Acclaimed songwriter Wayne Carson, a Grammy-winning member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame whose credits include the country-pop classic “Always on My Mind” and the Box Tops’ 1967 chart-topper “The Letter,” died Monday in Franklin, Tennessee. According to his wife, Wyndi Harp Head, Carson had been battling numerous health issues and was placed in hospice care about a month ago. He was 72.
Born Wayne Carson Head in Denver, he was often credited by the name Wayne Carson Thomspon as his parents, professional musicians Odie and Olivia Head, went by the stage names of Shorty and Sue Thompson. When the family moved to Springfield, Missouri, to work at KWTO Radio, the teenaged Carson was inspired by Merle Travis to learn guitar and to eventually begin writing songs. He moved to Nashville in 1962.
In 1966, a song that he penned, “Somebody Like Me,” was played for Eddy Arnold by RCA producer and label head Chet Atkins. Arnold liked the song but thought it was too short. He personally contacted Carson and asked him to pen an additional verse. The song would eventually reach Number One, becoming Carson’s first chart-topper. A string of successes quickly followed, including “The Letter,” which in addition to the Box Tops’ iconic version had been cut by a slew of other artists, including a memorable version by Joe Cocker. The song is among Rolling Stone‘s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. In 1968, Carson’s composition “Who’s Julie” gave Mel Tillis his first Top Ten hit.
But it’s “Always on My Mind,” a song Carson reportedly wrote at his kitchen table in about 10 minutes, which would eventually earn him Grammy, CMA and ACM awards. After holding onto the song for a year, Carson turned it over to co-writers Johnny Christopher and Mark James and producer Chips Moman, who added a bridge to the composition. First recorded by R&B singer Gwen McCrae and a minor country hit for Brenda Lee, it was Elvis Presley’s emotional version, recorded as he was divorcing wife Priscilla, which reached the Top Twenty on both the pop and country charts. In 1982, three years after the song reached the Top Twenty again (by John Wesley Ryles), Willie Nelson scored both a Number One country hit and a Top Five pop single with his version. The Number One country song of the year would go on to be crowned CMA Single of the Year in 1982, CMA Song of the Year (in 1982 and 1983) and ACM Single of the Year, along with netting three Grammys. In 1987, “Always on My Mind” returned to the charts yet again, this time in an upbeat version by U.K. duo Pet Shop Boys. The song topped the U.K. chart and was a Top Five hit in the U.S.
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Carson’s wonderfully titled “She’s Actin’ Single (I’m Drinkin’ Doubles)” became a Top Ten hit in 1975 for Gary Stewart and was later cut by Wade Hayes. Other artists who would cover his songs include Conway Twitty, Johnny Paycheck, B.J. Thomas, Ray Price, Waylon Jennings, Shelby Lynne, the Beach Boys and Tina Turner. He was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1997.