Always On My Mind: Brenda Lee, Elvis Presley, Willie Nelson

Hello there!  In this week’s blog we discuss the song Always On My Mind.  This is a great 70s country song.  We will start with the first version by Brenda Lee.  We will then discuss covers of that song by Elvis Presley and by Willie Nelson.

Brenda Lee and Always On My Mind:

The song Always On My Mind was originally composed in the late 60s by country songwriter Wayne Carson.  He recounts that initially, he wrote down the tune in about ten minutes.  He had the song for over a year when he showed it to legendary country music producer Chips Moman.

Moman told Carson that he admired the song and would be interested in producing it, but that the song needed a bridge.  Carson then worked with Johnny Christopher and Mark James to add the bridge (“tell me that your sweet love hasn’t died …”).  As a result, Christopher and James shared song-writing credits with Carson.

The song Always On My Mind is truly heart-breaking.  The singer is anguished that he or she has neglected their lover.  The singer lists some of his/her failures and omissions, but insists that despite evidence to the contrary, “you were always on my mind.”

Maybe I didn’t treat you
Quite as good as I should have
Maybe I didn’t love you
Quite as often as I could have
Little things I should have said and done
I just never took the time

You were always on my mind
You were always on my mind

… Tell me, tell me that your sweet love hasn’t died
Give me, give me one more chance
To keep you satisfied, satisfied

Unfortunately, the singer realizes that having someone on your mind is no substitute for expressing one’s love and showing affection.  The line “Little things I should have said and done, I just never took the time,” is truly pathetic.

In 1972, Always On My Mind was given to country singer Brenda Lee.  Lee had been a child prodigy, first making the charts with the song Dynamite, which she recorded at age 13.

Here is a photo of Brenda Lee.  Her manager Dub Allbritten is at far left, and the photo also includes Brenda’s mother Grayce Tarpley.

The photo was taken in 1956, when Brenda Lee was 12 and Allbritten became her personal manager.  To say that Brenda Lee was ‘petite’ would be a serious  understatement.  When fully grown, she was 4 feet 9 inches tall; but at age 12 she really looks tiny.

However, there was nothing petite about Brenda Lee’s voice.  She earned the nickname ‘Little Miss Dynamite’ after the title of her first big hit.  Furthermore, she was an exceptionally successful pop and country singer.

You probably know Brenda Lee for her two biggest hits.  In 1960, her song I’m Sorry hit #1 on the Billboard pop charts; and in 1958 she released the song Rocking Around the Christmas Tree, which has become a holiday classic.

What you probably don’t know is that Brenda Lee was the top charting female solo vocalist of the 60s.  During that decade she had 47 songs that made the U.S. pop and country record charts.  This places her fourth among the top performers of that decade, behind only Elvis, the Beatles, and Ray Charles.

My feeling is that you could make a lot of money betting your friends on the four performers or groups that had the most chart hits in the 60s.  Would anyone guess that Brenda Lee ranked #4?

And here’s another interesting factoid that might win a bet. Brenda Lee is the only female artist ever to have chart hits in every Billboard genre at the time: pop, blues, rock, gospel and country!

Here is the audio of Brenda Lee’s 1972 recording of Always On My Mind.  It came out in the same year that another recording of that tune was issued by Gwen McRae.

I would have expected that Brenda Lee’s version of the song would be a big country hit.  It combined a lovely melody with memorable lyrics, and Ms. Lee has a terrific country voice. The song has a decent orchestral backing, and a fine group of backup singers.  However, the song reached only #45 on the Billboard country music charts.

And here is a photo of Brenda Lee dancing with Elvis Presley.  Again, this clearly shows how diminutive she was.  Also, this will tie in with our next section that features The King.

Next, we have Brenda Lee singing Always On My Mind in live performance from a 1991 concert in Switzerland.   She introduces the song by saying that although she released the first version of the song, “a buddy of mine [Elvis] said it better than it’ll ever be said again.”

