This list of songs is inspired by lists published by radio station KEXP-FM from Seattle in 2010, as well as the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part I will faithfully countdown from their lists, starting at Song #500 and going until I reach Song #1. When you see the song title listed as something like: Song #XXX (KEXP)….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. Song XXX (RS) means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: Song #xxx (KTOM), it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In any case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, just so everyone is aware, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Here is the story behind today’s song. Enjoy.
KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.
Song #378: Always On My Mind by Brenda Lee, Elvis, Willie Nelson and The Pet Shop Boys.
All throughout the history of modern music there have been songs initially released by one artist only to later be recorded and released by a new artist. We call these second releases cover songs. Cover songs tend to follow one of two formats……they are either a faithful reproduction of the original song or else, they are a complete reinterpretation of the original song. While there have been many successful cover songs over the years, no song has been covered so successfully by so many different artists as has the song “Always On My Mind”. For some, the Elvis version immediately springs to mind. For others, they immediately hear Willie Nelson’s voice. In the 1980s, The Pet Shop Boys covered this song and ended up having one of the biggest hits of their entire career. And, let’s not forget who had success with it first…..Brenda Lee. Her version is lovely (as you shall soon hear).
“Always On My Mind” was written by three men named Wayne Carson, Johnny Christopher and Mark James. Singer B.J. Thomas was the first to record it but his version failed to connect with audiences. After another couple of failed attempts by other singers, “Always On My Mind” ended up in the care of Brenda Lee, which is where the story of this song begins today.
Brenda Lee’s Cover Version:
Brenda Lee had been singing since she was a small child. Always on the pixie-ish side, Brenda Lee was fussed and fawned over as a child because of her cuteness and her excellent singing voice. By the time she was in her early teens, Brenda Lee’s father passed away and she ended up becoming the breadwinner of the family. Prior to Madonna coming along in the 1980s, Brenda Lee held the record for the most Top Ten hits. Ironically, her biggest hit had nothing to do with Country and Western songs (for which she is most known). Instead, it is for a Christmas song called “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree”. It is hard to find a Christmas compilation CD that does not have her song near the top of the list of songs available for playing. I know that everyone in my household knows her song. Anyway, Lee recorded “Always On My Mind” back in 1972. It received some radio play and reached the low 40s on the Top #100 countdown. But, the most significant aspect of Brenda Lee’s version of “Always On My Mind” is that it brought the song into the public spotlight. Because of that, the song was heard by a couple of other singers who would put their spin on it and take it to the next level.
Elvis Presley’s Cover Version:
He is called The King for a reason. WHAT. A. VOICE! It is easy to forget how truly amazing Elvis’ singing voice actually was. At times, it tends to get lost in the tabloid nature of his later years (the weight gain, the white jumpsuits, the weirdly-themed rooms at Graceland, the drug use). But the man could surely sing! I would give anything to be able to open my mouth and have the sound of his voice pour forth! Elvis was the face of Rock n’ Roll for the 1960s and continues to be regarded as the best of all time by many. With album sales in the hundreds of millions he is certainly the biggest selling singer of all time . During his heyday he was the biggest star in the world and his every move was reported on. When he married Priscilla, their ceremony took on the air of a Royal Wedding. Subsequently, when they divorced a few years later in 1972, it seemed like their loss was America’s loss. A month after the divorce, Elvis recorded “Always On My Mind” which opens with the line, “Maybe I didn’t love you, quite as often as I should have…“. It seemed as though he was singing directly to Priscilla through the lyrics of this song. America swooned. “Always On My Mind” went on to become one of Elvis’ biggest selling singles and one of his signature songs. To many, “Always On My Mind” is an Elvis song and that is a hill that they are willing to die on.
Willie Nelson’s Cover Version:
In the KEXP Countdown list, it is Willie Nelson who is given credit for this song in slot #378. Nelson recorded and released this song in the early 1980s. One of the reasons many consider his version to be the definitive version of “Always On My Mind” is because it is this version that has ended up winning many awards. For example, this song won three Grammy Awards and served as the first time the songwriting trio of Carson, Christopher and James were formally recognized for their contribution as the original writers of the song. As was the case for Elvis, Willie Nelson’s version of this song went to #1 on the charts, staying there for several weeks. For many, the sound of Nelson’s voice is the one most closely associated this song. It is his most popular song and the one that often closes his live concerts.
The Pet Shop Boys Cover Version:
The Pet Shop Boys were a UK synth-pop duo consisting of Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe. They had several big pop hits during the 1980s, including “West End Girls”, “It’s a Sin”, “Opportunity (Let’s Make Lots of Money)” and “What Have I Done to Deserve This?”. In 1986, The Pet Shop Boys were invited to contribute to a celebration commemorating the tenth anniversary of Elvis’ death. Each performer who appeared on the TV special offered up a cover version of an Elvis classic. The Pet Shop Boys chose “Always On My Mind”. Unlike all of the other cover versions throughout the decades, The Pet Shop Boys chose to speed up the song and filled it with dash and pizzazz! This peppy rendition caught everyone by surprise and turned out to be one of the biggest hits for the band and one of the songs that has come to define the musical sound of the 1980s. In fact, the video for this song is consistently listed as one of the best from the 80s. It stars Tennant and Lowe as cab drivers and veteran actor Joss Ackland as an eccentric passenger who is asked who he is and replies that he is a “bilingual illiterate……I can’t read in two languages.” The highly original video only gets better from there.
All in all, one of the ways that you can judge the quality of a song is by the ability of many to create Art from its lyrics and musical structure. “Always On My Mind” is that rare jewel of a song that has gifted generations of performers with material of pure gold with which to work from. It has gifted us, as an audience, with countless outstanding versions to listen to and enjoy. It is not necessary to argue over which version is the best…..because they are all stellar in their own way…..but, is there a version that particularly appeals to you? If so, let me know in the comments below. I will post versions of all four covers, starting below with Brenda Lee’s song. The others will appear in the comment section. Enjoy all four songs and have a wonderful day!
The link to the website for Brenda Lee, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Elvis Presley, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Wille Nelson, can be found here.
The link to the official website for The Pet Shop Boys, can be found here.
The link to radio station KEXP who helped to inspire the writing of this post, can be found here.
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