This was written by The Bee Gees as an R&B song. On March 10, 2009 when Maurice Gibb appeared on the BBC Breakfast programme, he explained that it was written for Marvin Gaye, however it was recorded instead as a duet by Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton with the Gibb Brothers also contributing vocals. The Bee Gees performed the song themselves on their 1998 live album One Night Only.
The title came from an Ernest Hemingway story
which was published in 1970. It was the first of his books to be published posthumously.
"Islands in the Stream" topped the Hot 100 (two weeks), Country (two weeks), and Adult Contemporary (four weeks) charts. It was the 1985 American Music Awards winner for Favorite Country Single, and 20 years later topped CMT's poll of the best country duets of all time.
It would be 17 years before another country song, Lonestar's "Amazed
," reached the summit of the Hot 100. "Islands in the Stream" also topped the Australian charts for 10 weeks.
The Bee Gees were focused on songwriting around this time, since their look in sound had fallen out of favor after the demise of disco. The group could write in a variety of styles, however, which they proved on this song. Members of the group also wrote several hits for their brother, Andy Gibb, as well as the Barbra Streisand hit "Woman In Love
" and the Dionne Warwick song "Heartbreaker."
Their extensive songwriting accomplishments earned them induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1994.
A version of this song was recorded by Ruth Jones and Rob Brydon from the BBC comedy Gavin & Stacey
plus Welsh legend Tom Jones
and Bee Gee Robin Gibb for the 2009 Comic Relief charity appeal. When Comic Relief asked permission to release a cover of this song, Gibb told the Radio Times
that he had no qualms. He said: "We have one of the most successful song catalogues in the world. When you've got a catalogue that big, you have to make sure that people don't abuse it by changing lyrics or using songs for derogatory reasons. Most people respect that and stay true to the original as best they can. This is for a great cause and they've done a great job."
The Comic Relief version of this song topped the UK chart, with the result that the 68-years-and-9-months-old Tom Jones became the oldest living act ever to have a #1 single in the UK. The previous record holder was Louis Armstrong, who was a mere 66 years-old when "What A Wonderful World
" reached the peak position in 1968. This also meant that a song written by the Bee Gees has been #1 in the '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s and '00s, something no other song-writing partnership has achieved.
OK, here's the joke associated with this song: What do you call Dolly Parton lying down in a bathtub?
Kenny Rogers told the television host Piers Morgan this story of the time he pretended to be himself:
"I was in Vegas, and as a joke, I went into one of those things where they have the impersonators and I didn't tell anybody it was me," he recalled. "So I go up on the stage and I'm singing with this girl who looks like Dolly, sang great like Dolly."
"We did 'Islands in the Stream' and when it was over, this man comes up to me and says: 'I'll tell you one thing, you're a hell of a lot better than the real guy.'"
Former Fugee Pras Michel's 1998 hit, "Ghetto Superstar (That Is What You Are)" was based around this song.
Sean Astin and Winona Ryder dance to this on the Netflix series Stranger Things, in the season 2 episode "Trick or Treat, Freak."
At the 2017 "All In For The Gambler" tribute concert in Nashville honoring the retiring Rogers, the duo closed out the evening with a performance of this song. In a People magazine interview preceding the event, Rogers said the collaboration was the beginning of his longtime friendship with Parton, and he gave her credit for bringing life to the song. He had been singing it on his own for just four days when he was ready to give up, telling Barry Gibb he didn't even like the song anymore. Gibb suggested bringing Parton on board, and as luck would have it, she was recording in the same studio as Rogers. "She came marching into the room," he recalled, "and once she came in and started singing, the song was never the same. It took on a personality of its own."