This Day In History: February 21

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On February 21, 1981, Dolly Parton notches the biggest hit of her career, when the song "9 to 5" reaches #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The song, a soundtrack to the movie of the same name, would cement her crossover from country music to mainstream superstardom.

Parton brought the full range of her talents to bear on the project. She wrote and performed the song that earned her both Oscar and Grammy nominations. And she acted in 9 to 5, playing the role of a secretary prejudged on looks alone—not only by her sleazy male boss, played by Dabney Coleman, but also by her female colleagues, played by Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda.

The role played very much on the image that Parton created and toyed with in the real world: that of the apparent blonde bimbo. She has made her wigs, accent, outfits and famously ample bosom a significant part of her public persona, along with a certain winking eagerness to make fun of her own image. (“It takes a lot of money to look this cheap” was her most famous self-deprecating wisecrack.) All of it helped make Parton a hugely famous and wildly popular personality from the early '80s onward.

Long before most Americans knew her name, Parton had established a reputation in Nashville and beyond—based not on her outsized image, but on her brilliant and restrained country singing and songwriting. Dolly left the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee for Nashville the same day she graduated high school, and though it took several years of struggling, by the late 1960s she had become an established figure in the world of country music, best known for her regular appearances on "The Porter Wagoner Show."

It was in the early '70s, though, that she made her name as a solo performer and songwriter. "Jolene" and "Coat of Many Colors" may be her best known country hits from that period, but Parton also wrote and recorded "I Will Always Love You," which would go on to be one of the biggest pop hits of the 1990s for Whitney Houston.

Parton's later film projects didn't enjoy similar success as 9 to 5: 1982’s Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (with Burt Reynolds) and 1984’s Rhinestone (with Sylvester Stallone). But her music career has continued to soar to ever greater heights. She holds the record for the most #1 hits by a female artist on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart. In December 2023, at the age of 77, she had another crossover smash when her album Rockstar debuted at #1 on three different Billboard charts, including Top Album Sales, Top Rock & Alternative Albums and Top Rock Albums.