We get only a snippet of Always On My Mind here, because Ms. Lee interrupts the song in the middle to thank her audience.  However, it’s enough to see that she is still in good voice, even nearing the end of her career.

Brenda Lee is still alive and living in Nashville, Tennessee, and is apparently still touring.  She has been married to Ronnie Shacklett for 53 years.  Shacklett dealt with the music industry on Brenda’s behalf, and by all accounts he helped her to become financially independent.

So we wish ‘Little Miss Dynamite’ continued success and happiness.

Elvis Presley and Always On My Mind:

We featured Elvis Presley in our blog post on the song Hound Dog.  Here, we will briefly review his life and career.

In rock and roll, everyone acknowledged that Elvis was “The King.”  Ever since he showed up in a Memphis studio to record a song for his mother, Elvis pursued a singing career that made him a rock and roll star and eventually a legend.

The photo below shows Elvis Presley performing on September 26, 1956 in his hometown of Tupelo, Mississippi.

In 1954, Sam Phillips recorded him in the Sun Records studios.  Elvis’ rockabilly cover of Arthur Crudup’s That’s All Right, Mama become a big hit locally from the moment that Memphis radio DJs began featuring it.

Phillips was convinced that he could make a ton of money if he could find a white artist capable of producing ‘cross-over’ hits from rhythm and blues songs by black artists.  And Memphis was a great location for this, as producers like Sam Phillips and Stax Records’ co-owners Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton were recording songs by both black and white artists.

During the mid-50s, Phillips produced records by artists such as Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison, but Elvis was his greatest discovery.  And Elvis had great range – his work ranged from rockabilly classics such as Hound Dog to ballads and gospel.

At age 13, I first heard Elvis’ Hound Dog, and was hooked on rock ‘n roll.  And unlike most of my peers, who had no idea of the roots of rock in both blues and country music, I was reasonably knowledgeable about the blues.

From my home in Niagara Falls I could easily pick up radio super-station WKBW from Buffalo, NY. With its 50,000-watt power, WKBW could be heard in 20 states across much of the Eastern Seaboard.

In the late 50s WKBW had a late-night music show hosted by George Lorenz, who called himself “The Hound Dog” (no connection to the Elvis song).  Lorenz’ musical tastes tended towards “race records,” which had recently been re-labeled as rhythm & blues. From Lorenz’s show, I heard music by Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Richard, Clyde McPhatter and their counterparts.

The Hound Dog hated to see R&B classics by black artists ‘covered’ and tamed by white artists.  My recollection is that Lorenz was absolutely apoplectic when Pat Boone covered Little Richard’s Tutti Frutti.

Elvis’ cover of Always On My Mind was recorded in 1972.  The timing was highly significant – Elvis went into the studio to cut this song just a few weeks after he and his wife Priscilla had separated.

The song hit #20 on the Billboard pop charts and #16 on the country hit list.  This mediocre showing was largely because the song was released as the “B” side of a single, with Separate Ways on the other side.

However, Always On My Mind became not only one of Elvis’ greatest 70s hits, but over the years it has been considered one of his finest songs.  In fact,
It was voted the #1 song of Presley’s recording career in a poll conducted by ITV in 2013.

Here is the audio of Elvis singing Always On My Mind.  The video is filled with photos from Elvis and Priscilla’s wedding (OMG – acres and acres of mascara!), as well as shots of the couple with their only child, Lisa Marie.

Here, Elvis applies his beautiful voice to this moving song.  He is accompanied by his backup singers, the Jordanaires, and also by a full orchestra.  It’s no wonder that this song is considered one of Elvis’ best.

Elvis’ version of Always On My Mind has a special poignancy, since the song was recorded so soon after his marriage dissolved.  Apparently there were several reasons why Elvis and Priscilla’s marriage failed.

