Over the years, Dolly Parton has probably heard dozens of covers of her hit song, “I Will Always Love You,” but it’s Whitney Houston’s powerful rendition that topped them all. In fact, Houston’s expressive vocals and emotional performance were so otherworldly, they almost made the queen of country crash her car.
“They started out with it a cappella, and I thought, ‘That sounds familiar.… And it didn’t hit me,” Parton said in a 2011 interview with CMT. At the time, her ballad had just been named the number one tune on a CMT special covering the 40 greatest love songs. “It was just one of those things where [you think], ‘What is that?’ And then all the sudden, when she started singing ‘I will always love you,’ I just about wrecked the car.”
Dolly originally wrote and recorded “I Will Always Love You” in 1973 for her mentor Porter Wagoner after she decided to leave his show and strike out on her own as a solo star. “It’s saying, ‘Just because I’m going don’t mean I won’t love you. I appreciate you and I hope you do great and I appreciate everything you’ve done, but I’m out of here,'” she explained during the TV special. “[That’s] basically what I was saying. And I took it in the next morning. I said, ‘Sit down, Porter. I’ve written this song, and I want you to hear it.’ So I did sing it. And he was crying. He said, ‘That’s the prettiest song I ever heard. And you can go, providing I get to produce that record.’ And he did.”
“I Will Always Love You” reached the top spot on Billboard’s country music chart in 1974, before again reclaiming its number one position in 1982 after it was re-recorded for the movie The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. A decade later, Whitney Houston took it to the top of Billboard’s Hot 100 chart, where it reigned supreme for 14 weeks straight. To this day, it is one of the best-selling singles of all time.
Of course, Dolly couldn’t have predicted her song would find success for a third time. “Kevin Costner (who starred alongside Houston in The Bodyguard) and his secretary are the ones that loved the song,” Parton said. “They had another song that was going to go in that place, and someone had recorded the song they were going to use. They were just in a panic at the last minute. And so they asked me about the song. I sent it. I didn’t hear anything more.”
According to Costner, the executives at Houston’s label weren’t overly enthusiastic about their star performing Dolly’s song for the soundtrack. “I said, ‘This is a very important song in this movie.’ I didn’t care if it was ever on the radio,” Costner said in a 2008 interview with CMT. “I didn’t care. I said, ‘We’re also going to do this a cappella at the beginning. I need it to be a cappella because it shows a measure of how much she digs this guy — that she sings without music.'”
“I will always be grateful and in awe of the wonderful performance,” Dolly said of Houston’s rendition. “She said something to me off the record, so I won’t ever repeat it, but it was so beautiful, and it was so Dolly,” Costner revealed. “It was generous and it was funny — everything that she is — but it was a big thank you. It was a big, fat thank you.”