This is the 11th post in a weekly, 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.
In early 1968, producer Chips Moman asked singer and songwriter Mark James to come to Memphis to write songs for Moman’s American Sound Studio. James had had some songs reach Number 1 in the South, and American was developing a reputation, so James made the move from Houston to Memphis.
The song that became “Suspicious Minds” grew out of an accidental melody and stress in James’ marriage. As he said in a Wall Street Journal piece in 2012:
“Late one night, fooling around on my Fender guitar and using my Hammond organ pedals for a bass line, I came up with a catchy melody. I was married to my first wife then but still had feelings for my childhood sweetheart, who was married back in Houston. My wife suspected I had those feelings, so it was a confusing time for me. I felt as though all three of us were all caught in this trap that we couldn’t walk out of.”
James recorded the song that same year, with Moman producing it. Scepter Records in New York City released it, but because the company didn’t have money to promote new artists, the song did not chart and remained unknown.
At the end of 1968, Elvis Presley recorded a TV special that led to a resurgence in his popularity. The following month, in January 1969, he went to Moman’s American Sound Studio to record what would become “From Elvis In Memphis.” James and Moman shared “Suspicious Minds” in the hopes Presley would have an interest in recording it.
Presley thought he could make make it a hit, so they decided to record it. James got the impression that Presley was uncomfortable having him around, so he stayed away. Moman nearly halted the song’s production because Presley’s team wanted half of Moman’s publishing rights. Moman balked, accusing them of stealing. He later relented when someone at RCA seemed confident that the song would be a big enough hit that they’d all make plenty of money from it. He was right. The song became a signature for Presley and was his last No. 1 in the US.
Presley’s version featured some of the same musicians that James’ version did and kept the same arrangement, so the differences are mainly in the production. Presley’s is slightly slower, but fuller and richer in sound. The medley, particularly the guitar part, sounds much more fleshed out in Presley’s version. James’ version isn’t flat, though, as the background singers and horns give it a nice texture. Presley’s producer added a fade at the end of the song that Moman thought was a mistake and a “scar” for the song. Moman said he felt that addition was more about the producer trying to mark his territory than about improving the quality of the song.
Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter released a version of “Suspicious Minds” in 1970 that reached No. 25 on the Billboard Country chart. RCA re-released it on a compilation album in 1976 to capitalize on the growing popularity of “outlaw country.” Jennings and Colter sing the song as a call-and-response, fleshing out the story more than it had been in James’ or Presley’s versions. James and Presley had been singing to partners who could not respond, but Colter provides the counter-argument to let the narrator know that he’s not the only one stressed out by the situation. Jennings and Colter were married, adding a new layer to the song. The instrumental parts of the track sound more fun than the instruments in the Presley version. There’s a loose, gritty sound to the guitar and bass in the Jennings/Colter version that sounds more fun than Presley’s version.
Jamaican rocksteady and reggae trio The Heptones released a cover of “Suspicious Minds” in 1971. It doesn’t change much throughout, but that’s OK, because it’s pleasant in its simplicity. This cover, now 45 years old, holds up as a great background song for a wine bar or a coffee shop. There’s a modern trend to do genre covers of each song — acoustic, jazz, bossa nova, reggae, pop punk or punk pop or whatever — but The Heptones predated all that.
Gospel and soul singer Candi Staton, who had received positive reviews for her R&B versions of Presley’s “In The Ghetto” and Tammy Wynette’s “Stand by Your Man,” covered “Suspicious Minds” for her 1982 album “Nightlites.” Staton’s version of the song opens with horns, proving a big sound that seems reminiscent of early disco, particularly Jean Carn’s “Time Waits For No One.” Staton turns a song about heartache and relationship woes into a dance jam. There’s frustration in her voice, but she doesn’t have the defeat in her voice that Presley had in his version.
