By RANDAL C. HILL
The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll was pretty much washed up as a recording star by the late 1960s, especially in comparison to the days when he seemed to own the radio airwaves. Many offered their own opinions for the decline of Elvis Presley: The explosive arrival of the Beatles. His choice of weak recording material. Each film a bigger disappointment than the last.
But in late 1968, things changed. Suddenly Presley found himself on a roll. His December television special, Singer Presents…Elvis (better known as “the ’68 Comeback Special”) was viewed—and enjoyed—by 42 percent of America’s total television audience. People seemed ready to re-embrace the Grand Old Man of Rock, who in pop-music years was in his dotage at age 33.
In January 1969, Elvis left Hollywood and RCA Victor’s recording studio and came to his hometown of Memphis to cut a series of tracks at the American Sound Studio. Maybe—just maybe—he could get his groove back there.
A dozen of the tunes that Presley recorded over a 10-day period that January ended up on his June 1969 LP From Elvis in Memphis. The album’s highlight had been the single “In the Ghetto,” his only recorded nod to social consciousness.
One of the songs left off the album had been “Suspicious Minds,” which had been written a year earlier by Texas-born songwriter Mark James. In a 2017 interview, James recalled how the tune came about.
“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 caught in this trap that we couldn’t walk out of.”
James was so pleased with his creation that he decided to record “Suspicious Minds” himself. But the song quickly died a quiet death after it was issued on New York’s little Scepter Records label.
When someone at American Sound Studio showed Presley the failed James’ 45 during a recording break, Elvis immediately felt this was the song—if done right—that could return him to the Big Time.
He made eight attempts to get things right with “Suspicious Minds,” with everything coming together perfectly sometime between 4 a.m. and 7 a.m. on the day he recorded the future classic that would quickly change the arc of his latter-day career.
After a 13-year absence, Presley returned to the concert stage that July and premiered “Suspicious Minds” at the Las Vegas International Hotel. The audience loved it. In August, RCA Victor released what would become the King’s 18th and final Number One Billboard single.
“Suspicious Minds” became a centerpiece of Elvis’s live performances, and he offered it with high-octane enthusiasm right up to his final concert in 1977. ISI