Always On My Mind: Who Did It First Before Willie Nelson?

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Willie Nelson Always On My Mind album coverSong: Always On My Mind (1982)

Artist: Willie Nelson

Album: Always On My Mind (Columbia)

Despite the likes of Elvis, Brenda Lee, and The Pet Shop boys having recorded it, Willie Nelson’s version of ‘Always on My Mind‘ is still considered the definitive version, not to mention the song for which he is most known. This beautiful song is a lesson in itself. Just because a song is great, doesn’t mean it will be successful. The truth is the song has been covered hundreds of times and flopped many times before Nelson took it to stratospheric heights.

The song was written by Wayne Carson Thompson in collaboration with Johnny Christopher and Mark James. Wayne Thompson wrote a number of famous hit songs including The Letter recorded by the Box Tops. That’s the great song that starts ‘give me a ticket for an aeroplane; Ain’t got time to take a fast train.” He also wrote Neon Rainbow and Soul Deep. Johhny Christopher had written Mama Liked the Roses, recorded by Elvis and Mark James’ most notable song was Suspicious Minds by Elvis.

A lot is made of the fact that the song was first recorded by BJ Thomas, best known for Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head, in 1970 and released as a single. His version of the song did not go anywhere but certainly would have influenced some of the artists to come. Brenda Lee recorded the song in 1972 and reached number 45 on the country charts.

Always On My Mind (180 Gram Audiophile Blue Vinyl/Limited Edition)

Elvis Presley’s version in 1972 to great success. It was the B-side of the Separate Ways single and the record was certified gold, selling over one million records. It reached number 16 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart in November 1972.

After Elvis, but before Nelson, in 1979, John Wesley Ryles also did well with the song, reaching number 20 on the Hot Country Songs chart.

The song was suggested to Willie Nelson while he was working with Merle Haggard on the Pancho and Lefty album. Haggard didn’t want to do the song, so Nelson recorded it himself. Although the previous versions were “nice and all” it was Willie Nelson’s gentle, pared-down, and bittersweet version which defined the song for what it is and should be. Willie didn’t try to out-sing the song. It seemed like he felt it and as if he had written it and most people, even today, think that he did. It was first released as a single in March 1982 with “The Party’s Over” as the B side, from the Album Always On My Mind

Not only did Willie Nelson’s Always On My Mind go to number one on the Hot Country Songs chart, not to mention the Cash Box chart, but it also went to number five on the Billboard Hot 100 to become a huge crossover hit to be played on top 40 radio.

At the 25th Grammy Awards in 1983 it won three awards. Thompson, James, and Christopher won for Song of the Year and Best Country song while Nelson won Best Male Country Vocal Performance. It also won awards at the Country Music Association Awards (CMA) two years in a row, including 1982 Song of the Year and 1983 Single of the Year for the writers while Nelson won for 1982 Single of the Year and Album of the Year.

The Pet Shop Boys did their synth-pop version of the song in 1987 after being asked to appear in a TV show commemorating the tenth anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death. For their part, they chose to rework his version of Always on My Mind although their version has nothing to do with his in particular, as far as the end product. It was certainly an odd direction for the song to take and it garnered mixed opinions, but it sold a lot of records so plenty of people liked it. Songwriter Thomspon said it was proof you can’t hurt a good song. Well, that may be true but you can certainly hurt people’s ears. For me, this version is just silly and over-worked and the extra chord at the end of the chorus, while not a terrible idea, comes off like a contrivance to be different.

As I said, though, Always on My Mind has been recorded hundreds of times; over 300, in fact. Here is just a sampling of some of the other artists who recorded it:

  • Gwen McCrae, 1973
  • Ben Cash, 1976
  • Faron Young, 1982
  • Marilyn McCoo, 1983
  • Bob Dylan, 1984
  • Eddie Youngblood, 1984
  • Floyd Kramer, 1984
  • Big Daddy, 1985
  • Roger Whitaker, 1986
  • David Hasselhoff, 1987
  • Skeeter Davis, 1990
  • Cissy Houston, 1992
  • David Axelrod, 1995
  • Anne Murray, 2002
  • B.B. King, 2003
  • Fantasia, 2004
  • Michael Bublé, 2007
  • Scotty McCreery, 2011

Listen to Willie Nelson’s Always on My Mind

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