Before it was a chart-topping duet for Reba McEntire and Linda Davis, "Does He Love You" had spent a decade traveling the world. It caught the ears of Liza Minelli and Tony Bennett — the latter hoping to record a gender-swapped version with Frank Sinatra.
But the song — which finds a man's wife and his mistress laying out their insecurities and wondering who has the upper hand — didn't find its way to record until McEntire listened to the demo cassette on her drive home from Music Row.
"Six weeks later, it was on the radio," says Sandy Knox, who co-wrote the song with Billy Stritch. Knox told the Story Behind the Song to Bart Herbison of Nashville Songwriters Association International.
Bart Herbison: I have a question for you. "Does He Love You?"
Sandy Knox: Yes.
BH: That's the Story Behind the Song this week. You co-wrote this with Billy Stritch, and I told you, "I've never met Billy," and you explained why.
SK: Well, Billy and I are both from Houston. So we met in Houston. I don't think I was 20 years old yet, and I don't think Billy was even 18. He's two or three years younger than I am. I ended up coming here to Nashville, and Billy went on to pursue greater things in New York City. Billy has lived in NYC for years. He was Liza Minnelli's musical director for many years, and also was Tony Bennett's musical director. So Billy has quite a career on his own.
BH: Now I know exactly who you are talking about.
SK: He had a vocal group that had two women and him on piano. And Billy is well-known for his vocal arrangements. He made a comment to me that there were no songs for two women to do. There were loads of duets for a man and a woman. And I said, "Well, let me think about it." So I started working on this idea, and took it to Billy and again, this would have been in about, I don't know, 1981-82. And we wrote it and it was huge in their act. They toured all over the world with their cabaret act. And it was a huge success. People loved the song and they requested it all the time. We knew we had a hit.
BH: I was going to literally ask you this. You kind of had to know when you finished this one, it was special.
SK: I came to (Nashville) with it. I was pitching it in a few places.
BH: Did it help you land a deal?
SK: No, I did a single song contract with it. Karen Conrad was the woman who heard it. And at that point, Barbara Mandrell had it on hold for a year, with Tom Collins producing. Then she had the car accident that everybody remembers, which took her out of commission for a while.
Then Billy had started performing it up in New York, and Liza Minnelli heard it, and she wanted to do it. And then Tony Bennett heard it, and wanted to do it with Sinatra. Boy, were we hoping for that: a "Does She Love You" version. And then Reba made a comment to the wonderful Mike Sebastian, who was plugging songs, I believe, at Starstruck at the time. She made a comment to Mike that if she could only find a great female duet, (she'd record it). Mike had previously worked for the publishing company where my half of "Does He Love You" was.
Mike said to her, "Give me a minute." And he literally walked across the street, had them (make) a cassette, walked back over and handed it to her. She listened to it on her way home, I understand, in the car, and put it on a hard hold. And six weeks later, it was on the radio.
BH: What? People don't understand — that does not happen that way, ever! (laughs)
It does not happen. Luckily, Reba had already done a song of mine on her previous record called "He Wants to Get Married." So her ears were already kind of open to something I had written because she liked she liked the other song (of mine) that she had done. So that was a good thing. But yeah, the fact that it kind of laid dormant, was put on hold hung out for, what, 13 years? And then all of a sudden, it was like, "Yeah, boom."
And I'll tell you something: Linda really came in to sing the scratch (temporary) vocal with Reba, because Linda was on the road with Reba, I think, at that time.
BH: I remember this now. She was a backup singer.
SK: I think Linda may have had a deal in the works or something, but Linda sang the scratch vocal. And it was so good, they took a chance and went ahead and released it with Linda on it. And it turned out fantastic.
BH: It's one of those songs that speaks to that moment we've all been through, Sandy. I can't imagine the stories, I think (some) people would go, "I didn't want to hear it." And I can hear others going, "I loved it. It helped me get through it." Am I right?
SK: Yes. I will tell you the biggest question I get is people assume I had an affair with a married man, and that I wrote about that. I've never had an affair with a married man. I strictly wrote it with the target in mind.
BH: Ah, we're changing that. It was you and Harrison Ford. That's what it was all about.
SK: (Laughs) Especially since I'm a pretty big proponent of "Write what you know." But in that one case? No, that was not the case.
About the series
In partnership with Nashville Songwriters Association International, the "Story Behind the Song" video interview series features Nashville-connected songwriters discussing one of their compositions. For full video interviews with all of our subjects, visit Tennessean.com/music.
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Story Behind the Song: Reba McEntire and Linda Davis' 'Does He Love You'