Mark James, hit-making songwriter of ‘Suspicious Minds,’ dies at 83 (2024)

Mark James, a chart-topping songwriter who channeled his own longings in the hit “Suspicious Minds” made famous by Elvis Presley, and whose upbeat “Hooked on a Feeling” became a 1970s staple with an improvised “ooga-chaka” intro, died June 8 at his home in Nashville. He was 83.

The death was announced by family members, but no cause was noted.

After mostly shifting from performing to song crafting in the 1960s, Mr. James’s soulful ballads and country-infused pop were covered by stars including B.J. Thomas, Willie Nelson and Dwight Yoakam. Nelson’s 1982 version of the wistful “Always on My Mind” — which Mr. James co-wrote with Wayne Carson and Johnny Christopher — won Grammy awards for song of the year and best country song.

“I still think I could’ve been a successful performer,” Mr. James told the Houston Chronicle in 2014, looking back on a career with credits on more than 200 songs. “I knew what a hit sounded like.”


By 1968, Mr. James had his first successes as a songwriter. Thomas, a friend from Houston, covered “The Eyes of a New York Woman” and “Hooked on a Feeling,” which peaked at No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 in January 1969.

One night in Memphis, Mr. James was toying with melodies on his Fender guitar and Hammond organ. He was married, but was still smitten by his childhood sweetheart. She was married, too. “My wife suspected I had those feelings,” he recalled, “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.”

So begins “Suspicious Minds”: “We’re caught in a trap/ I can’t walk out/ Because I love you too much, baby.”

Mr. James first recorded the song in 1968, but the single received little attention. His producer, Lincoln “Chips” Moman, had an upcoming recording session with Presley. Moman felt he had a hit on his hands, and he and Mr. James introduced Presley to the song. His version, released in 1969, soared to the top of the charts (Presley’s last No. 1 single) and became one of his signature songs at concerts for years.

“Elvis had been out of the market a while,” Mr. James recalled. “Tom Jones was the big thing then. There were questions about how old can a rock artist be. But I bet on Elvis.” Rolling Stone lists “Suspicious Minds” among the 500 greatest songs of all time.

Presley recorded five songs by Mr. James, including “Always on My Mind” in 1972 and “Moody Blue,” on an album of the same name released shortly before Presley’s death in 1977.


“Suspicious Minds” got reboots in 1986 as a hit for the British pop-soul group Fine Young Cannibals, and in a Dutch version that was stripped down in 1993 into a sparse and mournful dirge. In 1987, a disco-style remake of “Always on My Mind” by the Pet Shop Boys became a Christmas season hit in Britain.

And “Hooked on a Feeling” was sent into a surprising direction. In 1971, singer Jonathan King added a chanting “ooga-chacka” opening. The Swedish band Blue Swede kept the “ooga-chacka” prelude in a version that topped the Billboard Hot 100 in 1974.

Director Quentin Tarantino used the Blue Swede version on the soundtrack to the crime thriller “Reservoir Dogs” (1992) and in 2014 it featured in the Marvel superhero saga “Guardians of the Galaxy.”

“A great song,” Mr. James said, “generally can go anywhere.”

Name change

Mr. James was born Francis Rodney Zambon in Houston on Nov. 29, 1940. (He took the name Mark James after Houston club owners said they didn’t like Francis Zambon.) His father was a contractor who enjoyed playing the mandolin and songs from his native Italy. His mother was an elementary school teacher.


He studied violin as a boy. That, he recalled to the Houston Chronicle, led to some scuffles at school. “You’re carrying a violin and your name is Francis,” he said. “Sooner or later you’ve got to make people leave you alone. That’s the nice way of putting it.”

He worked summers with his father on construction projects but found his creative inspiration at the movies with the music and storytelling.

In 1959, he took up the guitar and formed the Mark James Trio, whose 1963 single “Running Back” had some commercial success in the Houston area. He was drafted into the Army infantry in 1964 during the Vietnam War. After he returned, he moved to Memphis and found work as a songwriter for Moman, an impresario of soul and country.

He released an album, “Mark James,” in 1973 with original songs. Mr. James was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2014 and the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame a year later.

“I write anything I feel,” Mr. James told the Associated Press in 1985. “I try to reach young and old. I write something worth remembering, worth treasuring. If you can’t remember it, why write it?”


His marriage to Shirley Yates ended in divorce. In 1971, he married the former Karen Elaine Taylor, his boyhood crush who had inspired “Suspicious Minds.” Survivors include his wife; a daughter from his first marriage; a daughter from his second; a brother; and two grandchildren.

In various interviews, Mr. James often wondered whether he should have continued as a performer. He usually added a caveat: that he also saw the pressures of being in the public spotlight.

“It’s a good thing that I can just walk down the street,” he once said. “There’s a lot that comes with the kind of success he had. It ate Elvis up. So I count myself lucky.”

Mark James, hit-making songwriter of ‘Suspicious Minds,’ dies at 83 (2024)


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