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.
Suspicious Minds was recorded in January 1969 during the sessions for what would become From Elvis in Memphis, a rock-soul album that is arguably Presley's finest. Though Suspicious Minds did not appear on the album and wasn't released until August 1969 as a single, the recording would turn out to be a major turning point in Presley's career.
Presley hadn't had a No. 1 Billboard Hot 100 hit since Good Luck Charm in 1962, and by 1968 his star was fading. Rock had changed and so had rock fans. Then came NBC's '68 Comeback Special in December, which rekindled interest in the leather-clad star, who was then almost 34 years old. But as electrifying as the show was, it paled in comparison to what was added at the end.
Two months before the show had been taped in June 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Presley's home town. By December, rather than have Presley sing a Christmas song at the end of the taped show, the decision was made to have him sing If I Can Dream—a song that Presley had recorded in June. The lyrics quoted from King's speeches and all but pleaded with the country to calm down and heal.
If I Can Dream had a major impact on Presley and audiences, and the tape remains Presley's most powerful on-camera performance...
The strong, positive public reaction to the song convinced Presley and his management team that it was time to record a rock-soul album in Memphis. The studio they chose was Chips Moman's American Sound Studio, which featured Chips' special crew of blue-eyed soul studio musicians who recorded on hit after hit made there.
At this time, Mark James [pictured above], one of American Sound's in-house songwriters was asked if he had any material for Presley when he came in to record. Mark reached for a song he had cut a year earlier called Suspicious Minds.
What most fans of Presley's hit may not be aware of is that Presley's version was actually a nearly-identical cover of Mark's recording for Scepter records a year earlier. When Presley came into the studio and asked for material, Chips played him Suspicious Minds, and Presley asked to hear it over and over again until he learned it on the spot.
The rest of this dramatic story—including why Mark wrote about suspicious minds in the first place and how Presley nearly lost the opportunity to record it in the studio—is in today's Wall Street Journal.
After the single was released in August and reached No. 1 in November 1969, Presley's career changed significantly. Within a short period of time, Presley would again be viewed as a highly bankable rock act and began a career in Las Vegas—known fondly as "the jumpsuit era." He would never play a small venue again, appearing solely in arenas.
Ironically, Suspicious Minds would be Presley's last No. 1 pop hit. He would, of course, have No. 1 singles on other Billboard charts, such as the Country and Adult Contemporary listings. But not on the Hot 100.
JazzWax tracks: My favorite Elvis Presley album is From Elvis in Memphis. You'll find it on a reissued, remastered two-CD set from Sony Legacy here.
JazzWax clips: Here's Mark James' 1968 original recording of Suspicious Minds on Scepter...
Here's Elvis in Hawaii in 1973, singing Suspicious Minds...
And here's Dee Dee Warwick's version from 1971...