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Suspicious Minds – Elvis Presley

Suspicious Minds – Elvis Presley

“I’ve never written a song in my life. It’s all a big hoax.”

Suspicious Minds – Elvis Presley

Suspicious Minds - Elvis PresleyRCA 47-9764 (USA) / RCA 1900 (UK)
Released 26 August 1969
Writer Mark James
Producers Chips Moman & Felton Jarvis

USA #1 1/11/69 1 week UK #2 12/69

By 1969, Elvis was an established entertainment icon, and one of the most successful artists America had ever seen. However, one should not forget the impact he had upon his arrival in the mid-1950s. Like most new music forms, Rock & Roll, and Elvis in particular, was literally a hate object for many Americans. In a television report from the time, later featured in the 1981 biographical documentary, This Is Elvis, a man standing in front of a “We serve white customers only” sign declared: “We’ve set up a twenty man committee to do away with this vulgar, animalistic rock and roll bop. Our committee will check with the restaurant owners and the cafes to see what Presley records are on their machines and then ask them to do away with them.”

Aside from his early recordings at RCA’s Nashville Studio’s beginning with 1956 hit ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, the few weeks that Presley spent at Memphis’ American Sound Studios in January and February 1969 must rate as the most rewarding and productive of his career. It was in fact the first time Elvis had recorded in a Memphis studio since his pre-RCA days at Sun in 1955, though as we shall see, the two most successful songs recorded at these sessions nearly didn’t see the light of day at all! Chips Moman’s American Sound Studios was a hotbed of hit-making in the 1960s (Moman had previously been instrumental in the success of legendary soul label Stax), and the studios were particularly popular because of the elite group of core session musicians who worked there. Among the many hits recorded at American were the Box Tops’ Number 1, ‘The Letter’, and Dusty Springfield’s ‘Son-Of-A Preacher Man’. In fact, between 1967 and 1971 over 100 hits were recorded at the studio. Moman claims that on one particular week there were 28 hits on the Billboard Hot 100, all recorded at American – and all featuring the same musicians!

Presley’s arrival at American was not met with any particular trepidation by the studio musicians, in fact quite the opposite. Trumpeter Wayne Jackson recalls, “We had been doing Neil Diamond just before Elvis came in, and Neil was a big deal to us. I mean, we were thrilled about Elvis, but it wasn’t like doing Neil Diamond.” (Among the songs Diamond recorded at his session was the gospel influenced ‘Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show’ – he wrote the lyric on the plane on the way to Memphis.) Chips Moman had gathered together some top-notch contemporary songs for the Elvis sessions from his up-and-coming songwriter contacts, among them, ‘Kentucky Rain’ by Eddie Rabbit, ‘In The Ghetto’ and ‘Don’t Cry Daddy’ by Mac Davis and ‘Suspicious Minds’ by Mark James – James had recently written B.J.Thomas’s hit, ‘Hooked On A Feeling’, also recorded at American.

‘In The Ghetto’ was recorded one week into the sessions, although there were many in the Elvis ‘mafia’ who didn’t think he should do the song at all. He didn’t usually record controversial ‘message’ material, and the song had originally been entitled ‘The Vicious Circle’. However, it was written by Mac Davis, one of 17 songs Davis had submitted, and Elvis liked Davis’s material – he’d recently recorded another of his songs, ‘A Little Less Conversation’, for his film of the previous year, Live A little, Love A Little. (A remixed version of this song would be a UK Number 1 in 2002) Recorded in 23 takes, ‘In The Ghetto’ was the first single released from the sessions and became Presley’s biggest US hit for 4 years. ‘Suspicious Minds’ was recorded two days later, between 4 and 7am (the last at the first 10 day session), and was considered by all to be the song with the biggest hit potential. The basic track took just 4 takes, although it was many months until the song was released as a single, mainly due to a lengthy dispute over the publishing royalties.

