This Day In History: February 21

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In 1980, Dolly Parton brought the full range of her talents to bear on a project that would cement her crossover from country music to mainstream superstardom. That project was the movie 9 to 5, for which Dolly wrote and performed the song that earned her both Oscar and Grammy nominations as well as semi-official status as a true pop icon. The biggest hit of Dolly Parton’s career, the song "9 to 5" reached #1 on the pop charts on February 21, 1981.

In addition to writing and singing the theme song, Dolly also acted in 9 to 5, playing the role of a secretary prejudged on looks alone not only by her sleazy male boss, played deliciously 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 Dolly created and toyed with in the real world: that of the apparent blonde bimbo. The wigs, the accent, the outfits and—it must be said—the famously ample bosom, were a significant part of Dolly’s public persona, as was her 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 Dolly Parton a hugely famous and wildly popular personality from the early 80s onward, yet it didn’t hint at the decade of brilliant musical achievement that preceded this phase of Dolly’s life.

Long before most Americans knew her name, Dolly 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 was 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.

Dolly did not enjoy similar success with the movies that followed her acting debut in 9 to 5: 1982’s Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (with Burt Reynolds) and 1984’s Rhinestone (with Sylvester Stallone). She did have another #1 pop hit in 1983 with Islands In The Stream (a duet with Kenny Rogers), and she has enjoyed a resurgence of interest in recent years in the kind of rootsy, bluegrass-influenced work that preceded her big breakthrough with "9 to 5."

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