It has become a well-known part of musical folklore that Elvis Presley declined to record Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” because Parton wouldn’t give him half the publishing rights, as his manager, Col. Tom Parker, demanded.
Losing the Elvis cut nearly broke Parton’s heart. Momentarily. But the song ultimately did pretty well without the Lord of Graceland’s blessing.
In his new book, Cover Me: The Stories Behind the Greatest Cover Songs of All Time, Ray Padgett, follows the upward spiral of “I Will Always Love You” from its origin as a lyrical peace offering to Parton’s former mentor, Porter Wagoner, to its zenith (so far) as the lead single on Whitney Houston’s The Bodyguard soundtrack album.
Houston’s version of the song topped the pop charts for 14 weeks, and the album itself has so far sold more than 18 million copies.
Padgett’s book follows the repeated paths to fame of several songs familiar to country audiences. Among them are the Pet Shop Boys’ re-tread of “Always on My Mind” (which Willie Nelson initially wanted to record as a duet with Merle Haggard), Johnny Cash’s take on Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” (which producer Rick Rubin had to pitch three times before the Man in Black took notice) and Adele’s version of “Make You Feel My Love” (the Bob Dylan song Garth Brooks’ also covered and took to No. 1 in 1998).
“Hurt” would become Cash’s last chart single before he died in 2003.
As Padgett points out, Parton had the last laugh on Messrs. Presley and Parker. “When Whitney [Houston’s version] came out,” she said, “I made enough money to buy Graceland.”