Why Dolly Shot Down Elvis: A Lesson On Making Decisions From Core Principles

It’s hard to say no to an amazing opportunity. But sometimes, it’s necessary. Imagine it’s 1974 and Elvis Presley is begging you to use one of your songs – could you reject him? Dolly Parton did, and she did it for all of the right reasons.

Elvis really, really wanted to record, “I Will Always Love You.” As a condition, he (re: his smart management team) wanted to own at least a portion of the songwriting credits. Think of it as a negotiating tactic. In a normal deal, you’d get your status boosted by Elvis recording your song in exchange for him getting the royalties if anyone else recorded it after he popularized it.

When he came to Dolly for the song, she said, “No.” When he lowered his offer to just 50% of the rights, she still said, “No.” She remembers privately crying and panicking it was the wrong decision, but she stuck to her guns. Again, remember that this was in the mid-1970s and it was Elvis. This took guts. This took knowing what was important to her.

As the song drifted through time in the years that followed, she worried she made the wrong choice. Who could blame her? Elvis! And then, in 1992, Whitney Houston. She picked “I Will Always Love You Up,” just to record it, and won a Grammy for her now legendary performance. Who owned the full royalty-paying rights for the track? Not Elvis. Not even a little bit. It was a huge victory for Dolly’s choice.

So why did she reject Elvis? Dolly’s first principle was to own her songs‘ rights. This was an uncompromisable option for her. Whatever happened to a song, whoever else recorded it down the line, what mattered to her and the legacy she was building was that she owned the very thing she created to the end.

In our work, we have to have our own boundaries too. If there’s something bigger we’re building towards, that’s where to start. Saying “no” is never easy, especially when there’s a big check is in front of us. But, if Dolly could shoot down Elvis, we can knock off a few kings too. There should be a greater goal in what we do and who we are doing it for that will make most of our hard decisions for us. Call it vision, call it mission, call it purpose, call it whatever – just have it.

Without the boundaries, without knowing what matters and why, we won’t have the big confidence that is required for the big potential wins. Thanks Dolly for the reminder. Sorry Elvis.

*I heard this story from Dolly’s interview with Brené Brown on the Unlocking Us podcast. Dolly’s got a new book called “Parton, Songteller: My Life in Lyrics” that sounds great too.

And but of course…

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