Celebrated songwriter, Mark James, died on 8 June in his Nashville home aged 83.

James’ family told the Houston Chronicle, “his larger-than-life personality filled any room he was in, and his smile lit it up. He was a captivating storyteller who had the sweetest smile, the most infectious laugh and a twinkle in his eye that never dimmed.”

Born Francis Rodney Zambon in Houston on 29 November 1940, the Texan wordsmith and musician penned hits for Willie Nelson, Bill Withers and Brenda Lee, but he is probably best-known for his work with Elvis Presley and the classic single Suspicious Minds.

A Songwriters Hall of Fame member, he also wrote or co-wrote Always On My Mind and Hooked On A Feeling.

Always On My Mind

James won two Grammys, both in 1983 for Always On My Mind, which he shared with co-writers Wayne Carson and Johnny Christopher. Featured on the 1973 album Brenda, the track was first released by Gwen McCrae (as You Were Always On My Mind) in March 1972 and Lee’s version was released three months later. Elvis recorded it on 29 March 1972, a few weeks after his separation from wife Priscilla, and it would be a Top 10 hit for The King in the UK.

Willie Nelson also recorded and released the song in early 1982 and it topped Billboard’s Hot Country Singles chart and reached No.5 in the Hot 100. Nelson’s cut also won three Grammy Awards in February 1983, including Song Of The Year. In 1987 the Pet Shop Boys released their take which topped the UK charts for four weeks.

Hooked On A Feeling

Originally performed by B. J. Thomas, Hooked On A Feeling first reached No.5 on Billboard in 1969. In 1971, Jonathan King recorded a version of the track and added the famous ooga-chaka intro after listening to Johnny Preston’s 1959 song Running Bear.

Covered again in 1973 by the Swedish group Blue Swede, it is this definitive version which proved most successful and recognisable. Reaching No.1 in the US, it would later appear in the movies Reservoir Dogs and Guardians Of The Galaxy.

Suspicious Minds

However, it for his song Suspicious Minds that he is probably best remembered. Recording in Memphis for the first time since 1955, Presley’s 1969 recordings at American Sound Studio were a direct result of his celebrated ’68 Comeback Special.

James had originally written the track for his own group The Naturals, who had a local hit in Texas with an instrumental called Jive Note. He wrote and recorded Suspicious Minds as his first single on the Scepter label in 1968, although few people heard it. “I don’t think they knew how to promote it,” James reflected with Vintage Rock in 2016. “But the bottom line is, Suspicious Minds wasn’t meant for me, it was meant for Elvis.”

Produced by Chips Moman, it would be Elvis’ final No.1 single on the Billboard Hot 100, before his death and would reach No.2 in the UK. In 1986, the Fine Young Cannibals, featuring backing by Jimmy Somerville, took the song to No.8 in the UK charts.

Elvis  would record several more songs by Mark James, including Moody Blue. The songwriter told Vintage Rock: “I never wrote a song for Elvis, it was just that my songs fit him somehow. I think it was because we were both from the South, we both loved rock and all kinds of music.” 

Mark James is survived by his wife of 53 years, Karen Zambon, his daughters Sammie and Dana Zambon and his grandchildren.

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