Marvin Gaye and Dolly Parton are two very different artists — yet one of Parton’s biggest hits was originally intended for Gaye. However, the Bees Gees decided not to give him the song for a very specific reason. Afterward, another famous singer entered the picture and got Parton to sing the track.
Why the Bee Gees didn’t give this song to Marvin Gaye
The Bee Gees’ music owed a great debt to R&B, so it only makes sense they could write a song for an R&B legend like Gaye. After all, the Bees Gees wrote hits for artists as diverse as Barbra Streisand and Frankie Valli, so Gaye didn’t seem like much of a stretch. However, Yahoo! Finance reports the Bee Gees wrote a track for Gaye only to decide it wasn’t a good fit for him.
How Dolly Parton got to sing the final version of the song
Enter Kenny Rogers. According to The Billboard Book of No. 1 Hits, Rogers once planned to create an album of duets with legendary artists like Parton, Willie Nelson, and the Bee Gees’ Barry Gibb. The album never came to fruition. Sometime later, Rogers got to work with Lionel Ritchie and wanted to find a new collaborator. Subsequently, he reached out to Gibb.
Gibb gave him “Islands in the Stream,” the song he and the other Bee Gees wrote for Gaye. Gibb de-emphasized the song’s R&B elements. According to Stereogum, the Bee Gees named the song after, of all things, an Ernest Hemingway novel. The song might not have very much to do with the book, but it certainly has a memorable title.
Rogers recorded a solo version of the track and he realized it wasn’t working. Roger thought “Islands in the Stream” would work better as a duet with Parton. Parton just happened to be working in the same studio as Rogers on the same day, so she came right in to record her parts of the song. Prior to duetting on “Islands in the Stream,” Rogers and Parton had only performed together on an episode of Parton’s short-lived show Dolly.
The huge impact of ‘Islands in the Stream’
“Islands in the Stream” stayed at the top spot of the Billboard Hot 100 for two weeks. Because “Islands in the Stream” made such an impact on pop culture, you might be familiar with its melody even if you’re not familiar with the song itself. This is because Pras of The Fugees sampled it in his 1998 hit “Ghetto Superstar (That Is What You Are).”
Sometimes, hip-hop songs use samples in such a way that they re-contextualize a song so it’s very different from what its songwriter intended. However, “Ghetto Superstar” brings “Island in the Stream” a lot closer to being the R&B track it was originally going to be. “Islands in the Stream” has such a great melody, it would work in any genre.