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

By: Elvis Australia
November 4, 2017

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'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.

It was a tough blow for Mark James but it ended up being a blessing in disguise when Elvis Presley recorded the song one year later, taking it to the top of the charts. It's gone on to become one of his most beloved, well-known songs.

In a conversation with Bart Herbison of Nashville Songwriters Association International, James told the story of writing the song and how he got it into Elvis' hands.

Bart Herbison: Let's start with the fact that you did (the song) first.

Mark James: I did, oh yeah. 1968. I recorded for Scepter Records. Worked with Chips (Moman, producer). They loved it, up at Scepter Records. They said, 'Smash!' Chips and I went up there and we had a big party, a big promotional thing, 25 promotional people were there. They all said 'smash, smash, smash' and they even gave Chips a Rolls Royce for producing that. … It was a small label and maybe they didn't know how to market it like Atlantic or other people. Anyway, it never happened.

Bart Herbison: Let's go back, though, to when you wrote it. Tell me about writing that song.

Mark James: The title came to me one night. I was playing organ bass pedals at an apartment I was living in and I was getting kind of a riff thing, same riff, and I was getting the groove of it, playing bass pedals. And then when I got a certain portion, I went to the studio and finished it up on grand piano. And when Chips heard it, he said, 'Man, I want to cut that on you', and he was real excited.

But, let me skip to when Elvis was coming in - they had booked the studio for two weeks. I didn't know he was coming in with 40 songs. I didn't know that. But I kept working on it, trying to come up with that one song and I can feel it sometimes. I know when a song is in the air, I know when something's there, and I try to grab it or capture it. But I kept saying something's there and I was trying to capture it, and Don Crews was the publisher, and every time I'd go back to American Studios he'd say, 'Well, you capture that for Elvis yet?

You know he's coming in in a week and a half.' And I said, 'No, not yet, not yet'. … We went to about two days before and he says, 'You know Elvis is coming in two days'. I was down, man, because I still hadn't come up with anything. (Don) says, 'What about your old catalog?'

… By the time I hit 'Suspicious Minds', he said, 'What about 'Suspicious Minds'?' I turned around in the chair and it was like seeing a golden number one and I knew that was the song I'd been looking for. And of course, I said, 'That's the song I'm looking for, that's the song!' And I felt like - and I knew most of the guys with Elvis, some of them working there, around Memphis - felt like telling George Klein, Marty Lacker, I felt like even shaking Elvis and saying, 'This is a great one for you, man, to record'. But I knew probably everyone in the world had probably said that to him. So all I could do is tell all the guys around him, 'Get him to cut this, this is a great one for him!'

… Sure enough, when Elvis came in, he played it for him and Elvis said, 'Let's hear that again'. And I wasn't there. I stayed away. And sure enough, he got it several times, liked it so much Chips made a tape for him. He took it home.

I stayed away (from the recording session), but I went to the studio one time. I went upstairs and I heard they were taking a break. … I was curious and at the same time I said, 'Is he really Elvis and is he going to cut ‘Suspicious Minds'?' - that's the main reason I went in there. And I went in there and he happened to be leaning up against the baffle. It's real funny, I said, 'Hey Elvis, I heard you might cut ‘Suspicious Minds'. And he said, 'Hey Mark, been thinking about it', you know, just like Elvis would say it. ... But, I mean, this was a great guy. He invited me to Vegas when 'Suspicious Minds' was going up, and I remember he was at a table talking in a long room with Sammy Davis or Andy Williams, two people, way across the room. And I came in the room and he walked, stood up, walked clear across the room and said, 'Hi Mark. How you been doing?'

I said, 'Man, this guy is something else, y'all'. Classy guy, you know?

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.

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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