“Always on My Mind,” “Suspicious Minds” Writer Mark James Dies

It really is a shame that songwriters are so relegated to the shadows of popular music when they often play the most seminal role in making the magic that we all love to hear. It’s especially unfortunate here in the streaming era when we’re all yet another step removed from the liner notes, which are sometimes the only recognition these creators receive.

Imagine if you disappeared the legacy of a songwriter like Mark James, and what popular music would sound like, or what it wouldn’t sound like, if he was never around.

Some songwriters amass a master’s catalog of commercial hits, while others go on to only be known for a few select but significantly important compositions. In many respects, both of these things are true for Mark James. He wrote scores of songs for countless artists across the country, rock, and popular music world. But even if you don’t know some of his songs, or even the artists that sang them, everybody knows “Suspicious Minds,” “Always On My Mind,” and “Hooked on a Feeling.”

Mark James was born in Houston, Texas on November 29th, 1940, and was boyhood friends with country and pop singer B.J. Thomas. James learned to play violin as a child, but like most teenagers of the ’50s, switched to guitar. He began performing in clubs in the early ’60s, and this is when he changed his name from Francis Rodney Zambon to Mark James. It just looked better on a poster, and club owners could pronounce it.

James recorded some singles at local studios, but his music career was stymied when he entered the military and served in Vietnam. When he returned home, he reconnected with boyhood friend B.J. Thomas whose career was taking off. B.J. convinced Mark to move to Memphis where he was working with producer Chips Moman.

Mark James started recording his own singles in Memphis, but it was the songs he was writing for B.J. Thomas that were finding the most success. “The Eyes of a New York Woman” recorded by B.J. became a Top 30 hit. Mark then followed it with “Hooked on a Feeling” that B.J. Thomas made one of the biggest songs in 1969.

The success of Mark James as a songwriter allowed him to continue pursuing a solo career while he continued to write for others. One of the songs he recorded was “Suspicious Minds” in 1968 for Scepter Records. Mark’s version of the song didn’t go anywhere. But producer Chips Moman brought the song to Elvis, who immediately fell in love with it. It would become one of The King’s signature songs, and his last official #1 on the charts in 1969.

Elvis would also record other Mark James songs, namely “Raised on Rock” in 1973, and “Moody Blue” in 1976. Elvis would also record another song Mark James wrote with Johnny Christopher and Wayne Carson called “Always on My Mind.” It was a minor hit in Britain for Elvis in 1973, but otherwise went overlooked in the United States. Brenda Lee had also recorded the song the previous year.

The songs of Mark James crossed the genre divide between country and pop rock, in part due to his proximity to Memphis where the influences blended together. This was underscored in 1976 when Waylon Jennings did his own version of “Suspicious Minds” with Jessi Colter. But in 1982, Mark James would become a revered songwriter in the country realm after Willie Nelson took “Always On My Mind,” and made it the title track of his 1982 album, produced by Chips Moman.

“Always on My Mind” not only became a #1 song in country, it became the most successful country song of 1982, and also made it to #5 on the Billboard Hot 100. Come Grammy Awards time, “Always on My Mind” won not just for Best Country Song, but the all-genre Song of the Year. Willie also won Best Male Country Vocal Performance with the song.

That isn’t all. “Always on My Mind” ended up winning the CMA Award’s Song of the Year in 1982, and in 1983. That is how deep and long the song resonated. It also won the CMA Single of the Year, and the album Always on My Mind won Willie Nelson the 1982 CMA Album of the Year.

It was for these accomplishments that Mark James was named to the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, as well as the national Songwriters Hall of Fame. He also wrote songs for Dwight Yoakam, Ronnie Milsap, Eddy Arnold, Mac Davis, as well as artists all across the musical panorama such as Fine Young Cannibals, Johnny Winter, B.B. King, Lou Rawls, and The Box Tops to name a few.

Mark James died in Nashville on June 8th at the age of 83. He’s remembered across music as a songwriter’s songwriter.

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