Mark James, Songwriter of ‘Suspicious Minds’ and Other Hits, Dies

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Mark James, who wrote such memorable songs as “Suspicious Minds,” a #1 single for Elvis Presley in 1969, and “Hooked on a Feeling,” a top 5 single for B.J. Thomas that same year—and later a #1 smash for the Swedish rock group Blue Swede—died June 8, 2024, at age 83. His death, at his home in Nashville, was reported by the Houston Chronicle [story is behind a paywall] on June 11. James also co-wrote with two others “Always on My Mind,” which was first recorded in 1972 by Brenda Lee. A decade later, the song was recorded by Willie Nelson and became a #1 country hit. Its popularity was so significant that it earned its writers the Grammy Award for Song of the Year.

From a variety of sources: James was born Francis Rodney Zambon on Nov. 29, 1940, and raised in Houston, Tex. His first instrument was the violin and his dedication and natural ability earned him the first-chair spot in his grade school orchestra. As a teenager he took up the guitar and began playing the local club circuit while in high school. By 1959, he had recorded a single called “Jive Note.” During this time, he changed his name to Mark James.

Also on the Houston scene was singer B.J. Thomas, who became a friend. James recorded two more regional hits (“Running Back” and “She’s Gone Away”), but his career momentum was halted by military service during the Vietnam War. Upon his return to civilian life, Thomas suggested that James join him in Memphis.

Following a period where he recorded his own songs, James was signed as a staff songwriter to the publishing company of producer Chips Moman. In 1968, Moman produced Thomas singing the James song “The Eyes of a New York Woman,” which became the songwriter’s first hit. In 1969, Thomas recorded James’ songs “Hooked on a Feeling” and “It’s Only Love.”

Meanwhile, Moman also produced James on Scepter Records, singing “Suspicious Minds” in 1968. The single went nowhere, but the song reemerged a year later as a #1 hit for Presley. The Presley arrangement was almost identical to the Mark James original, with the exception of the lead vocal.

“Suspicious Minds” was the 18th and final #1 hit for Presley. It later became a country hit as a 1976 duet by Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter and a 1986 British pop hit for the Fine Young Cannibals, among others. [Meanwhile, Presley continued to record James’ compositions including “Raised on Rock,” “It’s Only Love” and “Moody Blue.”]

Thomas’ version of “Hooked on a Feeling,” produced by Moman, is well known for its distinctive use of sitar, performed by guitarist Reggie Young. It reached #5 in January 1969.

Related: Our feature story on Reggie Young

The Swedish group Blue Swede revived the song and took it to #1 on the pop charts in 1974.

In 2020, in what may have been Thomas’ final interview, Best Classic Bands asked him about the Blue Swede recording. “You know what? You have to admit it’s a great production,” he said. “They really put it together great and it deserved to be a #1 record. And they made my buddy, Mark James, the guy that wrote it, a lot of money. I never really had any hard feelings about that.”

Related: Our feature on the Blue Swede version

Perhaps the most evergreen of all of James’ works is his co-written “Always on My Mind.” After Brenda Lee’s recording, it was revived by Presley in 1973 and became a top 20 country hit for John Wesley Ryles in 1979. Nelson’s version is the one that most remember, and many think the prolific songwriter penned it himself. “Always on My Mind” later became a 1988 dance-pop hit for the Pet Shop Boys.

James continued to write hits throughout the 1970s, but in succeeding decades, he became interested in film scoring. He studied at UCLA and at the American Film Institute. His songs have been heard on the soundtracks of such movies as Reservoir Dogs, Honeymoon in Vegas, Practical Magic, Kramer Vs. Kramer, Frequency and Guardians of the Galaxy. In 2000, BMI named him one of the top songwriters of the 20th century, alongside Paul McCartney, Elton John/Bernie Taupin and the Motown trio of Holland-Dozier-Holland.

James ultimately wrote over 300 songs was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2014 and into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame a year later. He is survived by his wife of 53 years, Karen Zambon.

Related: Musicians we’ve lost in 2024

Greg Brodsky

2 Comments so far

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  1. Neal Umphred
    #1 Neal Umphred 12 June, 2024, 00:42

    Aside from being an excellent songwriter, James was a fine singer. I prefer his version of “Moody Blue” to Presley’s.

    It’s a shame he only recorded and released one album during his long career.

    Rest in peace …

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  2. Batchman
    #2 Batchman 12 June, 2024, 14:24

    If you read the linked article about Reggie Young, it’s incredible how many of the hit songs Mark James wrote had Reggie playing on them, even though they were all recorded by different singers.

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