Sunday, July 18, 2010

Suspicious Minds, Elvis Presley (1969)

Though it's only mid-July, I'm time traveling into next month because it is entirely too hot for my liking.  My estivations today take us to the topic of Elvis Presley's Suspicious Minds, a song I will always associate with the dog days of summer for two reasons - the song was released on August 26, 1969, and Elvis died August 16, 1977, a day that this song was played into the ground by disc jockeys everywhere.   

I remember exactly what I was doing when the news came.  I was tooling around in my 1967 Volkswagen Beetle, baking with the sunroof open, on a day much like today on the temperature scale. Listening to the radio, as I always was. The song imprinted, and if I didn't associate it with high heat before, I did after that.

For someone my age, Elvis was a bit of an oddity.  I was too young to love him in his heyday, and then he became irrelevant for many years.  All that I knew of him when I was younger was that a family friend was mad about him and played Return to Sender endlessly, a song I found sort of catchy. I must have had no hormones at that point, because he was a terribly good-looking man with an electrifying smile and smoldering eyes (not to mention cheekbones that won't quit), as is evidenced in the photo on the above 45 sleeve (the last time he didn't look dissipated). In any event, to me he was more celebrity than musician.

In 1968, he staged what has been referred to as a "comeback," in a December unplugged concert special, a phenomenon of which I was completely unaware at that time. Since I was immersed in music then, why wouldn't I know about that?  The only thing I can think of is that the comeback occurred amidst a lot of other things that were more meaningful to me. The next year, he came out with the unforgettable Suspicious Minds, an operatic-style song deliciously long on melodrama that I truly loved.  I will never deny liking melodramatic songs if they're well done!

The song was written and first recorded by a Houston-based songwriter named Mark James. (I actually like his version too - a lot - which to me means it's a very good song at its core.) James was close friends with B.J. Thomas, and wrote Hooked on a Feeling for him; he was also the composer of Always On My Mind.  He recorded a demo of the song at Gold Star Studios, but nothing came of it.

James eventually left Houston to become a staff songwriter for the legendary producer Chips Moman at his American Sound Studios in Memphis. (I hate overusing that word, but Moman is legendary in the music business, so I don't know what other word to use.)  Moman was producing Thomas' stuff as well as, at that point, Presley's, and he presented Suspicious Minds to Elvis, having produced Mark James' earlier version to no particular effect. It was a collaboration that took Elvis further out of the wilderness that he had fallen into - way further. Suspicious Minds soared to #1, but it would be his last. 

Sadly, once he descended into drugs and Vegas getups, I never looked at him again while he was alive. Watching the comeback special, it's easy to see that, had I been just slightly older, I would have been every bit as much smitten as the rest. I will also admit to literally breaking down the first time I saw the video of him performing American Trilogy in the early 70's. (Watch to the end.) Already bloated and looking utterly ridiculous in his rhinestone-encrusted jumpsuit, he still had a voice that could possibly have rearranged the planetary order. His premature and unnecessary death is one of the many great tragedies in American music.

1 comment:

Joanna said...

The Comeback Special is a favorite of mine. He wears that black leather suit like black leather suits were invented for him. I love his playful, nostalgic performance of his hits from the past--hiding the anxiety every middle-aged person knows when he looks into his own youth and fears his glory days are long gone. His confidence is persuasive and we rock it out with him again. Little known trivia: the same guy that directed the '68 Comeback Special also directed 'The Star Wars Holiday Special'--Steve Binder. Though the role of a TV director is not usually much of a creative role, it is sort of a weird...coincidence that one person was involved in two so iconic TV moments.