Why saying no to Elvis was the best business decision Dolly Parton ever made

The legendary Studio B in Nashville. Photo: Simon Thomsen

Nashville’s RCA Studio B is sacred ground for anyone who loves music. More than 35,000 songs have been recorded there over six decades since it opened in 1957, including a staggering 1000 top 10 hits. That amounts to 40 million singles sales.

It’s the place where the Nashville Sound, which gave country music new life, was born and in time, earned the Tennessee capital the nickname “Music City”.

And while most people associate Elvis Presley with Sun Studio in Memphis, the King only recorded a few albums there, preferring to head to Nashville, where he laid down more than 260 songs at Studio B, including ‘Are you lonesome tonight?’, recorded in just one take, singing in total darkness, at 4.30am.

The musical history inside this recording studio is staggering and Business Insider visited it on a guided tour offered by the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.

The tour is an absolute must do if you’re in Nashville and our guide, Ron, told a couple a great stories about the place, including one of the most important decisions Dolly Parton ever made.

Elvis Presley kicked this cabinet during a recording session and broke off one of the timber panels. It was never fixed. Photo: Simon Thomsen

Parton has her own special Studio B story, because driving over to record there for the first time, in 1967, her excitement overwhelmed her and she forgot to brake in time as she pulled up, and crashed into the studio wall – a dint in the bricks that remains to this day.

Our tour guide, Ron, joked that she had her first hit at the studio before she’d even started singing, but he also told another, more important story about Parton’s business acumen.

The prolific country music legend has written more than 3000 songs. One of them, “I will always love you”, which Parton recorded in Studio B, and became a hit in 1974. Elvis Presley loved the song too and wanted to record his own cover version. The songstress was thrilled, considering it a career highlight. Parton told everyone she knew about what was going to happen and was invited along to the recording session.

The the King’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker rang to explain one important caveat to the deal. When Presley records someone else’s song, he also takes half the publishing rights.

The 1940s Steinway piano in Studio B.

Parton was put on the spot, but given she’d already made it a hit, she wasn’t prepared to sign over half the rights.

Both sides held their ground. No deal, so no Elvis version. Parton says she cried all night after turning him down.

Presley died in 1977. In the early 80s, “I will always love you” was back at No. 1 in the charts, making Parton the first artist to have a hit twice with the same song.

Then in 1992, Whitney Houston recorded it for the movie The Bodyguard and it became one of the biggest-selling singles of all time. When Houston died in 2012, it was back in the top 10 for a fifth time. (In the mid ’90s Parton’s duet with Vince Gill was also a hit).

Parton once joked that she made enough money out of the songwriting royalties from “I will always love you” to buy Graceland, Presley’s former home.

Saying no to Elvis Presley made Dolly Parton a very rich woman.

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