Writer Mark James had already recorded and released ‘Suspicious Minds’ himself in a production by Chips Moman, and very much the same arrangement was used on Presley’s recording. As was the custom with the Presley organisation, Freddie Bienstock, who looked after Elvis Presley Music demanded a cut of the publishing rights. This arrangement went back to the 1950s where Elvis was even credited as co-writing some of his hits – which of course he didn’t. This was just another method of securing income to the Presley organisation. Indeed, Mac Davis had agreed to a publishing cut from his two songs ‘In The Ghetto’ and ‘Don’t Cry Daddy’, but there was no way that Chips Moman and Mark James were going to agree to a royalty split with the Presley organisation on ‘Suspicious Minds’. It was a lengthy conflict, and consequently ‘Suspicious Minds’ didn’t appear on the From Elvis In Memphis album, and under normal circumstances Elvis’s version of the song might never have been released at all.

However, all were agreed that the recording was the highlight of the sessions, and Elvis began performing the song live at his summer appearances at the Las Vegas Hilton. Moman and James stood their ground, and ‘Suspicious Minds’ was eventually released as a single in August 1969, though not without a rather unusual technical modification. At Presley’s performances in Vegas, the end chorus had been somewhat elongated and the band faded out and then back in again. This was all very well in concert, but hardly appropriate on record. However, it was decided to add this unusual effect to the record – without the participation of producer Chips Moman who was appalled at this cheap “amateur” trick – and this explains why Elvis fades into the distance before returning towards the end of the record.

Following the #3 success of ‘In The Ghetto’ earlier in the year, Elvis was on a roll and ‘Suspicious Minds’ became his first US Number 1 record for 7 and a half years, and was also to be the last in his lifetime. As an album, From Elvis In Memphis is rated as possibly the best studio collection that Elvis ever made. This was mainly due to the fact that studio control was in the hands of Moman, and not the Presley entourage, while the choice of material, much of it submitted by Moman, was critical in restoring Presley’s credibility as an artist and gave him some of his biggest hits for years. ‘Suspicious Minds’, a song about possessiveness and suggested infidelity, has since been recognised as one of the King’s greatest recordings (despite the gimmicky false ending) due to his impassioned vocal performance, and in a 2002 poll by the New Musical Express, readers voted it the best Elvis song of all time.

Copyright © 2008 SongStories/Tony Burton
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Heartbreak Hotel – Elvis Presley

Heartbreak Hotel – Elvis Presley

“The Lord can give, and the Lord can take away. I might be herding sheep next year.”

Elvis RCA 47-6420Heartbreak Hotel – Elvis Presley

RCA 47-6420 (USA) / HMV POP 182 (UK)
Released 27 January 1956
Writers Mae Axton, Tommy Durden & Elvis Presley
Producer Steve Sholes

USA #1 21/4/56 8 weeks UK #2 6/56

One of the most important days in popular music history was Tuesday, January 10th 1956, the day Elvis Aaron Presley first recorded at RCA’s Nashville studios, a converted church. He was soon to become one of the most important and influential artists of the 20th century, and indeed during the year that followed the release of ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, his first 6 RCA recorded singles all went to the top of the US charts, spending a total of 6 months at Number 1 – a remarkable achievement. The previous November, his new manager “Colonel” Tom Parker (an illegal immigrant and music business hustler who’d never been in the forces) had negotiated the sale of Presley’s Sun Records contract to RCA for $35,000, the most that a record company had paid for an artist up to that point. Under the terms of the contract, RCA acquired all the tapes of Elvis in Sun’s possession, while Elvis himself also received a $5000 dollar signing-on fee (actually royalties owed him by Sun), part of which he used to buy a Cadillac. Other labels bidding for Elvis’s services included Capitol, Chess, Mercury and Atlantic. Jerry Wexler at Atlantic recalled that he was somewhat relieved at the time when RCA overbid him by $5000 because he had no idea where the money would have come from! RCA got all their money back with considerable interest when Presley’s very first new release for the company went to Number 1 and sold a million copies. Incidentally, Parker, who managed Presley throughout his lifetime, may have subsequently made even more money than his artist, not an unusual situation in the management business during the 1950s and 1960s. Parker was on a 50% cut of Presley’s earnings, a massive 80% of merchandising and probably also had a cut in the publishing with regard to many of the songs Presley recorded.

