“I’ve never written a song in my life. It’s all a big hoax.”
Suspicious Minds – Elvis Presley
RCA 47-9764 (USA) / RCA 1900 (UK)
Released 26 August 1969
Writer Mark James
Producers Chips Moman & Felton Jarvis
USA #1 1/11/69 1 week UK #2 12/69
By 1969, Elvis was an established entertainment icon, and one of the most successful artists America had ever seen. However, one should not forget the impact he had upon his arrival in the mid-1950s. Like most new music forms, Rock & Roll, and Elvis in particular, was literally a hate object for many Americans. In a television report from the time, later featured in the 1981 biographical documentary, This Is Elvis, a man standing in front of a “We serve white customers only” sign declared: “We’ve set up a twenty man committee to do away with this vulgar, animalistic rock and roll bop. Our committee will check with the restaurant owners and the cafes to see what Presley records are on their machines and then ask them to do away with them.”
Aside from his early recordings at RCA’s Nashville Studio’s beginning with 1956 hit ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, the few weeks that Presley spent at Memphis’ American Sound Studios in January and February 1969 must rate as the most rewarding and productive of his career. It was in fact the first time Elvis had recorded in a Memphis studio since his pre-RCA days at Sun in 1955, though as we shall see, the two most successful songs recorded at these sessions nearly didn’t see the light of day at all! Chips Moman’s American Sound Studios was a hotbed of hit-making in the 1960s (Moman had previously been instrumental in the success of legendary soul label Stax), and the studios were particularly popular because of the elite group of core session musicians who worked there. Among the many hits recorded at American were the Box Tops’ Number 1, ‘The Letter’, and Dusty Springfield’s ‘Son-Of-A Preacher Man’. In fact, between 1967 and 1971 over 100 hits were recorded at the studio. Moman claims that on one particular week there were 28 hits on the Billboard Hot 100, all recorded at American – and all featuring the same musicians!
Presley’s arrival at American was not met with any particular trepidation by the studio musicians, in fact quite the opposite. Trumpeter Wayne Jackson recalls, “We had been doing Neil Diamond just before Elvis came in, and Neil was a big deal to us. I mean, we were thrilled about Elvis, but it wasn’t like doing Neil Diamond.” (Among the songs Diamond recorded at his session was the gospel influenced ‘Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show’ – he wrote the lyric on the plane on the way to Memphis.) Chips Moman had gathered together some top-notch contemporary songs for the Elvis sessions from his up-and-coming songwriter contacts, among them, ‘Kentucky Rain’ by Eddie Rabbit, ‘In The Ghetto’ and ‘Don’t Cry Daddy’ by Mac Davis and ‘Suspicious Minds’ by Mark James – James had recently written B.J.Thomas’s hit, ‘Hooked On A Feeling’, also recorded at American.
‘In The Ghetto’ was recorded one week into the sessions, although there were many in the Elvis ‘mafia’ who didn’t think he should do the song at all. He didn’t usually record controversial ‘message’ material, and the song had originally been entitled ‘The Vicious Circle’. However, it was written by Mac Davis, one of 17 songs Davis had submitted, and Elvis liked Davis’s material – he’d recently recorded another of his songs, ‘A Little Less Conversation’, for his film of the previous year, Live A little, Love A Little. (A remixed version of this song would be a UK Number 1 in 2002) Recorded in 23 takes, ‘In The Ghetto’ was the first single released from the sessions and became Presley’s biggest US hit for 4 years. ‘Suspicious Minds’ was recorded two days later, between 4 and 7am (the last at the first 10 day session), and was considered by all to be the song with the biggest hit potential. The basic track took just 4 takes, although it was many months until the song was released as a single, mainly due to a lengthy dispute over the publishing royalties.
Writer Mark James had already recorded and released ‘Suspicious Minds’ himself in a production by Chips Moman, and very much the same arrangement was used on Presley’s recording. As was the custom with the Presley organisation, Freddie Bienstock, who looked after Elvis Presley Music demanded a cut of the publishing rights. This arrangement went back to the 1950s where Elvis was even credited as co-writing some of his hits – which of course he didn’t. This was just another method of securing income to the Presley organisation. Indeed, Mac Davis had agreed to a publishing cut from his two songs ‘In The Ghetto’ and ‘Don’t Cry Daddy’, but there was no way that Chips Moman and Mark James were going to agree to a royalty split with the Presley organisation on ‘Suspicious Minds’. It was a lengthy conflict, and consequently ‘Suspicious Minds’ didn’t appear on the From Elvis In Memphis album, and under normal circumstances Elvis’s version of the song might never have been released at all.
However, all were agreed that the recording was the highlight of the sessions, and Elvis began performing the song live at his summer appearances at the Las Vegas Hilton. Moman and James stood their ground, and ‘Suspicious Minds’ was eventually released as a single in August 1969, though not without a rather unusual technical modification. At Presley’s performances in Vegas, the end chorus had been somewhat elongated and the band faded out and then back in again. This was all very well in concert, but hardly appropriate on record. However, it was decided to add this unusual effect to the record – without the participation of producer Chips Moman who was appalled at this cheap “amateur” trick – and this explains why Elvis fades into the distance before returning towards the end of the record.
Following the #3 success of ‘In The Ghetto’ earlier in the year, Elvis was on a roll and ‘Suspicious Minds’ became his first US Number 1 record for 7 and a half years, and was also to be the last in his lifetime. As an album, From Elvis In Memphis is rated as possibly the best studio collection that Elvis ever made. This was mainly due to the fact that studio control was in the hands of Moman, and not the Presley entourage, while the choice of material, much of it submitted by Moman, was critical in restoring Presley’s credibility as an artist and gave him some of his biggest hits for years. ‘Suspicious Minds’, a song about possessiveness and suggested infidelity, has since been recognised as one of the King’s greatest recordings (despite the gimmicky false ending) due to his impassioned vocal performance, and in a 2002 poll by the New Musical Express, readers voted it the best Elvis song of all time.
Copyright © 2008 SongStories/Tony Burton
Originally published by Tony Burton, Stavanger bibliotek og kulturhus.