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The Surprising Saga of ‘Always on My Mind’

Maybe I didn’t love you

Quite as often as I could have

And maybe I didn’t treat you

Quite as good as I should have

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--From “Always on My Mind”

Is there a pop song from the last two decades with a more surprising history than “Always on My Mind”?

What other love song can you imagine being recorded by Elvis Presley, Willie Nelson and the Pet Shop Boys?

First released in 1972 by Presley, the melancholy tale of regret was only a modest success in this country because disc jockeys thought the song on the other side of the record was more appropriate in view of the singer’s recent breakup with his wife, Priscilla. That song: “Separate Ways.”

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Though a minor hit in the country field twice after that, “Always on My Mind” didn’t re-enter the pop charts until Willie Nelson recorded it in 1982.

Nelson’s gentle, bittersweet version, a Top 5 single, was so highly regarded in the record industry that it was nominated for a Grammy as best single. The composition itself won Grammys for best pop song and best country song.

Nelson’s version also earned more than $1 million in royalties for the song’s three co-writers: Wayne Carson, Mark James and Johnny Christopher.

But a new dance-oriented version of the ballad by the English pop duo the Pet Shop Boys is shaping up as the biggest hit of all.

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Already a smash in Europe, “Always” is now racing up the pop charts in this country. It’s No. 11 this week in Billboard magazine.

However, the new rendition, with its aggressive synthesizer beat, is making many admirers of the sensitive Nelson version shake their heads in dismay--much the way fans of ‘30s and ‘40s pop standards such as “My Blue Heaven” and “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” were put off in the ‘50s when rock pioneers Fats Domino and the Platters (respectively) revised them.

E.E. (Si) Siman, a music publisher who has represented co-writer Carson for more than 20 years, sides with those who turn thumbs down on the Pet Shop Boys’ hyperactive treatment.

“I was disappointed personally,” he said of the record when contacted by phone in his office in Springfield, Mo. “I’m a lover of ballads, even with ballads with a beat. To do a rock version on a classic though . . . I just don’t know.”

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Then Siman, 67, added good-naturedly, “But then again I’ve just retired from the music business and that’s one of the reasons. There’s a changing of the guard and I’m not sure I fully understand it anymore.”

Carson disagrees about the Pet Shop Boys’ record.

“Everybody had told me, ‘You’re not going to like it. They changed some of the melody, they changed a couple of words and they added all these synthesizers and things,’ ” he said.

“But I just kept an open mind and when I finally heard it, I thought, ‘Hell, that’s a great record.’ I don’t think you can hurt a good song, and this is living proof.”

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The saga of “Always on My Mind” began one night 16 years ago in Memphis. Carson, a songwriter and guitarist whose songs are published under the name Wayne Carson Thompson, had been in town 10 days longer than he had planned.

Carson, who had written such hits as “The Letter” for the Box Tops and “No Love at All” for B. J. Thomas, was on the phone trying to explain to his wife back in Springfield that he was going to have to stay even longer.

“She was pretty damned irate about it,” recalled Carson, who now lives in Oxnard Shores, in Ventura County. “So I tried to calm her down.

“I said, ‘Well, I know I’ve been gone a lot, but I’ve been thinking about you all the time'--and it just struck me like someone had hit me with a hammer. I told her real fast I had to hang up because I had to put that into a song.”

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A Missouri native whose father was leader of a Western swing band, Carson, now 44, worked on the song for a few days in record producer Chips Moman’s recording studio but had trouble finishing it.

“I had been up I don’t know how many days,” he said. “I was at the studio 24 hours--sleeping on the couch in Chips’ office. He’d have meetings and just tell people, ‘Push him to one side and sit down.’ ”

Even after Carson got together with Johnny Christopher, with whom he had written “No Love at All,” the song still didn’t come together. The pair was struggling over it in Moman’s office when Mark James walked past. Thanks to hits such as “Suspicious Minds” (recorded by Elvis Presley) and “Hooked on a Feeling” (B.J. Thomas), James was one of the hottest writers in town.