Fine Young Cannibals covered the song for its eponymous debut album, released in 1985. The song featured Bronski Beat singer Jimmy Somerville on backup vocals. Vocally, this is the strongest and interesting version of “Suspicious Minds,” as Fine Young Cannibals singer Roland Gift and the falsetto Somerville are a mighty combination who should have covered more together. It would have been interesting to hear Gift and Somerville volleying the verses back and forth, the way Jennings and Colter did on their version. Instrumentally, this version of “Suspicious Minds” took more influence from the Jennings/Colter version than the ska of Fine Young Cannibals’ members’ previous bands.
Dwight Yoakam’s version, released in 1992 on the “Honeymoon In Vegas” soundtrack, begins with 15 seconds of distortion that sounds like planes flying overhead before going into the song. It has the flourishes popular in commercial country music at the time: Yoakam sings with a twang, the female background singers do a lot of “oh”-and-“oooh”-ing. The opening riff of the song, faintly noticeable in James’ version and fleshed out in Presley’s version, becomes the backbone to Yoakam’s version, featured prominently throughout the song.
Phish, long known for baking covers into their tours, covered “Suspicious Minds” at Las Vegas show in 1996 that appeared on their 2007 triple-disc “Vegas 96.” The keyboards dominate the track with a piano sound that gives “Suspicious Minds” a badass rock feel not felt in the other versions. Phish’s version shows not just the members have fun with their covers, as is evident in the multiple parts sung as an Elvis impersonation, but that they are each talented musicians.
My Morning Jacket played “Suspicious Minds” at a show on the 25th anniversary of Presley’s death, available on “My Morning Jacket Live At 9:30 Club 08/16/2002.” The song begins with singer Jim James addressing the crowd, asking, “How y’all doin’? Some 25 years ago today, young Elvis Presley lost his way.” James then sings the song mournfully over no instruments except a lone, sad guitar. When James sings, “Let’s don’t let a good thing die,” it sounds less like the plea that it does in other versions and more like an afterthought, because in this recording of the song, the relationship sounds over from the first note.
Rusted Root covered “Suspicious Minds” for its 2009 album, “Stereo Rodeo.” It’s a sprawling track that begins with the African percussion sound that stood out on the band’s platinum album “When I Woke” in 1994. Horns, bass and guitar drop in before singer Michael Glabicki starts singing with a bluesy swagger. The band’s “Send Me On My Way” might be its career-defining hit single, but it’s this cover of “Suspicious Minds” that more clearly demonstrates the band’s talents and capabilities.
Country pop singer Martina McBride covered the song for her 2014 covers album, “Everlasting,” produced by Don Was. Instrumentally, the horns and organs are the most commanding part of McBride’s version, with fits well with the style of the whole album. Most of the songs she covered on that album were R&B or soul songs, and as such, McBride’s take on the “Suspicious Minds” doesn’t have as much of the country sound that her earlier albums had.
Norwegian electronic duo Electro Spectre released a dance version that jettisoned most of the arrangement. There are hints of the original medley in there, but for the most part, it sounds more like Howard Jones’ “New Song” or Erasure’s cover of Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill” than the James or Presley versions.
French sister-brother act Singtank covered “Suspicious Minds for its album, “Ceremonies.” There’s hardly any trace of the original arrangement except for the chorus, where distorted keyboards take the place of the horns. There’s a recurring blip in the background that sounds vaguely reminiscent of “Zooropa”-era U2, particularly “Numb.” In an interview with New York Magazine, the pair listed “Blade Runner” and “Chungking Express” as influences on the duo’s “retro-futuristic” sound.
These covers only scratch the surface. There are at least a dozen more, including versions by Pete Yorn, Ronan Keating, Clay Aiken, and Bowling For Soup. That there’s at least one take on “Suspicious Minds” for so many genres speaks to the song’s versatility. Mark James’ lyrics, while based on his own life, conveyed a stress and tension to which so many musicians and fans could relate. James tapped into the universal experience of anguish in a romantic relationship a few years later when he helped Wayne Carson write “Always On My Mind,” which Presley also recorded.