Coming off a stream (sorry about that pun) of top country duets with vocalist Dottie West, this 1983 offering from Kenny Rogers was a bit of a surprise when it was first released. But as this song gained airplay, it became obvious that the Kenny & Dolly combo had something going for it. If you think about it, “Islands in the Stream” is quite possibly the ultimate “crossover” hit. Here’s why…
In the early 1980s, both artists were at the top of their game in terms of record sales and popularity. Rogers had been a middling folk/rock singer as leader of The First Edition in the early 1970s, then launched into the stratosphere when he crossed over into country. Parton was an extremely popular country artist who launched into the stratosphere when she crossed over into pop. Both had enjoyed solo success on the pop charts; Rogers hit #1 with “Lady” and Parton with “9 to 5” in the preceeding years.
Rogers recorded a version of Dolly’s “I Will Always Love You,” and Dolly returned the favor by adding her vocals to “Islands.” Dolly made a few songwriting dollars thanks to Kenny’s recording, but it was a drop in the bucket compared to the money that rolled in when Whitney Houston got her hands on it. As great an entertainer as Dolly is, it overshadows the fact that she was also one of the top female songwriters of the 20th century. Believe it or not.
So it is a bit odd that Dolly had her top all-time duet with a song she didn’t compose. “Islands in the Stream” was written instead by a trio of brothers from Australia, better known as The Bee Gees. Like a lot of their songs from the period, it rocketed to number one on the pop charts, a definite “crossover” hit for Kenny and Dolly. The song also went to number one on the country charts, so in effect, it was a “crossover” hit for the Bee Gees.
The Bee Gees, for all their songwriting success, had never hit number one on the country charts. They had come close a few years earlier with Olivia Newton-John’s version of “Come On Over,” which peaked at #5, and certainly should be considered a crossover hit.
Back to “Islands.” Add more crossover to its credit in that it put both Dolly and Kenny (and the Brothers Gibb) on top of the Adult Contemporary charts. That’s a lot of crossing over! Incidentally, “Islands” recently topped a fan poll as the number one country duet of all time, more than a quarter-century after it hit.
One little bit of trivia we can’t resist here. Olivia Newton-John led off her 1976 Come on Over album with “Jolene,” a song written by Dolly. Released as a single in the far east, Olivia’s version became a huge hit in Japan.