THE SONG THAT SPARKED ROCK’S MOST UNFORGETTABLE COMEBACK
Elvis performs “Suspicious Minds” live in Las Vegas in July 1969 before the song’s official release.
by Sean Braswell
The masterpiece “Suspicious Minds” — the 18th and final U.S. No. 1 single of Elvis Presley’s career — turns 50 this month, and OZY and Sony dive deep to tell the story behind the iconic song
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE ─ Because 50 years ago The King of Rock and Roll climbed back to his perch atop the charts one last time with one of the most iconic ballads of all time.
When Elvis Presley arrived at producer Chips Moman’s American Sound Studio in Memphis, Tennessee, in January 1969, he was looking for new material. By the late 1960s, the landscape of rock and roll had shifted beneath the man who had once ruled over it as its King. A spectacular televised “Comeback Special” the previous month had rekindled public interest in the 34-year-old performer, but he knew that any true comeback had to be grounded in the music — and that would require some unforgettable new songs. That winter in Memphis, Moman played Presley a gem called “Suspicious Minds” by a Texas songwriter named Mark James. Elvis loved it.
Fifty years after its release on Aug. 26, 1969, we remain caught in the trap of “Suspicious Minds,” the final No. 1 hit of the King’s career — one that continues to rank among the greatest songs of all time. In the following immersive feature, packed with original images, videos and audio, OZY and Sony dive deep to tell the story behind the iconic song, tracing its journey through time and space, including through the minds that conceived, revived, delivered and immortalized it.
I - CAUGHT IN A TRAP
"WE'RE CAUGHT IN A TRAP, I CAN'T WALK OUT BECAUSE I LOVE YOU TOO MUCH BABY."
The story of “Suspicious Minds” begins not in a recording studio in Memphis, but rather in Houston, where Francis Rodney Zambon was born in 1940. His mom was from east Texas; his dad was from northern Italy. It was a remarkably musical family. Zambon, who changed his name to Mark James in high school, loved instruments. He could play the violin before he could read and was a concertmaster in junior high school. James also played piano and guitar, and by the time he was a teenager, his band The Naturals had a regional No. 1 hit (“Jive Note”). After a stint in Vietnam in the mid-’60s, he returned to music and caught the ear of legendary record producer Chips Moman, who invited him to Memphis to write, sing and produce songs for the upstart American Sound Studio.
As James recalls, he was writing songs “left and right” during that period, including hits like “The Eyes of a New York Woman” and “Hooked on a Feeling” for B.J. Thomas. But the 28-year-old’s heart never really left his home state of Texas, or his childhood sweetheart, Karen, whom he had known since he was 13 and she was 12. He was living in Memphis and married — and his wife suspected that he still had feelings for his girl back home. James was caught in a trap. “A lot of the substance of the song came from how I was feeling,” he says. “I was just in a place where my heart didn’t belong.”
And so the seeds of a song ─ about dysfunctional relationship and the feelings of mistrust within it — were planted. Late one night, while playing around on his Fender guitar and Hammond organ pedals for a bass line, James came up with a catchy melody to accompany those feelings. He credits the violin and his love of classical music for helping fuel his musical creativity with “Suspicious Minds.” “It was,” as Presley biographer Peter Guralnick later described its near-perfect composition in Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley, “a grown-up tale of love and infidelity, expressing complex emotions in the form of a sophisticated soul ballad.”
James had a potential megahit on his hands.
II - ‘SMASH, SMASH, SMASH’
"WHY CAN'T YOU SEE WHAT YOU'RE DOING TO ME?"
After finishing the song, James played it for Moman in the studio. From the initial bars and opening lyrics — We’re caught in a trap / I can’t walk out / Because I love you too much, baby — Moman realized its potential. James has a unique ability to figure out a hook in a song, says John Jackson, senior vice president, A&R, Legacy Recordings/Sony Music Entertainment. “He really knows how to get to the point in a way that is very understandable and relatable to people, but also in a musical way.”
At the recording session for “Suspicious Minds,” James sang the lead vocals backed by the studio band. Strings, horns and accompanying vocals were overdubbed later. After the track was mixed, James and Moman flew to New York to pitch it to Scepter Records.
It was like a scene out of a movie. Scepter loved it. They told James the 1968 recording would be a “smash, smash, smash.” They hosted a big party for their guests from Memphis. “Scepter believed in it so much that they gave Chips a Rolls-Royce,” recalls James. “We drove from New York back to Memphis in it.”
Scepter, however, was still a relatively small label that lacked the promotional muscle to really push the song and its talented author, so it didn’t chart. It was a tremendous blow for James. Fortunately, the song was about to come into contact with another down-on-his-luck musician. In late 1968, James and other American Sound Studio writers learned that Elvis Presley would be coming to the studio for two weeks in January — and he was looking for songs. James set to work, but he struggled under the pressure to put pen to paper and write something new. “I knew there was a song in the air. I kept trying to write it,” says James. “I had no idea that I had already written it.”
III - ‘LET’S HEAR THAT AGAIN’
"SO, IF AN OLD FRIEND I KNOW, DROPS BY TO SAY HELLO, WOULD I STILL SEE SUSPICION IN YOUR EYES?"
The year 1969 was a tumultuous one for American society and culture. And it marked a huge turning point for the country’s King. Thanks to the success of his televised “Comeback Special,” Presley had an opportunity to chart the next big period of his career — to move past the hokey movie soundtrack singles that had characterized his music for several years and truly start over, redefine himself as an artist and perform songs that he really loved on his own terms. It was his chance for a rebirth, says Jackson. “He had the energy. He had the will. He was putting a band together. He was looking for songs.”
