Review: “The Great Pretender” by Dolly Parton (Vinyl, 1984)

Today’s POP RESCUE from an uncertain future, is the 1984 cover song album The Great Pretender by the legendary American singer, songwriter, actress, philanthropist, and undisputed galaxial treasure, Dolly Parton. Will this album be the Greatest thing you’ve heard, or is it just Pretending? Read on…

Dolly Parton - The Great Pretender (1984) album cover
Dolly Parton – The Great Pretender (1984) album

This 10 track LP opens with lead single Save The Last Dance For Me, with vocal group The Jordanaires, a cover of the 1960 hit by The Drifters. Stylistically, this is very different from the original, right from the outset – opening with a simple single synth sequence, as Dolly sings those familiar vocals. A simple drum machine drops in as the song begins to progress which helps in building the track up perfectly. Dolly’s vocals are joined by the warm vocals of The Jordanaires and then compliment her well. Sadly, this was not released in the UK.

The old Johnny Cash hit I Walk The Line follows this, led in with chugging electric guitars. Dolly’s vocals sit alongside these undaunted, and she gets to show off her vocal diversity well. The result is a nice foot-tapping mid tempo 80s pop rock track, and a respectful cover of the original classic.

Congas and electric grand piano lead us into Turn, Turn, Turn (To Everything There Is A Season). This is a cover of an adaptation of the Book Of Ecclesiastes, adapted by Pete Seeger. The track builds like a rock ballad that you could easily expect to hear from Meatloaf. However, Dolly delivers the vocals flawlessly through dramatic guitar chords and fills.

Next up is Downtown, which also saw release as a single, again not in the UK. Again, this version steps away from the slower version made popular by Petula Clark, instead this one takes a roaring set of electric guitars, thudding bass drum and rock guitars. Dolly’s vocals make light work of this song and her vocals sit perfectly on this harder sounding version. It’s absolutely fantastic.

This side of the LP closes with We Had It All, a cover of the Waylon Jennings track. The song opens with piano, and Dolly joins in alongside it. Her vocals are beautifully tender here. She’s joined by a string section, that help to underscore the two, and build upon the warmth and sentimental journey that the vocals take you on. It’s a great choice to close side one with. The track re-appeared in 1986, remixed as a single.

Side Two opens with She Don’t Love You (Like I Do), and the song’s chorus bursts open with guitar, vocals and backing vocals. Acoustic guitars and a wonderful light set of percussion then take us through the verse to the chorus. Dolly’s vocals dance lightly throughout out, giving great contrast to the occasional input from the growling guitars. It’s a good strong opener for this second side, which considering it had been a US #1 hit for Tony Orlando And Dawn in 1975, it would likely come with some expectation of being big, and made it as the album’s third single.

That’s followed by a cover of Gale Garnett‘s 1964 song We’ll Sing In The Sunshine, which leads us straight into bass and those congas. Dolly soon arrives, taking centre stage as the song builds beneath her. This lighter sound suits the sunshine theme of the track. Part way through, a harmonica arrives, adding just that little bit more structure to this gentle and cheerful song.

I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch) follows this and it goes in for a fairly loyal Motown sound, which given it’s a cover of the hit by The Four Tops and written by legendary songwriting team Holland/Dozier/Holland, then there’s probably no other way to tackle it. Dolly’s vocals here make light work of it, and it makes me wonder what it would have been like to hear her do a whole album on the Motown label. It’s loyalty feels like a safe play, with Dolly taking only a few vocal high steps off the original’s path.

Elusive Butterfly is next and this is another mid-tempo and pretty light little song, and a cover of the 1965 Bob Lind folk track. It’s nice and gentle, with Dolly putting in a lovely warm vocal performance, although the song doesn’t really move around much, it’s fairly forgettable.

The album closes with the titular The Great Pretender, presumably chosen as the album title, as it reflects the fact that all of these songs are cover versions. Dolly puts in a wonderfully strong vocal performance here over a simple organ track, and it’s a but more of a stripped back version of The Platters’ 1956 original. She’s joined eventually by The Waters Family choir, who help to lift this song into the realms of a saintly church song. It’s the perfect album closer.

Dolly’s lead single ‘Save The Last Dance For Me’ with The Jordanaires from 1984.

Verdict

Over all, this album is a nice collection of cover songs, most of which come with that clear Dolly spin.

All three singles are the high points here, with her thumping version of Downtown being a candidate for one of those rare songs of ‘beats the original’. We Had It All and the title track play their side-closing roles perfectly.

The weakest track here is probably Elusive Butterfly, as it suffers from not being distinct enough, and even now as I write this immediately after hearing it, I’m already struggling to recall it.

Whilst the singles were not released in the UK, the album was, and that’s therefore obvious why it failed to chart. That said, whilst Dolly is generally accepted as a national treasure in the UK, her chart positions are polar – she has 2 top 10 singles, and her last single in the Top 60 singles chart, was in 1983 prior to this album. Similarly, her most successful albums, aside from her 1978 debut UK album chart position (#24), have been Best Of compilation albums in the last 20 years.

Then there’s the artwork, which is simply amazing. Dolly looks fantastic on all of the sleeve art, and the styling of the sleeve is 200% 1980s, and the reason I knew I had to buy this.

Rated 4 stars - You're missing a treat!
  • POP RESCUE 2021 RATING: 4 / 5
  • 1984 UK ALBUM CHART PEAK: Did not chart.
  • POP RESCUE COST: £1.99 from a discogs.com seller.

Based on all of the Dolly Parton albums that we have reviewed so far, we are able to calculate her average album score as 4.5 out of 5.

This puts her in the top 7% of all of the artists we’ve ever reviewed.

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