The year was 1983, and superstar country music singer Kenny Rogers took the stage with a cover of a song written by the Bee Gees called “Islands in the Stream.” As Rogers sang the opening bars on the stage by himself, “Baby when I met you there was peace I know / I set out to get you with a fine-tooth comb,” the audience clapped in time.
But when Dolly Parton walked out to join him, cheers went up from the audience. As their honeyed voices magically harmonized, it became clear that this was a match made in heaven. “And we rely on each other,” the duo sang.
In 1980, Dolly Parton’s catchy song “9 t0 5” won her an Academy Award, Two Grammys, and hit #1 on the the pop charts; she went from being a well-known country singer-songwriter to a household name across America. Kenny Rogers had just hit the top of the charts himself with “Lady,” the unforgettable romantic song Lionel Richie had written for him.
While recording “Islands in the Stream,” Rogers just didn’t feel it, as he explained in an interview with TODAY. He told producer and songwriter Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees, “I don’t even like this song anymore.” Gibb knew there was only one thing they could do to make the song complete—get Dolly Parton in the studio. Rogers remembers that “Dolly, in her inimitable fashion, marched into the room and the song was never the same.”
When the two of them sang together for “Islands in the Stream,” sparks flew on stage and their obviously close relationship and amazing talents produced a huge success. But Rogers and Parton didn’t just leave it there. These two performers, who had already been performing for decades when they first sang together, just had something special to share.
Happy Birthday to the one and only Dolly Parton! Thankful for so many years of friendship and music.
But with such obvious musical chemistry, many fans and the press wondered if the two would ever become romantically linked and secretly hoped they would. When Rogers went on TODAY several years ago, co-host Hoda asked him: “Was there ever anything between you two?” Rogers’s wife, Wanda Miller, happened to be in the studio and gave her husband “the look,” but he said that they simply had been very close and had enjoyed flirting with each other.
From her perspective, Parton said that their friendship meant a lot more than any romance could. “You know what, we were almost like brother and sister,” she said on TODAY. “So we just never went there.”
But when the time came for Rogers to make a new album called You Can’t Make Old Friends in 2013, the singer knew exactly who he wanted to join him on the 30th anniversary of “Islands in the Stream.” He asked Dolly Parton to duet with him, and once again, the two made an unforgettable hit.
Congratulations to my dear friend Dolly Parton! MusiCares Person of the Year!
The song features Rogers and Parton reflecting on getting older and facing the end of their careers. As Parton sings:
How will I sing when you are gone?
‘Cause it won’t sound the same
Who’ll join in on those harmony parts,
When I call your name?
But no matter what time does, the two will always be old friends, and the bond they created with “Islands in the Stream” will never be broken. In 2017, Kenny Rogers sang his farewell concert in Nashville, promising to retire from showbiz after an incredible six decades with a charting song. Of course, Dolly Parton was there and brought her duet partner to tears with her ballad, “I Will Always Love You.”
For audiences though, it was “Islands in the Stream,” that made the concert. “I never get tired of hearing that song, same as the audience,” Parton said in a video for Warner Music. While they might not perform together again, they’ve left behind an amazing musical legacy and held on to their special relationship.