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Mark James, a Houston native, will be inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame thursday. Although he had a few successful regional singles here in the 1960s, he made his mark as a songwriter, starting with Hooked on a Feeling, which was covered by BJ Thomas. James is best known for writing "Suspicious Minds", one of Elvis Presley’s best-known songs, and he also won a Grammy for writing "Always on My Mind", popularized by Willie Nelson. He was photographed on Wednesday, May 14, 2014 in West Hollywood, CA. (Roman Cho/Photographed for Houston Chronicle)
LOS ANGELES – Mark James squeezes the foot of a toy rabbit on a shelf in his West Hollywood studio, but it no longer produces a song. He tries another one. No song. A third. Again, nothing. All three creatures were built to belt out the joyous "Hooked on a Feeling," which James wrote nearly 50 years ago. But such is the nature of cheaply produced merchandise.
The song is made of more durable stuff: words and music. Among people who make their living writing songs, James, a Houston native, is a giant. The youthful 73-year-old with a spring in his step and an admirable head of hair is traveling to New York to be inducted Thursday into the Songwriters Hall of Fame
When in 2000 the song-writing organization BMI compiled its list of the best 100 songs of the 20th century, three of them were written by James: "Hooked on a Feeling," "Always on My Mind" and his best-known composition, "Suspicious Minds," a seminalsong for arguably the most iconic pop-music performer of the 20th century, one that Rolling Stone included in its 500 greatest songs of all time.
When Elvis Presley released it in 1969 he hadn’t had a No. 1 single in seven years. "Suspicious Minds" buoyed the King through his jumpsuit-clad last decade; it was his final No. 1. A year before Presley made it a hit, the song flopped for James, who wanted to become a big-time recording artist himself.
"I still think I could’ve been a successful performer," James said. "I knew what a hit sounded like. The timing didn’t work out – timing always had to be just so to make it in that business. But I think I could’ve done it."
He recalls a winding line of women in a Las Vegas hotel hallway trying to gain access to an after-concert party for Presley, and how the TV in one room was famously fractured bya bullet hole."But I’m also lucky it turned out the way it did," James said. "It’s a good thing that I can just walk down the street. There’s a lot that comes with the kind of success he had. It ate Elvis up. So I count myself lucky."
Sure enough, James can wind his way to a table at a Beverly Hills restaurant and nobody knows he wrote some of the best and best-known songs of the 20th century.
Mark James was born in 1960 because Houston club owners struggled to pronounce Francis Zambon, the name he was given 20 years earlier.
His father was Italian, a contractor who also played mandolin. His mother was a schoolteacher who brought him to her class from when he was 3.
"He got nine years of elementary school," James’ wife, Karen James,said.
James grew up near the University of Houston and later in nearby Glenbrook Valley. His first instrument was violin. He hints at an awkward childhood during which he had to stand up for himself. "You show up for school, your mother’s a teacher, you’re wearing high-arched shoes because your ankles are bad, 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 seemed destined for his father’s business, where he spent summers as an estimator and doodling lyrics on notepads to create miniature narratives inspired by the movies he saw by the dozens. "I loved going to all the theaters," he said. "I’d hit the Loews, the Majestic Metro. "There was so much imagination. I loved the idea of writing stories. A great story can be told again and again."
By 1959 James had traded violin for guitar. He was performing and recording around town, starting with a self-produced single, "Jive Note," which sold well along the Gulf Coast. Soon after Francis Zambon became Mark James.
"I was just sitting in the car, and it came to me like a hit song," James said. "I wanted something real simple. Something like Ray Charles."
He put together the Mark James Trio. Two songs – "Running Back" and "She’s Gone Away" – were regional hits. But James’ momentum halted in the mid-’60s: Upon his return to Houston from Vietnam, his career was cold.
He took a job in Memphis with Lincoln "Chips" Moman, a legendary behind-the-scenes writer, producer and guitarist who helped shape the sound of American soul music in the South.
James was one of a trio of Houstonians who were then working three different sides of the music industry, with great success. B.J. Thomas scored his first hit in 1966 with a cover of Hank Williams’ "I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry." Thomas had been signed to New York’s Scepter records by another Houstonian, Steve Tyrell, who helped the label develop new talent.
"Mark called me and told me if I came to Memphis he thought they could get a hit on me," Thomas said. "I remembered him from Houston. I was aware of him and respected him as a musician. But he had me in mind for something. He really got everything rolling."
