Islands in the Stream topped the charts when it came out in 1983. Released by Kenny Rogers on his album Eyes That See in the Dark, the song fits the country genre perfectly.
Rogers was a country singer-songwriter, and the hit could have easily been one of his. But what if we told you that the tune was not a Kenny Rogers original?
Hop on the cruise for the curious as we jump headfirst into the stream and discover the true songsmith.
Who Originally Wrote Islands in the Stream?
Initially written by the brothers Gibb, Islands in the Stream hit the airwaves in 1983. If you don’t know who that is, maybe you know them by their band name, the Bee Gees.
Once topping every chart known to man, the Bee Gees were a force to be reckoned with when it came to disco. Who knew they dabbled outside of their genre? Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton sure did.
Barry, Robin, and Maurice Gibb were born in the late 1940s on the Isle of Man. They grew up together in Manchester, England, where Barry formed his first band, The Rattlesnakes, at age nine.
The group featured Barry on guitar and young twins Robin and Maurice singing backup. A skiffle band, they played a blend of blues, jazz, and American roots music.
The family eventually moved to Queensland, Australia, in 1958. The Gibb brothers changed the band name to the Bee Gees.
The trio played local talent shows together and, in 1960, came to the attention of deejay Bill Gates. Gates loved the band’s original songs more than their covers, and he offered them a shot at stardom.
They spent the summers of 1961 and 1962 playing hotel gigs and then moved to Sydney in 1963 to hit it big. Barry, the chief songwriter, wrote the song that brought the Bee Gees to mainstream success in Australia, The Battle of the Blue and the Grey.
A Successful Move
Not seeing the success they wanted in Australia, the brothers moved their band to England in 1967. Robert Stigwood signed them to Polydor Records, the same label the Beatles first recorded with.
The band’s first big hit, New York Mining Disaster, came about with some minor deception. Polydor sent the single out with a blank label, and DJs all assumed it was a new Beatles tune. Their second hit, To Love Somebody, was initially meant for Otis Redding.
The Bee Gees continued performing through the 2000s with the original lineup. Maurice sadly passed away in 2003 from a twisted intestine and Robin in 2012 from liver cancer.
Barry continues to write and perform, most recently with political lightning rod Jason Isbell. The 2021 album Greenfields: The Gibb Brothers Songbook reimagines Bee Gees and Barry’s songs as country hits.
It might not surprise you that the Bee Gees wrote Islands in the Stream. Hearing how well their other popular songs translate into country tunes, it all makes sense.
What Was the Bee Gees’ Creative Process for the Song?
After reading Ernest Hemmingway’s posthumous novel, Barry wrote Islands in the Stream. The song features none of the novel’s themes, save for the catchy title.
Gibb wrote the tune for Marvin Gaye but decided Kenny Rogers was a better fit. He retooled the instrumentation and sent the future No. 1 hit to Rogers. But it wasn’t all smooth sailing.
Who First Recorded Islands in the Stream?
Barry Gibb and the Bee Gees worked on all of the songs on Rogers’ Eyes That See in the Dark album. Islands in the Stream took longer to record than other songs because Barry thought it was missing something. That something was Dolly Parton.
Rogers tells the story that Gibb wanted Parton on the song, and she happened to be in the studio. Just like in her live performances, Parton walked in and made the song the hit we all know.
Let’s take a beat and look at the two who made this song a hit.
Dolly Parton is best known for her work in country music. Her recording career began at age 13 with Puppy Love for the small label Goldband Records. By the time she graduated from high school in 1964, Dolly was a hot commodity.
She moved to Nashville the day after her graduation and found success initially as a songwriter. The hits she wrote with her writing partner and uncle, Bill Owens, were recorded by Bill Phillips and Skeeter Davis among others.
Monument Records tried to pitch Dolly as a pop singer, but the blond bombshell wasn’t having it. After a stinker of a first album, she finally recorded her first country record, Hello, I’m Dolly, in 1967.
Dolly continued to write and record hits for the next decade and a half before crossing into film. She starred in the movie 9 to 5 in 1980 and wrote the theme song, which was a country-pop crossover hit.
Then, in 1983, Dolly recorded Islands in the Stream with Kenny Rogers. The two were more like a supergroup, with both singers at the height of their careers.
Kenny Rogers started in music as a member of the Scholars in 1956. He transitioned to jazz after some slow sales on his solo work, but in 1966, he hit the big time.
Rogers joined The New Christy Minstrels, which lasted for a year, but members formed First Edition after breaking up. Rogers saw his first big success with the song Just Dropped in (To See What Condition My Condition Was In). We know you’re humming that one right now in your head!
Rogers slowly changed the band to a more country sound and left in 1976 to pursue a solo career. He began collaborating with more well-known singers and writing with Lionel Richie.
In 1978, he wrote and recorded The Gambler, which became his signature song and the title of his TV show.
Rogers and Barry Gibb worked together for the first time in 1983 on the Eyes That See in the Dark record. It turned out that collaboration was a good one because it put Rogers back on top of the charts. Three weeks, in fact, at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Kenny Rogers is one of the most successful music recording artists of all time, with 21 No. 1 singles from his 39 albums. He died of bladder cancer in 2020 at the age of 81.
What Popular Covers Are There of Islands in the Stream?
As with many popular songs, some great covers exist of Islands in the Stream. The Bee Gees performed the song live in 1997 at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. Their version, released on One Night Only, features a solo vocal by Barry Gibb.
BBC sitcom Gavin & Stacey contributed to Comic Relief in 2009 by sending in a video featuring Islands in the Stream. Actors Ruth Jones and Rob Brydon star with additional vocals by Tom Jones. The retitled track (Barry) Islands in the Stream was a hit.
Lady A took a more straightforward approach to covering the tune at their 2019 live show at the Grand Ole Opry.
Late-night comedian Jimmy Fallon and singer Miley Cyrus performed the song live in 2017. Their faithful recreation of the Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton 1983 Grammys performance was a hit with audiences.
We love digging into the vaults to discover the origins of our favorite hits. Islands in the Stream turned out to be a surprise with appearances by the Bee Gees, Marvin Gaye, Dolly Parton, and Kenny Rogers.
We love swaying to this one down by the river, and we hope you and your love enjoy it too. Strike out for parts unknown, but keep this familiar favorite on your playlist.