25 years after the big breakup. . .Dolly: I'd love to record again with Porter Wagoner
Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton might as well have been named Dyno and Mite. The volatile creative team joined voices in a musical marriage of convenience in the late '60s and exploded as one of the greatest duet teams in country music history. "We sang like brother and sister, like blood kin," says Porter, 25 years after their famous breakup in 1974.
"We worked hard pushing in the same direction. We made each other work well." Dolly says, "When we started together, we both realized, along with the rest of America, that this was a unique sound. We were a great blend." In total, Porter and Dolly charted 14 albums, 12 of which reached the Top 10, and 21 singles, including 14 Top 10's. Their hit singles include "Just Someone I Used To Know" and "If Teardrops Were Pennies."
Not even the famous tandem-names that followed, like George Jones and Tammy Wynette or Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty, could match their success on the singles cart. Only with the advent of modern power duos, such as the Bellamy Brothers, The Judds and Brooks & Dunn, did their record fall.
Porter hired Dolly to replace a popular singer named Norma Jean for his road show and television program, The Porter Wagoner Show. As the story goes, when Dolly first walked out the audiences kept shouting, "Where's Norma Jean?" To ease the transition, Porter says, he suggested they do some duets. "I said, 'What we need to do is soften the blow because your voice is entirely different from Norma Jean's,' " says Porter. "They'd love you once they get used to you.
"We were a duet team, not just solo artists coming together to do an album," says Porter. "By writing songs to fit two people and gathering material for two people, we were trying to project the image of a great harmony-singing team."
Twosomes like Tammy and George and Loretta and Conway, says Porter, "were two different people with entirely different styles blending their voices together. We had to start from scratch." By the time Porter and Dolly entered the charts on Dec. 2, 1967, with their first duet, "The Last Thing on My Mind," Dolly had begun to make a name for herself with two Top 25 hits, "Dumb Blonde" and "Something Fishy." Porter says, "I was heard of on my television show, but was not a really huge-selling record artist."
"We didn't know we had that special chemistry as a duet," says Dolly, "until we started to sing together, mainly because working together and it made sense."
"I don't really compare our sound to anyone," says Dolly. "We were not trying to duplicate other people when we started singing together." The same strengths each artist brought to the table would eventually doom their relationship. Porter was country music pro whose skills as a producer, salesman and manager helped propel them stardom. Dolly was a gifted singer and songwriter and an apt pupil with big-time dreams beyond country music
"She was the greatest listener I've ever had" says Porter. "She was the greatest learner I've ever been around. I never had to tell her do something twice."
"I learned a lot of things from Porter,": says Dolly. "I learned stage presence, delivery, how to be comfortable and be funny onstage how to work an audience, how not to be frightened in front of an audience and how to speak one-on-one. There's no end to all of the things I learned from Porter."
Porter praises Dolly's creativity and cheer-leading skills. "Dolly has a wonderful imagination, tremendous imagination. She was the biggest flag-waver I've ever seen," says Porter "She'd make you think you could climb a mountain. You need that when you're trying to create new things and go in new directions."
The Porter and Dolly duo won three CMA awards: Vocal Group of the Year in 1968 and Vocal Duo of the Year in 1970 and 1971.
"As we began to be more successful, " says Porter, "she wanted a bigger role in, for instance, the production of the records. I've always been a person who believes when you've got things working well, you don't change them.
"Dolly wanted to be huge in all fields. Well, I have no desire to be a pop artist or be in any other field than country because that's what I am, that's what I know and what I do. So we started having problems."
Sometime in the spring or summer of 1974, historians have trouble nailing down the date, Dolly and Porter appeared onstage as a team for the last time and sang their swan song.
Even Porter doesn't remember the exact day. "It wasn't a certain date that all this happened," says Porter. "It wasn't one moment, it was a bunch of moments."
Their musical divorce made headlines across the country. Complicated business entanglements dragged them into a lawsuit. And thought the suit was eventually settled out of court, the press had a field day reporting acrimony.
"I've found that when you get attorneys involved in almost anything, that's the kind of stuff that starts happening. We did get a lot of negative publicity," says Porter. "A lot of it was at my expense. I didn't really deserve that. I really deserved more of a crown than a thorn because I worked really hard on Dolly's career and the production of her records and the advice I gave her."
As Dolly's career boomed into pop music, movies and television, many accused Porter of trying to hold her back out of bitterness.
That's not true, says Porter, who charted more than 40 Top 40 hits as a solo artist. "It went basically as Dolly and I had planned it. We hadn't planned on being a duet all our careers. Our plan was to be successful, but mainly to get Dolly successful."
Dolly's success has included more duets, but with Willie Nelson, Kenny Rogers, Ricky Van Shelton and Vince Gill.
"The Kenny and Dolly thing was magical," says Dolly, "the same as Porter and Dolly. Kenny's voice and mine seemed to work so great together and so did our personalities.
"Porter and I were both country people, very, very down-home country, so I think there was a simplistic sound in our voices that made up our sound. Kenny and I had a broader range of material, more pop-oriented than Porter and I.
"I really loved singing with Kenny and Porter more than anything else I've done. A lot of people don't like my voice on its own. But they seem to like it when it blends with someone else's. I'm very grateful to Porter and Kenny for the opportunity to have more people like my voice."
On the weekend of April 29, 1989, Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner reunited as a duet for four shows onstage at Dollywood theme park The performances raised money for the Dollywood Foundation, which tries to stop children from dropping out of school.
These days, they only have kind words for each other.
"I really miss the great country duets like the ones in the past," says Dolly. "I miss that early sound like Porter and I had. I think somewhere down the road, there will be another Porter/Dolly-sounding duet. Hopefully, I will get a chance to sing with Porter again on a 'Best of album' of some old songs."
"I think a lot of Dolly,' says Porter. " A lot of people have misunderstood. Dolly helped my career tremendously. And I know I helped her career tremendously.
"That's a pretty great way for things to happen, actually."
by Rick Haydan April 20, 1999
A special thanks to Corey for typing this article in.