Mark James, Songwriter of ‘Suspicious Minds,’ ‘Always on My Mind’ and ‘Hooked on a Feeling,’ Dies at 83

Mark James, a Songwriters Hall of Fame member who wrote or co-wrote “Suspicious Minds,” “Always on My Mind” and “Hooked on a Feeling,” died June 8 at his home in Nashville. The news was reported by his hometown newspaper, the Houston Chronicle.

James was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2014. BMI named him one of its Songwriters of the Century in 2000, citing all three of the aforementioned tunes as being on a list of the 100 greatest songs of the 20th century.

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James won two Grammys, both in 1983 for “Always on My Mind,” which he shared with co-writers Wayne Carson and Johnny Christopher. It won both song of the year and country song of the year after being recorded by Willie Nelson, who took it to No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 1 on the country songs chart. It was previously recorded by — and is often associated with — Elvis Presley, although his 1972 version was not a major hit at the time in the U.S., having been issued as an Elvis B-side. A cover version by the Pet Shop Boys was arguably as big internationally as Nelson’s, reaching No. 1 in the U.K. and No. 4 in the U.S. The song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2008.

James had several of his biggest successes come with Presley recordings. “Suspicious Minds,” which was a solo James composition, remains one of the King’s signature songs. James was actually the first to record it, when he was trying to get his own recording career going in 1968. But in 1969, Presley had his final No. 1 song with it. It was later remade by Fine Young Cannibals, who had a top 10 U.K. hit with it in 1986.

Presley also recorded “Moody Blue,” the title track to his final album, along with “It’s Only Love” and “Raised on Rock.”

“Always on My Mind” and “Suspicious Minds” were not the only songs of James’ to become hits in different decades. “Hooked on a Feeling” went to No. 5 for B.J. Thomas in 1969. Five years later, Blue Swede’s version — with its infamous, incongruous “ooga-chaka” addition — hit No. 1. As recently as this year, the Hives did a cover of “Hooked,” for Spotify, keeping the Blue Swede chant.

“Hooked on a Feeling” was often licensed for films, from Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs” to “Guardians of the Galaxy.”

“Suspicious Minds” may be the most significant song in James’ catalog, not just for what it did for his career, but for Presley’s. The superstar had been in a slump after his popularity waned in the wake of the British Invasion, but this anthem of romantic paranoia at least briefly made him seem relevant again to pop record buyers, and kick-started a wave of appreciation that led to him becoming the biggest entertainer in Las Vegas through his death eight years later. It wasn’t just the songwriting Presley had to thank him for; the arrangement of the song was closely modeled on the one James himself had recorded.

Talking with the Wall Street Journal in 2012, James recalled the origins of the song, which came about during a recording session for his own album with Chips Moman, who went on to introduce “Suspicious Minds” to Presley. “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 all caught in this trap that we couldn’t walk out of.”

Although James left the Memphis sessions where Elvis was cutting the song, feeling there was discomfort at having a stranger there, he learned of Presley’s appreciation later. “In the years that followed, whenever I saw Elvis, he’d cross the room just to say hello to me—no matter who was with him. After he died, I heard he’d always asked the guys in the studio, ‘Did Mark send me any more songs?’ Golly, I wish I had known that.” But his run of both singles and album tracks with Presley was enviable.

James is also a member of the Texas Songwriters Hall of Fame, the New York Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.

In 2021, Sony/ATV Music Publishing announced that it had reupped its deal with James, renewing a contract that began 50 years earlier when he signed with Screen Gems/EMI.

James is survived by his wife of 53 years, Karen Zambon,his daughters Sammie and Dana Zambon, and grandchildren and extended family. The family said in a statement: “Mark’s legacy and zest for life will live on in the hearts of those who loved him, and through his timeless lyrics and melodies that have been the soundtrack of lovers for generations.”

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