RCA were actually quite nervous about their investment, and there were many doubters within the company. Steve Sholes, the RCA company man who’d made the deal was even more nervous when Sun unleashed Carl Perkins ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ in December 1955. According to legendary Nashville guitarist and producer Chet Atkins, “Steve was afraid he’d bought the wrong one!” Atkins also performed at that historical January session together with Elvis’s regular group, Scotty Moore on guitar, Bill Black on bass, with the addition of drummer D.J.Fontana and country star and Nashville session player Floyd Cramer on piano. Sholes, who was to oversee the session, had no idea how it would turn out, and RCA’s engineers had admitted that they were mystified as to how Sam Phillips had created Elvis’s trademark sound at Sun’s studios, which was laden with echo. He needn’t have worried, the session was a classic, and even Chet Atkins, who’d seen it all before, called his wife up and suggested she get down to the studio right away. “I told her she’d never see anything like this again, it was just so damned exciting!” The three songs recorded that day were ‘I Got A Woman’, ‘Money Honey’ and ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, the song that would become Presley’s first RCA single.*

Elvis had been presented with the song by one of its writers, Mae Axton, at a deejay convention the previous November, and liking it so much had immediately promised to record it as his next single. Axton wrote the song after co-writer Tommy Durden showed her a newspaper article about a suicide. The victim had left a one-line suicide note, “I walk a lonely street.” Axton suggested they place a “Heartbreak Hotel” at the end of this lonely street, and the two completed the song in half an hour. In order to further persuade Presley to record the song, Axton had offered to give him a co-writing credit, and thus a cut of the royalties. This was a common practise in the business whereby major artists were offered writing credits in return for recording a song, and it may well often have been a demand by record companies or managers as a condition of recording. The fact is that Elvis Presley is credited as co-writer of several of his other hits including ‘Love Me Tender’ and ‘All Shook Up’. Elvis may well have made these songs famous, but he had nothing whatsoever to do with their writing. (This, by the way, was nothing new. In the early 20th century, Al Jolson, who was then billed as ‘America’s Greatest Entertainer’, often received composing credits on his famous recordings though Mr Jolson had nothing to do with their composition) While ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ appears on CD re-issues of Elvis’ debut RCA album, it did not in fact appear on the original album.

When Steve Sholes presented the results of his first sessions with Elvis to the powers that be at RCA in New York, they were not impressed, telling him he had nothing worth releasing and had better get back in the studio again as soon as possible! The next session included a version of ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ which Sholes had previously promised Sam Phillips that Elvis would not record. However, in the absence of anything better, RCA reluctantly released ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ to mixed reviews. Sam Phillips described it as a “morbid mess”, while in England (where EMI promoted Elvis as ‘The King Of Western Bop’) Radio Luxembourg presenter Geoffrey Everitt wrote in the New Musical Express, “If you appreciate good singing, I don’t suppose you’ll manage to hear this disc all through.” The general public at large, however, had a considerably different opinion, and after just 6 weeks on release in America ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ hit Number 1 on the charts, where it remained for 8 weeks. The ‘King of Rock’n’Roll’ had arrived. In closing, an indication of how the records of Elvis and his contemporaries were affecting the youth of the day (and horrifying their parents) was given in February 1956 as ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ was unleashed. In Cleveland, Ohio, police invoked a 1931 ordinance banning people under 18 from dancing in public unless accompanied by an adult!
*While ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ was Presley’s first single recorded for RCA, before it was issued, the US company re-released his previous 5 Sun singles in December 1955.

Copyright © 2001/2014 SongStories/Tony Burton

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