Forever No. 1 is a Billboard series that pays special tribute to the recently deceased artists who achieved the highest honor our charts have to offer — a Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 single — by taking an extended look back at the chart-topping songs that made them part of this exclusive club. Here, we honor the late Kenny Rogers by diving into the second of his two Hot 100 toppers, the timeless Dolly Parton duet “Islands in the Stream.”
Released in summer 1983, the Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton duet “Islands in the Stream” is the kind of easy, breezy pop song that’s the platonic ideal of adult contemporary. Anchored by a laid-back tempo, open-hearted vocals, and lush orchestration — a mellow latticework comprising sparkling keyboards, rakish horns, and string swells — the song became Rogers’ second No. 1 hit.
“Islands”– written by Maurice, Barry and Robin Gibb, a.k.a. the Bee Gees — is also the perfect soundtrack to a warm-weather fling. The lyrics describe the lightning-bolt feeling of intoxicating love at first sight: “Baby, when I met you there was peace unknown/ I set out to get you with a fine-tooth comb.” However, the song’s protagonists are in sync with each other’s desires. This isn’t an unrequited crush, but head-over-heels romance that endures.
That’s evident in the verses (“All this love we feel needs no conversation/ We ride it together”), and even more obvious in the chorus. The two lovebirds are inseparable “islands in the stream” who beckon each other to “sail away with me to another world” where they “rely on each other.”
Parton and Rogers frequently sing the song’s verses together, which underscores the unity of the romantic union being described. However, they never overwhelm each other’s parts, and are generous and respectful of vocal space — something that seems natural, since their voices blend together perfectly. And when they do occasionally take solo turns to emphasize lyrical gravity, the emotional resonance is striking. For example, Parton sounds vulnerable and forlorn as she envisions what might happen if she and her beau were parted: “I can’t live without you if the love was gone/ Everything is nothing if you got no one.” Rogers, meanwhile, draws on his time in the ’60s rock group the First Edition to belt out his parts with grit and confidence — he’s gruff but sensitive, the perfect tone for this tune.
On the chart dated October 29, 1983, “Islands in the Stream” ascended to No. 1 on the Hot 100 in its tenth week on the charts, replacing Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” on top. The song also reached the top of the country charts that same week, and was spending its third week at No. 1 on the Adult Contemporary chart as well. This multi-chart dominance is even more impressive when you consider that the song didn’t have a video on MTV, a rarity for the pop charts at this juncture. Of that week’s top 20 songs on the Hot 100, 11 had videos in medium or heavy rotation on the channel; a twelfth song, Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long (All Night)” had a clip added to the channel that week.
“Islands in the Stream” was the second Hot 100 No. 1 for both Parton and Rogers: The former’s “9 to 5” reached the peak for two weeks in 1981, and the latter’s “Lady” reigned for six weeks in 1980. At the time the song hit, Parton and Rogers were running somewhat parallel careers: Not only were they enjoying crossover success, but each had branched out into acting. Rogers starred in the 1982 movie Six Pack and the beloved made-for-TV movies based on his hit “The Gambler.” Parton, meanwhile, was on a cinematic hot streak thanks to star turns in 1980’s 9 to 5 and 1982’s The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.
Incredibly enough, however, Parton and Rogers had never collaborated musically before “Islands in the Stream” — save for Rogers’ appearance on a 1976 episode of the variety show Dolly! That fact wasn’t lost on Maurice Gibb, as he recalled in The Ultimate Biography Of The Bee Gees: Tales Of The Brothers Gibb. “We imagined Dolly singing the other part on [“Islands in the Stream”], because she was the queen of country, he was the king, [but] they never sang together [before]. So it’s a perfect sort of marriage.” However, Rogers at first tried to sing the song solo; after four days of trying to nail his vocal part, he was frustrated.
“I finally said, ‘Barry [Gibb], I don’t even like this song anymore’ and he said, ‘You know what we need? We need Dolly Parton,'” Rogers told People in 2017. Incredibly enough, Parton happened to be downstairs from Rogers in the same studio complex, he recalled. “My manager Ken Kragen said, ‘I just saw her!’ and I said, ‘Well, go get her!’ He went downstairs and she came marching into the room, and once she came in and started singing the song was never the same. It took on a personality of its own.” That spark was evident from the pair’s first live performance of the song, which came on the CMA Awards telecast on October 10, 1983.