In 1968 Thomas recorded one of James’ songs, "The Eyes of a New York Woman." It put Thomas back in the Top 40. Later that year, Thomas, James and Tyrell hit gold again: Scepter released Thomas’ take on James’ "Hooked on a Feeling," which climbed to No. 5.
Thomas calls James a remarkable writer. "He’s so good at telling stories in a concise way," he said. "I think a lot of his songs; they still stand up all these years later."
A hit waiting to happen
James’ biggest song almost didn’t happen.
"Suspicious Minds" was rooted in James’ own life. He was married at the time, as was Karen James (then Karen Taylor), who had been his childhood sweetheart. "Hooked on a Feeling" was about the possibility of rekindling their relationship, James said. If it was the optimistic side of their reuniting, "Suspicious Minds" was its darker by-product.
"It’s like being in a place where your heart didn’t belong," he said. "I was working off this title and that suspicion that happens when somebody you used to know comes by."
Though his version didn’t sell, James still thought he had a hit. "That song was a sledgehammer," he said.
Then Moman asked him for some songs for Presley. "Elvis had been out of the market a while," he said. "Tom Jones was the big thing then. There were questions about how old can a rock artist be. But I bet on Elvis."
Presley brought a soulfulness to the song, his deep voice breaking with studied anguish.
"Suspicious Minds" is the kind of hit that generates formidable mailbox money for its author – quarterly royalties from album sales; radio play; and film, TV and commercial placements. Had James never written another song, he’d likely have been flush from "Suspicious Minds." As it turned out, he had more songs in him.
And in 1971 he and Karen Elaine Taylor married.
That James hasn’t written a hit in years says more about the direction of pop music than anything about his writing. His best work isn’t meant to startle, dazzle or provoke. It’s meant to be simple, plainspoken.
"Mark’s just the same guy," Thomas said. "I talked to him after years and years, and we fell right into a conversation we were having in 1969. And I think that comes through in his songs. They get to the point. They’re relatable. They’re familiar."
James continues to write songs. He also studied film scoring, which opened opportunities for him in Los Angeles. He splits his time between Los Angeles, New York, Memphis and Nashville, all music-industry hubs.
"I try to keep a guitar or a piano nearby," he said. "For me, I just never know when inspiration is going to come."
In his studio he plays a little medley of his best-known songs that he’s put together for the Songwriters Hall of Fame induction. Just voice and piano. It lacks the bombast of Presley’s "Suspicious Minds," and the ache of Willie Nelson’s "Always on My Mind." But a relaxed sincerity pours out of the songs when they’re performed by their creator.
A framed "Reservoir Dogs" poster hangs in his studio’s kitchenette. Quentin Tarantino’s violent film seems at odds with James’ quiet manner. But it’s a reminder that a record is comparable to a painting: Even when it’s finished, it can be reinterpreted into something new.
After Thomas hit No. 5 with "Hooked on a Feeling," a rock band called Blue Swede took the song to No. 1 in 1974, augmenting it with the now iconic vocals "ooga-chaka." Nearly two decades later the "ooga-chaka" vocals were revived prominently in the "Reservoir Dogs" soundtrack.
Even after Presley made the definitive "Suspicious Minds," the song was recorded by British pop band Fine Young Cannibals and honky-tonk musician Dwight Yoakam. A Flemish version – "Door achterdocht verdoofd" – is spare and haunting.
"It’s a universal kind of song," Yoakam said. "It can reach across genres, which you can’t say about every song."
"A great song generally can go anywhere," he said. "Country, rock, pop, R&B. If a song is well-written any artist can take it and do something interesting with it."
"Always on My Mind" – which James co-wrote with his friends Johnny Christopher and Wayne Carson – was first recorded in 1972. Brenda Lee, Elvis Presley and John Wesley Ryles each did versions. In 1982 Nelson – working with Moman – made "Always on My Mind" a Grammy-winning pop hit. The song still wasn’t done. In 1988 the Pet Shop Boys’ dance version reached No. 4.
James’ songs will outlive their author. They still bubble up on the radio. Sometimes they cycle back through pop culture. "Guardians of the Galaxy" is a forthcoming summer blockbuster. Halfway through the film’s trailer the familiar "ooga-chaka" emerges. An indestructible love song written nearly 50 years ago once again finds its way into the future.
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