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It Was 40 Years Ago: Dolly Parton Bids Adieu to Porter Wagoner, Writes 'I Will Always Love You'

Our Country

This week marks the 40th anniversary of a major country music break-up — one that ultimately led to one of the best-selling hits of all time: The Dolly Parton classic, "I Will Always Love You."

It was this week in February 1974 when Parton announced that, after seven years, she was ending her professional partnership with Porter Wagoner. Parton landed a big break in 1967 when Wagoner asked the then-obscure singer to be a part of his weekly television show.

The two went on for the next six years to record several hit duets, including "The Last Thing on My Mind" and "Please Don't Stop Loving Me" — but eventually began butting heads behind the scenes. Although Parton has always been very vocal about her respect and gratitude for Wagoner, she's also revealed candid details about their tumultuous working relationship.

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Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner, 1967

In an 2008 Los Angeles Times interview, she recalled why there was conflict. "I don't mean this in a bad way ... but he was very much a male chauvinist pig," she said. "He was in charge, and it was his show, but he was also very strong-willed." Parton, herself not exactly a shrinking violet, stood her ground: "That's why we fought like crazy, because I wouldn't put up with a bunch of stuff."

In 1974, Parton decided to venture out on her own. Not only had she been on the show two years longer than she said she initially promised, but she had reached a breaking point with Wagoner's controlling ways. The decision to leave her mentor, however, came with a lot of complicated emotions, which she channeled into songwriting... and, eventually, the classic "I Will Always Love You."

Parton told CMT that the song served as her exit letter. Wagoner, upset with her decision to leave, wasn’t accepting her reasoning, so the singer simply sat him down and played him the song.

The song drove Wagoner to tears. He granted Parton her leave, with one condition — that he got to produce the record.

Parton sang the tune (which Wagoner called "the prettiest song I ever heard") as one of her last performances on Wagoner's show; then packed up and left, apparently on good terms. However, what has become known as "country music's biggest feud" was just getting started. Wagoner smacked her with a $3 million breach of contract lawsuit five years later.

The suit grew into a legal tangle that sprouted tabloid headlines — one suggesting that (the both married) Parton and Wagoner were having an affair — but was eventually settled out of court several years later. The pair made up and made nice. Wagoner appeared on Parton's own TV variety show in 1988, where he performed with her, and they remained friends until his death in 2007.

Outliving Wagoner — and still chugging along — was the song that Parton composed for him, which went on to become one of her biggest hits. It also became a landmark tune for Whitney Houston in 1992, an international smash that has sold over 20 million copies worldwide.

Surprisingly, "I Will Always Love You" was almost recorded by another artist you've probably heard of: Elvis Presley. The King was all set to take on the ballad, with Parton excited to visit him in the studio during the process. However, the deal was cut short when Presley's manager, Col. Tom Parker, insisted on Presley receiving half of the song's publishing royalties. Parton nixed that proposal, which was considered a brave move for a female artist at that time, noting, "'I think stories like that are the reason why younger female artists say I've influenced them."

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