But James was reluctant to get involved, he explained recently in a separate interview during a Los Angeles visit. The Houston native had been working around the clock on his own songs and just wanted to go to a movie to relax. But James stopped by Moman’s office long enough to hear a piece of the melody--and he was hooked. By the time they had gone through the song the fourth time, it was finished.

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Though Carson insists the song was not written with Presley in mind, the assumption around Memphis and Nashville, in view of Presley’s marriage problems at the time, has always been that it was designed specifically for him. The words in part:

And maybe I didn’t hold you

All those lonely, lonely times . . . .

Little things I should have said and done

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I just never took the time.

But you were always on my mind.

Presley recorded the song in Los Angeles on March 29, 1972--just two months after he had told friends at a birthday party in Memphis that Priscilla had moved into her own apartment with their daughter, Lisa Marie.

“Separate Ways,” a song by Red West and Richard Mainegra that was written in the form of a divorced father’s message to his daughter, was recorded at the same weekend session and it became the hit side of the single.

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About the Presley record, publisher Siman remembered, “We were disappointed when the other side got the most attention because we felt ‘Always on My Mind’ was a smash.

“But I think the matter of Elvis’ marriage problems (led) the disc jockeys to play the other side. They must have thought, ‘Well, she wasn’t always on his mind because they are going their separate ways.’ ”

Believing there was more life in “Always on My Mind,” Siman pushed the song on record producers and singers whenever he got the chance.

Brenda Lee’s version on Decca Records reached No. 45 in the Billboard country charts in the summer of 1972 and John Wesley Ryles’ rendition on MCA Records made it to No. 20 seven years later.

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Siman, however, wasn’t the only one who believed in the song.

Chips Moman, the record producer in whose office the song was written, recommended “Always on My Mind” to Willie Nelson in 1982 when he was working with Nelson on a new album. At least one other person in the studio also thought it was a good idea. Co-writer Johnny Christopher was playing guitar on the session.

Nelson’s vocal was so gently absorbing on the record (he won a Grammy for best male country vocal) that the single remains one of the most admired ballad recordings of the ‘80s.

So it’s no wonder some yelled sacrilege when the Pet Shop Boys’ version arrived with its busy synthesizer pulse and drum-machine punctuation.

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But James shares Carson’s fondness for the peppy recording.

“I must say I never pictured anyone doing it this way,” said James, 47. “I’m just glad somebody had enough insight and imagination to try to take the song one step further.

“Any time you get a great melody and a great lyric like that song has, you can probably cut it R & B, reggae or any way you want to. But it has to be a really great song to do that.”

This isn’t the first time that James--who also wrote “Raised on Rock” and “Moody Blue” for Presley--and Carson have had the multiple-hit treatment with their songs.

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Five years after B.J. Thomas cracked the Top 10 in 1969 with a soulful pop version of “Hooked on a Feeling,” Sweden’s Blue Swede bounced back into the charts with a novelty rock version of it.

Similarly, Carson’s “The Letter” was a hit in 1968 for the Box Tops--the terrific, short-lived Memphis rock band featuring singer Alex Chilton--and in 1970 for Joe Cocker.

And “Always on My Mind” isn’t the only remake currently on the dance-club charts. Depeche Mode weaves pieces of Bobby Troup’s venerable “Route 66" into its 12-inch version of “Behind the Wheel.” Among other past hits also on the pop charts last week: Otis Redding and Steve Cropper’s "(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay” and Lennon-McCartney’s “I Saw Her Standing There.”

On the continuing popularity of the songs, Carson said, “To me, a good song tells a story that everyone would like to say . . . a song that leads people to say, ‘God, that song’s me.

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“All that ‘Always’ was about was one long apology. It’s sort of like all guys who screw up and would love nothing better than to pick up the phone and call their wives and say, ‘Listen, honey, I could have done better, but I want you to know that you were always on my mind.’

“I guess there are a lot of people in the world who were looking for a way to say that in a song.”


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