Random Tracks: Elvis Presley’s “Suspicious Minds”

With the release of Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, I’m reviewing all of Elvis Presley’s 18 #1 hits on Billboard including 11 that topped pre-Hot 100 charts and 7 that topped the Hot 100 after its 1958 inception.

Elvis Presley- “Suspicious Minds”

HIT #1: November 1, 1969

STAYED AT #1: 1 week

Listening to “Suspicious Minds,” the 18th and final #1 hit Elvis Presley ever scored in his long and varied career, it’s almost impressive how Elvis recaptured his magic. It’d been seven years since his last #1, “Good Luck Charm,” and on that song and many other hits, he sounded like he was on cruise control. Here on “Suspicious Minds,” Elvis sounds recharged and, in his mid-30s, found a way to make his voice work again and create classics that can hang with his earlier ones, including “Suspicious Minds,” which is easily one of my favorite Elvis songs, #1 or otherwise.

When Elvis came out with “Suspicious Minds,” it was the culmination of a big comeback after spending a few years in the pop culture wilderness. From 1956 to 1962, Elvis was easily the most dominant star in America, landing 17 #1 hits. Even when he entered the Army in 1958 and came back as a toned-down entertainer making formulaic movies, he still had the power to turn songs into hits. But eventually, that dominance began to wane. After the Beatles came to America in 1964, Elvis’ chart fortunes dipped a lot as between then and 1969 landed only one single in the Top 10 with “Crying In The Chapel,” a song initially recorded in 1960 but blew up when released in 1965 peaking at #3. (It’s a 6.)

By 1968, Elvis was mainly seen as a relic of an earlier age, as evidenced by how his songs and movies weren’t selling the way they used to. To get back on top, Col. Tom Parker organized a special to air on NBC that would have Elvis singing Christmas songs in a family-friendly environment with a soundtrack to come from it. But Elvis fought against that idea, instead wanting to sing his classics to remind people of why they loved him in the first place. Parker eventually agreed. 

From watching clips of the special and its portrayal in the Elvis movie, it’s impressive how Elvis manages to snap back into the electric entertainer he had been in his early days. This is true whether he’s bulldozing his way through “Jailhouse Rock” or his performance of the new song “If I Can Dream” as bright red lights spell out his name behind him. Filmed over a couple of weeks in June 1968, the special aired on NBC in December and was a massive success, with about 42% of Americans tuning in, signaling to the country and the world that Elvis was back, which led to a multi-year Las Vegas residency starting in July 1969. At that first show, he performed “Suspicious Minds,” a song that wasn’t even out yet as a single.

Fresh off the comeback special success, Elvis recorded new music, this time recording in Memphis for the first time since his pre-fame days of recording at Sun Records. With a new group of writers and producers, Elvis recorded From Elvis in Memphis, which featured his first big hit since “Crying In The Chapel,” the moving string-heavy “In The Ghetto,” a story song written by future #1 artist Mac Davis. The song is about a boy growing up in poverty and violence in the rough streets of Chicago. It’s not exactly the type of subject that you’d expect to find in a major pop hit, but that’s what “In The Ghetto” became, peaking at #3. (It’s a 7.)

Not long after cutting “In The Ghetto,” Elvis recorded “Suspicious Minds,” a song he had heard in producer Chips Moman’s office. The song had been written and recorded by songwriter Mark James, the man who’d just written the BJ Thomas hit “Hooked On A Feeling,” the song that Blue Swede would take to #1 in 1974. James wrote the song one night in response to problems he was having in his marriage, with his wife growing distrustful of him while having feelings for an old flame from childhood. You can read that inspiration all over the song. James’ narrator is all hurt by the suspicion his wife is giving him but still loves her and hopes they can overcome it, even expressing it in the most grammatically incorrect ways, “Let’s don’t let a good thing die.” Released in 1968, James’ original take on “Suspicious Minds” didn’t go anywhere, and it needed someone bigger to take it to the top.

James’ original “Suspicious Minds” is fine enough but doesn’t have the fire that Elvis brings to his version. The song is already in its original version, but Elvis and Chips Moman take James’ track and beef it up, making it more memorable. A sticky guitar riff anchors the verses, the strings and horns are much more pronounced, and the backing vocalists are put more up in the mix, almost sounding like they’re going back and forth with Elvis. 

Elvis sells the drama of the lyrics, but they aren’t exactly the point here; it’s all a vehicle for his performance. He hams up the drama throughout, especially when everything slows down on the bridge. He also drags out the outro for a lot longer than it needed to, even with the fun trick of a false fade out but it doesn’t take too much away from my enjoyment. Personally, I find myself liking the live versions Elvis did where the song is sped up and everyone is locked into a tight groove taking the song wherever it takes them. 

While “Suspicious Minds” wound up being Elvis’ final #1, it’s not like he stopped making hits after. Even though pop music had changed drastically from when Elvis first appeared on the scene, his comeback led to a nice later run of hit songs. And he almost got back to #1 in 1972 with the #2 peaking sweaty-rock jam “Burning Love.” (It’s a 7.) “Burning Love” would ultimately be Elvis’ last Top 10 hit.

The last eight years of Elvis’ life kept him very busy largely with his status as a popular in-demand performer, whether it was his Vegas residency or his 1973 Hawaii concert TV special that did huge numbers. But the constant grind of the stage eventually took a big toll on Elvis, much of which has been well documented. He and Priscilla divorced in 1973. He abused prescription drugs and gained a lot of weight, leading to many upsetting images during his later shows. It all eventually caught up with Elvis on August 16, 1977, when he was found dead in his bathroom at Graceland at age 42.

Elvis’ death was big news and was reflected on the pop charts where “Way Down,” a single released a month before his death. It initially faltered but got a new wind of success from people mourning his death, eventually peaking on the Hot 100 at #18 more than a month after he died and went to #1 in the UK. Since Elvis’ death, his impact on the charts has been felt in various ways. He served as an inspiration to two #1 hits and a 2002 remix of his 1968 song “A Little Less Conversation” became a worldwide hit but peaked in the US at #50.

In his time, Elvis was one of the biggest names in music. One of the biggest names in the world. People still flocked to Elvis even when he wasn’t doing his best work. He didn’t create or even popularize rock and roll but came along at the right time to capitalize on its rising popularity, inspiring future generations. Even 45 years after his death, Elvis still inspires devotion among many and going by the success of the recent movie, it’s clear that Elvis’ hold and influence on pop culture is still strong and perhaps will never wane.

GRADE: 9/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s “Suspicious Minds” playing in the 2021 movie The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It as one of the characters talks about meeting Elvis:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the Australian production trio PNAU combining “Suspicious Minds” with another Elvis song, “Any Day Now,” to make “Don’t Fly Away,” their contribution to the Elvis movie soundtrack:

(PNAU’s highest-charting single, the 2021 remix of Dua Lipa and Elton John’s “Cold Heart,” peaked at #7. It’s an 8.)

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