“Suspicious Minds” is an American song written and first recorded by American songwriter Mark James. After James’ recording failed commercially, the song was handed to Elvis Presley by producer Chips Moman, becoming a number one song in 1969, and one of the most notable hits of Presley’s career. “Suspicious Minds” was widely regarded as the single that returned Presley’s career success, following his ’68 Comeback Special. It was his eighteenth and last number-one single in the United States. In 2004, Rolling Stone ranked it No. 91 on their list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. Session guitarist Reggie Young played on both the James and Presley versions.
The song is about a mistrusting and dysfunctional relationship, and the need of the characters to overcome their issues in order to maintain it. Written in 1968 by Mark James, who was also co-writer of “Always on My Mind” (which Presley would later record), the song was first recorded and released by James on Scepter Records in 1968. Chips Moman had asked James to come to Memphis to write songs for American Sound Studio. At the time, James was residing in Houston. James had written three songs that became number one hits in the Southern United States. American Sound Studio was gaining a reputation in the industry as the Box Tops had just recorded “The Letter” there so James relocated to Memphis.
James said that late one night, he was fooling around on his Fender guitar and using his Hammond organ pedals for a bass line and came up with what he thought was a catchy melody. James at the time was married to his first wife, but still had feelings for his childhood sweetheart, who was married back in Houston. James’s wife had suspicions of his feelings. James felt it was a confusing time for him and that all three were caught in this trap that they could not walk out of. At the recording session, James sang the lead vocals, and the studio band backed him with Moman producing. The horns, strings and vocals of the Holladay Sisters were later overdubbed. After the tape was mixed, James and Moman flew to New York, where James’s manager had contacts with Scepter Records. The label loved the song and put it out, but Scepter did not have the money to promote new artists, and the song did not make the charts.
Later that year, Don Crews, Moman’s partner, told James that Presley had booked their studio to record what would become the From Elvis in Memphis album. Crews kept asking James if he had any songs that would be right for Presley. James felt Presley needed a mature rock ‘n’ roll song to bring him back as Tom Jones was a hot artist at the time. Crews and James thought of “Suspicious Minds” and James began urging others to get Presley to hear it. Even though James’s recording had not been commercially successful, upon reviewing the song Presley decided he could turn it into a hit.
Presley’s recordings in American Sound Studio were a direct consequence to ’68 Comeback Special, that interested Chips Moman to produce recordings in the new style of Presley, making his comeback to the Memphis musical scene, by recording rock, gospel, country, rhythm & blues and soul. Marty Lacker, a close friend of Elvis, suggested he record at the studio. These sessions produced the album From Elvis in Memphis.
“Suspicious Minds” was a product of a January 23, 1969 session, that took place between 4 am and 7 am. It took eight takes to produce the final song, in which the lead vocal track was later overdubbed by Presley himself that same night. James was in Memphis, but he was not at the recording session. James had walked into the recording studio control room a few days earlier during a session and sensed that Elvis was uncomfortable with his presence. James did not want to jinx the song so he stayed away. When James heard the track the day after it was recorded, he initially thought it sounded too slow. When he later heard the embellished version, he said he was blown away. In later years, whenever Elvis saw James he would cross the room to say hello.
Production of the song was nearly scuttled over a copyright dispute. Elvis’s business people said they wanted half of Moman’s publishing rights. Moman accused them of stealing, and Elvis’ people threatened to halt the recording session. Harry Jenkins of RCA agreed with Elvis’s people because he sensed that the song would be a big hit and there would be plenty to go around. The songs “I’ll Hold You In My Heart (Till I Can Hold You In My Arms)”, “Without Love (There Is Nothing)”, and “I’ll Be There” were recorded in the same session. On August 7, the song was again overdubbed to stereo and mono in Las Vegas, where the final master was produced. The song is noted for its change of time signature, in the bridge section, from 4/4 to a slower 6/8 and back again to the faster 4/4 rhythm. The instrumental arrangement uses an electric guitar, bass guitar, organ, strings, trumpets, trombones, and drums.
Elvis’ primary producer Felton Jarvis made the unusual decision to add a premature fade-out to the song starting at 3:36 and lasting for 15 seconds before fading back in. The first verse then continues repeatedly until it completely fades out. In a 2012 interview with Marc Myers of The Wall Street Journal, Moman disclosed that Jarvis was never happy with Elvis recording at American Sound Studio, saying “it was a control thing.” Moman added, “So when Jarvis took the tape of ‘Suspicious Minds,’ he added this crazy 15-second fade toward the end, like the song was ending, and brought it back by overdubbing to extend it. I have no idea why he did that, but he messed it up. It was like a scar. None of which mattered. Soon after the song was released, Elvis was back on top of the charts.”
Future Grateful Dead vocalist Donna Jean Godchaux sang backing vocals on the track.
The song was later included on the legacy edition of From Elvis in Memphis and the follow that dream reissue of Back In Memphis.
Elvis Presley – vocals
String and horn arrangements – Glen Spreen
Reggie Young – electric guitar
Bobby Emmons – organ
Mike Leech – bass
Gene Chrisman – drums
Wayne Jackson, Dick Steff, R.F. Taylor – trumpets
Ed Logan, Jack Hale, Gerald Richardson – trombones
Donna Thatcher – backing vocals
Presley first performed the song at the Las Vegas International Hotel (later renamed the Hilton) on July 31, 1969, and the 45 rpm single was released 26 days later. It reached number one in the United States in the week of November 1 and stayed there for that week. It would be Presley’s final number-one single in the U.S. before his death (“The Wonder of You” in 1970, “Way Down” in 1977 and a posthumous remixed release of “A Little Less Conversation” in 2002 all hit number one on the British charts, followed by re-issues of several previous chart toppers in 2005).