This is the 10th post in a yearlong series. Read about it here and see the list of all songs in the series here. A new post about a different song will be posted each Monday throughout 2016. You can listen to the songs in a Spotify playlist.
Wayne Carson said he wrote “Always On My Mind” in about 10 minutes, while sitting at his kitchen table in Springfield, Mo. He said he intentionally left out a bridge to the song, as he thought it was fine as it was. But when he was at the studio in Memphis, producer Chips Moman said the song would need a bridge. Carson went upstairs to work on the bridge. While upstairs, Carson bumped into fellow songwriters Johnny Christopher and Mark James. The three of them played around a bit, writing a bridge together. All three names appear in the writing credits.
Who gets credit for recording the “original version” of the song is a murkier issue. The conventional wisdom is that whoever recorded and released the version first is the original and all subsequent versions are covers. That certainly is true for many of the songs we’ve discussed, including “Tainted Love.” Soft Cell’s became the iconic version, but it’s version was definitely influenced by Jones’ recordings.
But that’s not the case with “Always On My Mind.” The earliest recordings were by Gwen McCrae and Brenda Lee, each releasing versions only months apart from each other in 1972. It’s feasible they were recorded at the same time and that neither McCrae nor Lee heard the other woman’s versions while recording her own. If each woman recorded it without hearing any other version, could the one that was released second really be considered a cover? Thus, most references to the song just say that “Always On My Mind” was “originally recorded by Gwen McCrae and Brenda Lee.”
Lee’s was a pop country version, sung in the twangy way that was commercially popular at the time. McCrae’s “You Were Always On My Mind” was more soulful, and not as upbeat or hopeful as Lee’s. McCrae’s version has a few flourishes reminiscent of country music, but its vocals and instrumental parts were more in the vein of soul. Her version, slower than Lee’s, had some bluesy guitar parts that matched the pensive, reflective sound of her voice. Lee’s version seemed to say, “You were always on my mind, so I’m sure we can figure this out and and be fine,” whereas McCrae’s version seemed to say, “I’m sorry it’s come to this, but later, if you should ever think of me, know that you were always on my mind.”
Regardless of whose version was technically the “original,” it was Elvis Presley’s version that made the song a hit. His version sounded bigger than either Lee’s or McCrae’s, as it had a fuller band sound. After Presley, the most noticeable parts of the song are the piano and the backup singers. The guitar, present throughout, really becomes noticeable in the final minute of the song. Presley’s delivery sounds not just like a plea to a lost love, but almost like a desperate breakdown. Presley keeps it cool just enough so that it doesn’t sound like a parody version of himself.
It was a huge success for Presley, hitting Number 20 on the US Billboard Hot 100 and doing well on charts around the world. But for all the success that Presley had with it, Willie Nelson had even more success with his 1982 version, charting higher than Presley in most categories. The song won three Grammys in 1983. Nelson’s “Always On My Mind” was certified platinum in 1991, and the single was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2008.
Nelson’s version was the first version since Presley’s version that challenged its performance on the charts. John Wesley Ryles had covered the song in 1979, reaching 20 on the US Billboard Hot Country Singles chart. Ryles had amped up what already sounded very big in the Presley version, such that Ryles’ version sounded more like a tribute to Presley than a new interpretation. That could be why Nelson’s version did so well and surpassed Presley’s take on the song. Nelson didn’t try to out-Elvis anyone. He toned it down and slowed it a little, taking out the frantic distress that Presley and Ryles had added. Nelson’s voice was sad, but steady. He sounded full of regret, but without desperation. Presley and Ryles sounded like lovesick teenagers who would promise to do anything to get their loves back, but Nelson sounded like a grown-up, ready to deal with the consequences of his actions. It did so well on the country charts and on country radio because, quite frankly, it was the most country version of the song recorded.
Five years after Nelson’s version revived the song, the Pet Shop Boys performed the song for a special on the ITV television network marking the 10th anniversary of Presley’s death. The Pet Shop Boys’ version took it outside the realm of country and recast it as a dance track. This version was so well received that The Pet Shop Boys decided to record the song as a single. The single reached Number 1 on many charts.
The Pet Shop Boys’ version stands out among all the versions of “Always On My Mind,” and not just because of addition of keyboards. Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe could have merely added keyboards and kept it at the same pace, but they changed almost everything except the lyrics and the title. The arrangement of the previous versions sound bare compared to the synth-heavy Pet Shop Boys version. A hint of the familiar melody is there, but just enough so that you can recognize it. Like New Order’s “Bizarre Love Triangle,” the Pet Shop Boys’ “Always On My Mind” lays lyrics of regret over an almost joyful dance beat. That tension created between the sound and the lyrics is reminiscent of pairing Smokey Robinson’s remorseful lyrics over Stevie Wonder’s music in “Tears Of A Clown.”
Julio Iglesias included “Always On My Mind” on his 2006 album, “Romantic Classics.” It’s faithful to the Presley version, but with any of the overt country flourishes ironed out for a smoother crooner sound. Iglesias parses each word out with such pause that it’s almost too much, even for Iglesias.
That multiple versions of the song can become huge hits — each one outperforming previous version the charts — shows that there is no one definitive version of “Always On My Mind.” Commercial successes don’t necessarily translate to meaning a song is “good,” but audiences have been as receptive to alternate versions of that song in the way they have been open to new actors playing James Bond or The Joker. There have been very few bombs, such that the field of choices is so strong that picking the “best” or “definitive” instance is not as cut-and-dry as other pop culture debates.
Not that there’s a scientific and subjective way to measure “best” or “definitive.” Very few fans sit down and judge various versions of the song based on arrangement, production value, voice, or tone. We tend to judge things more viscerally. “I love this because I used to listen to this with my friends in college” is reason enough for us to love something and declare it “the best.” That’s part of why I love the Pet Shop Boys’ version, because it takes me back to college. But whatever version of the song you rally around, “Always On My Mind” is like the aforementioned “Tears Of A Clown,” in that it’s such a fundamentally good song that it’s hard to ruin. And, like”Tears Of A Clown,” it taps into a sense of personal regret that is universal, regardless of genre.
The fact that this song was written by three people and then originally recorded by two separate people before Presley’s version also complicates the question who has the “definitive” version. The Pet Shop Boys initially covered “Always On My Mind” as a tribute to Presley, but is it fair to call that a cover of a Presley song? Maybe, because he’s the one who made it famous. When people reference covers of “Girls Just Want To Have Fun,” how many people say it’s a cover of a Robert Hazard song? They go with Cyndi Lauper, because she made that song famous. In this context, Presley is the Lauper to “Always On My Mind.”
If only Lou Albano could have been in that video.