First, during the roughly five years that they were together, Elvis was on tour or making movies a great deal of that time.  Second, Elvis had numerous affairs with movie co-stars and other women, which put considerable strain on their marriage.

A third cause of stress was that reportedly, Elvis felt that it was unnatural to have sex with a woman after she had children.  Elvis and Priscilla’s daughter Lisa Marie was born exactly nine months following their wedding.

This meant that for a long period of time, Elvis and Priscilla were not having sex.  So it was not surprising that eventually, Priscilla had an affair with her karate instructor.  And shortly following that, the couple separated.

And here is a video that shows Elvis rehearsing Always On My Mind.  Materials from Elvis preparing for his June 10, 1972 Madison Square Garden appearances were compiled on a foreign DVD titled Elvis Lost on Tour 1972.

This video looks genuine and if so, it’s a really valuable peek at Elvis getting ready to tour.  This rehearsal reportedly took place on March 30, 1972.

Over the years, Elvis’ gained considerable weight until near the end of his life, when he became incredibly heavy.  However, right up to the end Elvis retained his wonderful voice, which is on display in this video.

With his overwhelming fame and popularity, Elvis desperately needed someone to look after his best interests.  Unfortunately, he was let down by nearly everyone.  He had a savvy agent, Tom Parker, who signed Elvis to contracts that were incredibly favorable to Parker himself.

Elvis had what should have been a highly successful film career.  He made 31 films, and nearly every one of them made a profit.  Unfortunately, the films were often of exceptionally poor quality.  They were made with great haste, and most of his films re-cycled the same banal plot lines over and over again.

Elvis was close to a number of old friends who benefited from Elvis’ famous generosity; and his doctors prescribed for him an astonishing array of powerful pharmaceuticals.  The dashing young king of rock ‘n roll slowly but surely morphed into the shockingly bloated and over-medicated figure who died at age 42.  What a shame.  Elvis would have been 81 in January 2016, but his music lives on.

Willie Nelson and Always On My Mind:

We previously discussed Willie Nelson in our blog post on the song City of New Orleans.  We subsequently reviewed his cover of the Hoagy Carmichael song Georgia On My Mind.  So here we will briefly review Willie Nelson’s life and career.

Below, Willie Nelson poses for a portrait with an electric guitar circa 1967.

Willie Nelson is one of the greatest country singer-songwriters of all time.  Born in Texas in 1933 and raised by his grandparents, Willie joined his first band at age 10, and continued to be active in music throughout a series of different jobs in his youth.

In 1958 Willie worked as a DJ and musician in Houston.  At that time, he wrote a number of great country songs, and in 1960 he moved to Nashville, where he signed with RCA Victor Records and joined the Grand Ole Opry.  Several of his songs became blockbuster hits for other artists – for example, Crazy became the biggest jukebox hit of all time for Patsy Cline, and Pretty Paper was a big country hit for Roy Orbison.

However, Willie’s Nashville solo singing career was rather disappointing, so in 1972 he decided to retire to Austin, TX.  There he became a leader in the ‘outlaw country’ movement.  This group was composed of musicians such as Waylon Jennings, who like Willie had never prospered amidst Nashville’s rigid musical and cultural conformity.  Cities like Austin and Muscle Shoals, AL became epicenters of the outlaw country scene.

Back in Texas with his outlaw-country comrades, Willie’s records began to click.  Commercial success began with the 1973 Atlantic album Shotgun Willie and the 1975 Columbia release Red Headed Stranger, and Willie has never looked back.  The past 40 years has seen a host of best-selling albums, collaborations with artists such as Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard, and a boatload of awards and honors.  Willie was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1993.

Below is a more recent photo of Willie Nelson performing at the Roskilde Festival.

In the mid-1980s, Willie and Waylon teamed up with Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson to form the outlaw country supergroup The Highwaymen.  Willie has also appeared in a slew of movies, most notably Honeysuckle Rose and Red Headed Stranger, and he was a guiding force behind the long-running PBS TV series Austin City Limits.

