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  • Writer Login


    Southern Song of the Day: ‘Suspicious Minds’

    by | 4 | Nov 6, 2009

    222810_1_fJohn Lennon’s response did not sound sympathetic, but it did reflect a world-weariness. It also reflected Lennon’s understanding of Elvis Presley’s life and career since March 1958. “Elvis died in the Army,” Lennon said when learning that Presley had died on August 16, 1977.

    Once discharged from The U.S. Army in 1960, Presley’s great career took a troubling turn. Under the direction of manager Colonel Tom Parker, Presley’s rock and roll persona was mostly set aside. The ’60s Elvis would not be so brash, so threatening and so lively. The King of Rock and Roll abandoned his throne. He would still record more than a handful of great songs over the next seventeen years but his rocking spirit was largely suppressed. Never again would he record songs of such raw power as “One Night,” “Hound Dog” or “Jailhouse Rock.”

    As the ’60s began, Elvis Presley became the type of entertainer one expected to see on TV variety shows. In fact, his “Welcome Home” television special was hosted by Frank Sinatra, who had belittled Presley and rock and roll music two years earlier. Mainly he starred in a series of movies for the young and fun. The movies featured Presley frolicking with the likes of Ursula Andress, Ann-Margaret and Mary Tyler Moore. Nice work if you can get it, but not the direction hard core fans of Elvis Presley thought he would take before the Army, the Colonel and commercial considerations ordained a new career path.

    For eight years, beginning in 1960, Presley recorded 15 soundtrack albums for the mostly forgettable movies he made in assembly-line fashion. Most of the songs were forgettable as well. Occasionally songs not featured in the movies would be released, some worthy of his great voice, if not his legacy.  In ’68, he determined to concentrate more seriously on his music, in the studio and eventually, before live audiences. The renewed interest in his recording career did not lead to the kind of success he enjoyed in the ’50s but that was to be expected. Upon the emergence of The Beatles, Bob Dylan and the various directions rock music was taking, Elvis Presley couldn’t be a pacesetter again. But he still had that great voice. So if he came upon a great song that really intrigued him, then his fans and the music world itself would take notice.

    “Suspicious Minds,” his 1969 hit, gained lots of notice. It was the highwater mark of his comeback years; Presley’s last number one single before his death. All the right elements were in place. First of all, “Suspicious Minds” tells a good story. The lyrics convey the anguish of an unfaithful lover who knows he’s paying for his wandering ways. There’s the proper remorse over hurting his woman. He wants the chance to start anew, but they won’t if she doesn’t trust him anymore. She suspects him more often than not. A reconciliation is on hold. They’re caught in a trap.

    The great song and the great singer meet. Presley doesn’t let the opportunity slide. The affinity he has for the song is obvious. He begins “Suspicious Minds” softly and deliberately, building up to a full-tilt effort as he, his band and back-up vocalists combine for a classic performance. The song soars. It’s a Presley recording worthy of the standard he set in the ’50s.The power of “Suspicious Minds” declared The King of Rock and Roll was back.

    Presley was working with legendary Memphis producer Chips Moman that year, showing more attention to his music than he had in over a decade. Moman presented him with “Suspicious Minds,” a song his staff songwriter, Mark James, had recorded. The version by James, with an arrangement  similar to Presley’s, went nowhere on the charts. It was thought James’ voice was too pretty to get the song’s R & B flavor across. A pretty voice does not handle angst well either.  James’ voice was a better match for “Hooked On A Feeling,” the ’68 hit he wrote for B. J. Thomas.  But the guy who sang “Heartbreak Hotel” could handle angst, and when the song called for it, the guy could be soulful as well.

