With a legendary career spanning over six decades, Dolly Parton has written more than 5,000 songs. When asked what her favorite song is that she has written, Dolly always responds with "Coat of Many Colors". She has stated that the song has affected her differently through the years depending on what is going on in her life, saying that she was unable to sing it for months after her mother died in December 2003. The song has inspired a children's book, two television movies, dolls, and other trinkets often sold at Dollywood. The song was released on September 27, 1971, with the album of the same name following a week later on October 4. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the song and album, let's take a look back at the story of one of Dolly's most iconic songs and albums.
In early 1969 Dolly wrote what would become one of her signature songs. While on tour with Porter Wagoner, Dolly wrote "Coat of Many Colors" on the back of one of Porter’s dry-cleaning receipts. Porter would go on to be the first to record the song (with Dolly providing harmony vocals). His first recording on April 9, 1969 was rejected, and he re-recorded the song on April 15. This second recording remained unreleased until 1981 when it was included on Porter’s One for the Road album. You can take a listen to this rare recording below.
Dolly cut her first version of “Coat of Many Colors” a little over a month later on May 21, 1969, but this version remains unreleased. Dolly performed the song live for the first time during a concert at her old high school on April 25, 1970, during the recording of her live album A Real Live Dolly, but the live version from this concert went unreleased until it was included on the 2003 reissue of Dolly’s Just Because I’m a Woman album and later on the 2009 reissue of A Real Live Dolly. You can listen to Dolly's first public performance in the video below.
A year after the song’s first public performance, Dolly entered RCA Studio B on April 27, 1971, and recorded the definitive version of the autobiographical song, along with four other songs that would appear on the album. Following the single's release on September 27, 1971, it debuted at number 65 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart dated October 30, 1971. It peaked at number four on the chart dated December 25, its ninth week on the chart and charted for 16 weeks. The single also peaked at number 15 in Canada on the RPM Country Singles chart and number 60 in Australia. Listen to Dolly's definitive version of the song below.
The song was also the title track of Dolly's eighth solo studio album which was released on October 4, 1971, to positive reviews. The review published in the October 16, 1971 issue of Billboard said, "The top stylist's new single, the touching ballad "Coat of Many Colors", kicks off what should prove to be her biggest selling album to date. Most of the material is her own, with a few strong numbers penned by Porter Wagoner. The recent hit single, "My Blue Tears", is spotlighted along with other standouts such as "She Never Met a Man" and "The Way I See You"."
Cashbox published a review in the October 9, 1971 issue, which said, "It's hard to believe it's possible, but Dolly's releases still get better and better each time you listen and each time a new one hits the market. This one's another bulleye–with her new single as the title track and her previous hit "My Blue Tears" for drawing power, an extraordinary self-penned tune (even for Dolly) in "She Never Met a Man (She Didn't Like)" for programming appeal and a trio of Porter Wagoner tunes to put the icing on the country cake. Bound for top chart honors."
The album debuted at number 41 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart dated October 30, 1971. It would peak at number seven on the chart dated January 22, 1972, its thirteenth week on the chart. The album charted for 23 weeks.
Throughout the years the album has become one of Dolly's most critically acclaimed records. In 2006, the album appeared on Time Magazine's list of the 100 Greatest Albums of All Time. In 2003 the album was ranked number 299 on Rolling Stone's list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, with the ranking dropping to number 301 in the 2012 update and climbing to number 257 in the 2020 reboot of the list. In 2017, National Public Radio ranked the album number 11 on their list of the 150 greatest albums made by women.