Trigger-willie-nelson.jpg

Willie Nelson’s Martin classical guitar ‘Trigger.’

In addition to his great country vocals, Willie is also an excellent guitarist.  He gets wonderful sounds from his beat-up Martin classical guitar “Trigger,” which always seems to be about to fall to pieces.  At left is a photo of Trigger.

Willie Nelson’s version of Always On My Mind was released in 1982.  Although the song had already been a success for Elvis a decade earlier, Willie’s recording was a major hit.  The song climbed steadily to #1 on the Billboard country charts.  The song was also a big crossover hit, reaching #5 on the Billboard Hot 100, and remaining on the pop charts for 23 weeks.

The song also garnered a slew of awards for Willie and the songwriters.  The songwriters won the 1982 Grammy award for both Song of the Year and Best Country Song, and Willie won for Best Male Country Vocal Performance.

In addition, Always On My Mind won the Country Music Association’s award for Song of the Year in both 1982 and 1983, and Willie won the 1982 CMA awards for Single of the Year and Album of the Year for the album Always On My Mind.

And here is the music video for Willie Nelson’s Always On My Mind.

Isn’t this great?  I would die to have a voice as iconic as Willie’s.  He imbues the song with the perfect amount of sorrow and irony, and in addition shows his impeccable sense of timing and phrasing.  I have to say that Always On My Mind strikes me as a perfect song for Willie Nelson.

By the way, the producer of Willie’s version of Always On My Mind? It was none other than Chips Moman, who had convinced songwriter Wayne Carson to add a bridge to the tune. Although Chips never produced the original song, he did produce Willie’s version.

By the way, the legendary songwriter, producer and session guitarist Chips Moman died in June, 2016. He had been suffering for some time from a disease of the lungs. Chips had an amazing career and will be badly missed.

It’s great to see both Elvis and Willie give their interpretations of the same terrific country song.  To anyone who has serious regrets about some of their actions in the past, playing Always On My Mind is sure to bring to mind a vivid picture of one’s failings.

Willie Nelson has been a major contributor to various charity and activist organizations.  With Neil Young and John Mellencamp, he was a founder of the Farm Aid concerts that have raised money in support of family farms since 1985.

Willie is also co-chair of the NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) national board.  This is not just a philosophical issue with Nelson: he has stated that smoking pot has almost certainly prevented him from becoming an alcoholic.  In addition, marijuana apparently helped him kick a several-pack-a-day cigarette habit that produced some dangerous health problems.

Nelson is also an entrepreneur in the bio-diesel business.  For many years, Willie and Family toured almost constantly, driving around in a custom bio-diesel-powered bus Honeysuckle Rose (he is currently on version #5 of that bus).

Now that he is 83, he is looking decidedly frail. But Willie Nelson is a living national treasure, and both his voice and music are extremely special.  Hang in there, Willie, we love you!

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Always On My Mind
Wikipedia, Chips Moman
Wikipedia, Brenda Lee
Wikipedia, Elvis Presley
George “Hound Dog” Lorenz biography
Wikipedia, Willie Nelson

About Tim Londergan

Tim Londergan is professor emeritus of theoretical physics at Indiana University-Bloomington. He studies the properties of the quarks and gluons that form the internal structure of protons and neutrons. He also writes a blog "Tim's Cover Story" that compares covers of important songs in rock music history. He and his wife share their college-town life with two delightful cats, Lewis and Clark. His hobbies include tennis and ornithology, and he is a life-long fan of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team.
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2 Responses to Always On My Mind: Brenda Lee, Elvis Presley, Willie Nelson

  1. Pingback: Hooked On a Feeling: B.J. Thomas, Blue Swede, Jonathan King | Tim's Cover Story

  2. Pingback: Blue Moon of Kentucky: Bill Monroe; Elvis Presley; Patsy Cline | Tim's Cover Story

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