Yet making “Islands in the Stream” a duet was a go-to move for Rogers during this era. In 1978, he teamed up with country legend Dottie West for the duets album Every Time Two Fools Collide, whose title track topped the country charts. Rogers further expanded his sonic range (and earned pop crossover success) with the Kim Carnes collaboration “Don’t Fall In Love With A Dreamer,” a No. 4 Hot 100 hit in 1980. And in early 1983, Rogers and Sheena Easton teamed up for a cover of Bob Seger’s “We’ve Got Tonight” that peaked at No. 6 on the Hot 100.
A desire for new collaboration also led Rogers to enlist Barry Gibb to co-produce his 1983 album Eyes That See in the Dark, where “Islands” eventually found its LP home. At the time the country star came calling, Gibb and brothers Robin and Maurice had retreated from their own music and were focused on writing for other artists. The move was wildly successful: After dominating pop music during the late-’70s disco era with the Bee Gees, the trio continued to have a prominent chart presence in the early ’80s — only this time as songwriters, producers and guest stars.
In 1980, Barry co-produced Barbra Streisand’s studio album Guilty and co-wrote (along with Robin) “Woman In Love,” which spent three weeks atop the Hot 100 (before giving way to Rogers’ “Lady”). The following year, Streisand added two more top 10 smashes from Guilty, both duets with Barry: the title track (No. 3) — which was written by all three brothers—and “What Kind of Fool” (No. 10), another Barry co-write. Conway Twitty took a cover of the Bee Gees’ 1978 b-side “Rest Your Love on Me” to No. 1 on the country charts in 1981. And in 1982, Dionne Warwick topped the adult contemporary chart and peaked at No. 10 on the Hot 100 with “Heartbreaker,” another song by all three Gibb.
“Islands in the Stream” also had roots in R&B. Although widely cited as being written for Marvin Gaye, the Bee Gees actually had another Motown legend in mind as it came together. “We were writing a song for Diana Ross, but she never got [a]round to hearing it, and Kenny wanted a song and we came up with this one,” Barry Gibb said in The Ultimate Biography Of The Bee Gees: Tales Of The Brothers Gibb. “It was written as an R&B song, so it just shows you the relationship between the two types of songs that it could, in fact, turn into a country song very easily.”
Rogers prided himself on this malleable vocal nature, as he said in the liner notes of Kenny Rogers Through the Years: A Retrospective, although he never lost sight of his strengths. “I am a country singer with a tremendous amount of other influences. No matter what I do, it’s always going to have a country influence to it. That’s just where my heart is.” That assessment proved prescient, as Rogers continued to enjoy major country success for the rest of the ’80s, but “Islands in the Stream” would mark the end of his upper-echelon pop success. He only reached the Hot 100’s top 40 three times after this, with the high point being “What About Me?” with Kim Carnes and James Ingram, which hit No. 15 in 1984.
However, “Islands in the Stream” cemented a decades-long association with Dolly Parton, which kept Rogers in the mainstream eye. The pair had another No. 1 country hit in 1985 with “Real Love,” and teamed up for the title track of Rogers’ 2013 album You Can’t Make Old Friends. Parton and Rogers also released a best-selling holiday album, 1984’s Once Upon a Christmas, and followed that up several popular TV specials.
And “Islands in the Stream” has taken on a life of its own over the years. It’s been covered multiple times by country and pop acts: Barry Gibb did the song live with Olivia Newton-John, Barry Manilow and Reba McEntire cut a version in 2008, and Miley Cyrus and Shawn Mendes dueted on it just last year. Indie musicians have also embraced the song, in particular a live version by My Morning Jacket and Neko Case, and a luxurious studio version by Feist and Constantines.
The song would also spawn many inspired interpretations — most notably in 1998, when Fugees MC Pras used elements of the song for the chorus to “Ghetto Supastar (That Is What You Are),” a top 20 hit alongside Mya (who sang the “Islands”-derived hook) and Ol’ Dirty Bastard. A 2009 cover version by actors from the BBC sitcom Gavin & Stacey would also hit No. 1 in the U.K., while the U.S. version of The Office even used the song in a beloved episode, where Michael and Jim sing it at karaoke. To nobody’s surprise, it’s also a real-life karaoke staple.
Rogers also performed “Islands in the Stream” with other collaborators over the years, including Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles. However, nothing compared to when he and Parton performed the song together, which they did multiple times throughout the years. The final time, at 2017’s “All In for the Gambler: Kenny Rogers’ Farewell Concert Celebration,” was both emotional and reassuring: Parton and Rogers had the easygoing demeanor of old friends, and while the swagger of previous live duets wasn’t quite there, the magical musical spark that always powered the song still burned bright.