June 10, 2014
Mark James, a Houston native, will be inducted into the Songwriter's Hall of Fame, Thursday, June 11th, 2014.
Although he had a few successful regional singles here in Houston 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.
Mark 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 seminal song 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 Elvis 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 by a 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.
James grew up near the University of Houston and later in nearby Glenbrook Valley. His first instrument was violin.
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.
"Mark called me and told me if I came to Memphis he thought they could get a hit on me," BJ 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."
BJ 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."
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.
Presley brought a soulfulness to the song, his deep voice breaking with studied anguish.
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."
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.