In particular, Presley was looking for more mature, passionate songs with adult themes. “Suspicious Minds” fit the bill perfectly. James asked Moman to play the song for Presley when he arrived at American Sound Studio that January to record what would become the country-soul album From Elvis In Memphis. Moman did, and Presley loved it. “Let’s hear that again,” the King requested. “He wanted to hear the song over and over again,” Moman recalled years later, “and learned it on the spot.” Moman made a cassette tape for him, and he took it home.
How did James feel about ceding his own once-promising single to another performer? “Bottom line,” he says, “it was meant for Elvis.”
January 1969 at American Sound Studio George Klein, Elvis Presley, Roy Hamilton and Chips Moman.
IV - 'BLOWN AWAY'
"WE CAN’T GO ON TOGETHER WITH SUSPICIOUS MINDS"
Moman created a ready-made, music-making environment for Presley in Memphis, and something just clicked. “Suspicious Minds” was recorded in the early morning hours of Jan. 23, 1969. Presley was focused but relaxed. He practiced his karate exercises between takes. In some of the early takes, you can hear Presley both chuckling good-humoredly and bellowing “Goddamn it, man” in frustration at his own mistakes.
At the end of the seventh take, Moman asks, “You have one more in ya?” Presley responds simply, “Yeah.” And one more take was all it took. “There’s not a lot of fat in Elvis recording sessions,” says Jackson. “Those guys showed up, you played it perfectly all at the same time, and you moved on to the next song.”
Moman and Presley did not change much from James’ original version — they used the same arrangement and many of the same studio musicians. But the strength and passion of the King’s iconic voice took the song to a whole new level. “Elvis brought the gravity, the emotion to it,” says Jackson. Those in the studio knew that they were hearing something special, and after just eight takes, they had a master, with everyone finally leaving the studio around 7 the next morning.
James stayed away from the session out of respect for the King. “I didn’t want to be there looking at him while he tried to outdo my performance.” But when he heard the final take of Presley’s version, he was “blown away.” At first, he was concerned about the slower tempo, but after the song was overdubbed, he quickly realized its grandeur. “As they went along, they made it greater,” says James. “They made an even greater record out of it.”
January 22, 1969 with back up vocalists Mary Holladay, Jeannie Greene, Donna Thatcher and Ginger Holladay.
V - 'PLUG, PLUG, PLUG'
"HERE WE GO AGAIN,ASKING WHERE I’VE BEEN"
The record’s release, however, was almost halted due to some real-life suspicious minds: Presley’s business partners told Moman they wanted half of his publishing rights. He accused them of stealing. Fortunately, RCA vice president Harry Jenkins intervened and cooler heads prevailed. Everyone knew that the song, as Moman later put it, “was going to be big and . . . there would be plenty to go around.”
On July 31, 1969, Presley previewed his still-unreleased new single for a crowd at the International Hotel in Las Vegas and took a moment to promote it from the stage. “A new record that I made recently, ladies and gentlemen, that should be out in a few weeks or so . . . plug, plug, plug,” Presley crowed and laughed. “It was nice to hear him again plugging a new song as if he were really excited about it,” says Jackson. “He recorded so many songs in the ’60s for movie soundtracks that he was not so inspired by, and would not do any promotion or press.”
The new single shipped to radio stations across the country on Aug. 26, 1969. A couple of weeks later, it debuted on the charts, and by Nov. 1, it was No. 1 — the King’s first U.S. chart-topper since “Good Luck Charm” in 1962. The From Elvis In Memphis album, with other hits like “In the Ghetto,” would also prove to be a sensation that helped revive his career.
It was “a huge hit,” says James. “Elvis was back, and so was I.”
Contact sheet of Elvis Presley performing at the Las Vegas International Hotel, August 1969.
VI - Don’t Let a Good Thing Die
"OH, LET OUR LOVE SURVIVE, OR DRY THE TEARS FROM YOUR EYES, LET’S DON’T LET A GOOD THING DIE"
“Suspicious Minds” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999. Rolling Stone places it at No. 91 on its list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. And in the remaining years of his life before his death in 1977, Presley never forgot the man behind the hit. “In the years that followed, whenever I saw Elvis,” James told The Wall Street Journal in 2012, “he’d cross the room just to say hello to me — no matter who was with him.”
After “Suspicious Minds,” James would go on to pen other major hits, including “Always On My Mind,” a hit for Presley in 1972, Willie Nelson in 1982 and the Pet Shop Boys in 1987. And James would also go on to marry his childhood sweetheart, Karen, the inspiration for the song. They are still together today and live in Los Angeles.
A great song is like a virus. “Suspicious Minds” has gone on to have a life of its own. It was a huge hit for Presley, but it has also been a hit for recording artists from Dwight Yoakam to the Fine Young Cannibals. It has been featured in film soundtracks from Disney’s Lilo & Stitch to the Coen brothers’ Intolerable Cruelty, and it has been translated and performed in multiple languages including Dutch and Italian. “The song and words hit people. It’s easy to play on guitar,” says Jackson. “It’s so appealing to so many people that it’s endured the way few songs from the ’60s and ’70s have endured.”
Ultimately, “Suspicious Minds” became the “smash, smash, smash” that its first proponents thought it would be — over and over again. When James is asked today if he prefers a particular version of the song, he grins and chuckles. “Elvis’ is still my favorite.”