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Mark James : Caught in a Trap : Suspicious Minds : Elvis' Last No. 1 Hit

By Marc Myers
Source: The Wall Street Journal
September 1, 2012 - 7:39:53 PM

One of the many joys about writing for the Wall Street Journal is being given the opportunity to report in-depth on rock, pop and soul songs I love. One such song is Elvis Presley's Suspicious Minds. In today's edition of 'Friday Journal' (or online here), I interview Mark James, the song's writer, and Chips Moman, the legendary producer who founded American Sound Studio, about the song's origins and evolution.

In the late 1960s, as the landscape of rock and soul shifted underneath him, Elvis Presley's career began to sputter. Then, some headway: A TV special in December 1968 rekindled interest, and the following month Elvis Presley headed into the studio to record what would become 'From Elvis in Memphis' - a rock-soul album that is still considered one of his finest. 'In the Ghetto' from those sessions went to No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100. A Memphis recording that didn't make the album was released as a single. 'Suspicious Minds' went to No. 1 in November 1969. It led to Presley's stage 'comeback', albeit one that would later play out largely in Las Vegas.

Elvis Presley MP3 Audio Mark James : Suspicious Minds (03:04)

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Elvis Presley's 'Suspicious Minds' actually was a cover. A year earlier, singer Mark James had written and recorded the original for Scepter Records. Below, Mark James and producer Chips Moman, talk about the song's inspiration and how an argument over rights nearly cost the King his hit.

Mark James: In early 1968, Chips Moman asked me to come to Memphis to write songs for his music publishing company. I was living in Houston at the time and had written three hits that reached No. 1 in the South. Chips's American Sound Studio was just starting to get hot. So I relocated.

Late one night, fooling around on my Fender guitar and using my Hammond organ pedals for a bass line, I came up with a catchy melody. I was married to my first wife then but still had feelings for my childhood sweetheart, who was married back in Houston. My wife suspected I had those feelings, so it was a confusing time for me. I felt as though all three of us were all caught in this trap that we couldn't walk out of.

At my recording session, Chips produced, I sang the lead vocal and the studio band backed me. The strings, horns and Holladay Sisters were overdubbed later. After the tape was mixed, Chips and I flew to Scepter in New York, where my manager had contacts. They loved the song and put it out, but the label didn't have the dollars to promote new talent, so the song didn't chart.

Later that year, Don Cruise, Chips's partner, told me Elvis had booked American Sound to record what would become his 'From Elvis in Memphis' album. Don kept asking if I had any songs that would be a good fit. Tom Jones was hot at the time, and I knew Elvis needed a mature rock 'n' roll song to bring him back. Don and I thought of 'Suspicious Minds' and I began urging everyone to get Elvis to hear it.

Chips Moman: When Elvis arrived at my studio in January 1969, he was looking for new material.

I played him Mark's Scepter record, and he was crazy about it. He wanted to hear the song over and over again, and learned it on the spot.

Elvis Presley at American Studios 1969 with house band
Elvis Presley at American Studios 1969.

Mark James: I wasn't at Elvis' recording.

Days earlier I had walked into the control room and sensed he was uncomfortable. He was like, 'Who is this guy? I met him twice, why is he here?' I didn't want to jinx the song, so I stayed away.

Chips Moman: We finally got around to recording 'Suspicious Minds' after midnight [early on Jan. 23]. I had a ping-pong table, and Elvis was pretty good at it [laughing]. He used the same arrangement on Mark's single and most of the same American Sound studio musicians. When we finished, Elvis' crowd of business people standing around said they wanted half my publishing rights. I told them they were barking up the wrong tree. I accused them of stealing, they got angry, and I threatened to halt the entire session. Fortunately, RCA's Harry Jenkins said, 'This boy is right and we're going to finish the session just the way he wants to'. Jenkins sensed 'Suspicious Minds' was going to be big and he knew there would be plenty to go around.

When I heard how it was embellished later, I was blown away

Mark James: The next day I heard the track at the studio. At first I thought it sounded too slow. But when I heard how it was embellished later, I was blown away. [This is important to note as Chips has always stated he was disgusted (As you will read in the next paragraph) with what Felton Jarvis did, and we are referring to the fade out and back in at the end of the song, yet here is the songwriter giving his overwhelming blessing to the extra production. Elvis fans also approve it should be noted, when in 1987 RCA removed the ending for the release, 'The Memphis Record', fans cried out demanding it be restored.]

[A] crazy 15-second fade toward the end

Chips Moman: Felton Jarvis [Elvis' longtime producer] was never happy that Elvis recorded at American. It was a control thing. So when Jarvis took the tape of 'Suspicious Minds', he added this crazy 15-second fade toward the end, like the song was ending, and brought it back by overdubbing to extend it.

I have no idea why he did that, but he messed it up. It was like a scar. None of which mattered. Soon after the song was released, Elvis was back on top of the charts.

Mark James: In the years that followed, whenever I saw Elvis, he'd cross the room just to say hello to me - no matter who was with him. After he died, I heard he'd always asked the guys in the studio, 'Did Mark send me any more songs?' Golly, I wish I had known that.

About Mark James

Mark James is a songwriter, famous for writing hits for singers Elvis Presley, BJ Thomas and others. Mark James, whose real name is Francis Zambon, was born in 1940 and grew up in Houston, Texas.

By the late 1960s, James was signed as a staff songwriter to Memphis producer Chips Moman's publishing company, Moman produced Thomas's versions of The Eyes Of A New York Woman, Hooked On A Feeling and It's Only Love in 1968-69, and all achieved success. The songwriter wrote, sang and issued his own version of Suspicious Minds, also produced by Chips Moman, on Scepter Records in 1968 but without success and in the same arrangement the song became a worldwide smash hit for Elvis Presley in 1969.

Brenda Lee had a hit with Sunday Sunrise. Elvis recorded other songs written by Mark James namely:- Its Only Love, Raised On Rock and Moody Blue.

Incredibly James' greatest personal success came with Always on My Mind, a writing collaboration with Johnny Christopher and Wayne Carson Thompson and issued as a b-side to Separate Ways by Elvis Presley in 1972 in the USA. It was a hit for Elvis but it was a huge hit for Willie Nelson in 1982. Mark

James won a Grammy Award for Song of the Year for Willie Nelson's version. UK duo The Pet Shop Boys had a UK #1 and US #4 with their 1987 revival of the song.

Elvis Presley, Willie Nelson and Brenda Lee
Elvis Presley, Willie Nelson and Brenda Lee.

James also wrote the song Moody Blue, which is also the name of Elvis' last album. In 1979 Mark James wrote a beautiful song about Elvis called Blue Suede Heaven It was featured in the documentary 'The Echo Will Never Die' with Kasey Casem'

All the songs Elvis recorded of Mark James were hit singles peaking at:

'Suspicious Minds' # 2 [1969]
'Always on my mind' # 9 [1972]
'Raised on Rock' # 36 [1973]
'Moody Blue' # 6. [1977]

Posthumous Hits:

'Its Only Love' # 3 [1980]
'The Elvis Medley', containing 'Suspicious Minds', #51.
'Always on my mind' reissues #59 [1985] and #13 [1997].
'Suspicious minds' 'live' #15 [2001].
'Suspicious Minds' #11 [2007] whilst on the same run
'Always on my mind' #17 [2007].

'Raised on Rock' and 'Moody Blue' were chosen as the titles of the albums on which they first appeared. In the states 'Suspicious Minds' and 'Moody Blue' were numbers one's. 'Its only love' was lifted from the Elvis Aron Presley box set in 1980.

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