    In his book, The Heart Of Rock And Soul, critic Dave Marsh says that Presley was completely in command of his musical faculties while working on “Suspicious Minds.” Marsh says the song argues for “Elvis-as-artist, despite all the wasted years in Hollywood.” Presley’s voice, with its rough edges and range, along with his sheer determination, created what Marsh calls “an interpretation of soul music; hillbilly Jerry Butler, more or less.” Given that Presley covered Butler’s “Only The Strong Survive” the same year; that’s a relevant observation. After all, Presley had long ago forged America’s musical genres and this time “The Hillbilly Cat” had gone uptown in a big way. “Suspicious Minds” is one hard-charging sophisticated piece of music; one to chase away some of the clouds that started gathering in 1958.


    ###
    Jeff Cochran

    Jeff Cochran

    Jeff Cochran worked in advertising at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 27 years before accepting a buy-out in the Summer of 2008. In the seventies/early eighties, he handled advertising for Peaches Records and Tapes’ Southeastern and Midwestern stores. He also wrote record reviews for The Great Speckled Bird, a ground-breaking underground newspaper based in Atlanta.

     

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    • Terri Evans

      Jeff, I think your calling has found you (and not the other way around). Your music pieces are wonderful and a joy to read.

    • Jeff … I really like this. It brings to mind something I read about Elvis. It began so simply. One day Elvis Presley walked into Sun Records in Memphis to record a song for his mom’s birthday. Nothing more. The receptionist asked, “Who do you sound like?” Elvis replied, “Uh, I don’t sound like nobody.” His reply lingered in the receptionist’s mind and in the summer of 1954 when Sam Phillips, Sun’s legendary owner, needed a singer for a ballad, the receptionist said, “Why don’t you try that young truck driver.”

    • andy mclenon

      “Elvis died in the Army,” Lennon said when learning that Presley had died on August 16, 1977.”

      This quote has always annoyed the hell out of me especially when used by people in an attempt to lessen Elvis’s stature among the Gods. Elvis, The Beatles, and Dylan are the only three artists who were literally bigger than rock and roll and could not be confined by any preconceived limitations. They wrote then re-wrote the rules of the game many times, therefore the usual rules and judgement of of the “rock ‘n’ roll justice league” are not applicable..they are their own genres.

      I don’t think that Lennon would have made such a ridiculous statement had he thought it through a bit. He, not Presley, looks foolish in retrospect. I’m a big fan of John Lennon and he obviously loved Elvis from the first time he ever heard him — as did all The Beatles, for, as we know, they referenced him many times in interviews. Lennon even paid homage by wearing his diamond studded “ELVIS” pin on the lapel of his tux during the world wide broadcast of the Grammy award show that he was part of in 1975. Also, a few years earlier, his famous shout out “Elvis I love you” during the middle of his performance of “Hound Dog” at MSG in 1972 proved his allegiance to The King. We all know the many Elvis career lows but the best of his work from the 60’s is only eclipsed by the greatness of his 50’s recordings, but so is pretty much everything else in the history of pop music. And, of course, most rock historians — and I suspect Lennon himself — would agree that the magnitude of “The 68 Comeback Special” probably hasn’t been equaled by anyone. The sheer raw power of witnessing an artist not just resurrect his career, but tap into his own legend from a by-gone era and successfully place it gracefully into the energy of contemporary pop culture, went far beyond expectations. He wiped the slate clean all of his creative offenses of the so called “lost years” by the end of the opening performance, which makes it one of rock’s seminal events. During the course of the evening, he hit the reset button on his own legacy and began to write a new chapter of greatness which lead to not only “Suspicious Minds” but many other classic recordings. By Lennon’s timeline, Elvis had already been dead for a decade, but clearly the reports of his death were greatly exaggerated. The ’60’s Masters” is essential Presley, and to a lesser extent but surprisingly powerful is the 70’s box set “Walk A Mile In My Shoes”.

      I love the concept of this series and have enjoyed it very much Jeff. Keep it up!

    • Jeff Cochran

      Hi Andy,

      Thanks for writing and for the encouragement.

      We’re not through with the Elvis stories, so we may end up addressing some of your points. In fact I am working on a piece about one of the songs featured on the box set “Walk A Mile In My Shoes.” Hopefully I’ll have it ready in a few days.

      Jeff

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