thirty country hit while a Monument artist, in his honor.

In 1982, with Monument struggling to stay afloat, Willie Nelson helped organize a special recording event which saw him join former label mates Parton and Kristofferson, as well as Brenda Lee to record material individually and collectively on a double-album called The Winning Hand. Consisting of both original Monument recordings and newly cut material (Parton’s movie schedule hindered her availability at the time, so her original tapes were used in her absence), the album also featured liner notes by Johnny Cash. When tickets for a December 1984 network TV taping in Nashville featuring all five superstars were made available to the public, they were snapped up in just 26 minutes.

The special, which included a Parton and Nelson performance of their Top Ten hit from the album, “Everything’s Beautiful (In It’s Own Way),” also featured the pair performing what is now one of Parton’s most hard-to-find records, and her first-ever pop hit. In 1986, not long after the special aired, Ronnie Milsap would take his version of “Happy, Happy Birthday Baby” to Number One on the country chart.  

In This Article: Dolly Parton

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