This morning I caught myself singing the first verse to an old Box Tops’ song, “Neon Rainbow”, for absolutely no reason at all. “City lights, pretty lights, they can warm the coldest nights”. I hadn’t heard the song recently, and it isn’t on the list of my favorite songs, but there it was dancing in my head, like a leftover sugarplum. That is the power of a well-crafted pop song: it sticks in some corner of your brain and leaps out at you when you least expect it. Usually, it’s the chorus that you remember (that’s why they call it “the hook”) and since this song had a verse as memorable as some choruses I had to do some investigating. I wanted to know where this delight came from. Who was the songwriter? I expected it to be either Alex Chilton, the 16 year old boy-genius who was lead singer for the Box Tops and later became a mythological rocker with the band Big Star, or Dan Penn, the brilliant singer and songwriter who produced the Box Tops’ album. I was surprised to see that the writer was someone I had never heard of, a guy named Wayne Carson Thompson. I took a closer look at his body of work and found myself asking: How had I missed this guy?
Wayne Carson (he dropped the “Thompson”, his real surname, at some point during his long career) was a GREAT songwriter. He was not just a “successful” writer or an “accomplished” writer; he was a master of his craft. Wayne Carson wrote great pop and country songs that were recorded by a lot of people, over a long period of time. For the Box Tops, he wrote “The Letter” and my personal favorite, “Soul Deep”, in addition to “Neon Rainbow” and other less well known songs on their early albums. His pop songs were recorded by acts as varied as Petula Clark and Tina Turner, and his Country songs were hits, some BIG HITS, for major artists: Conway Twitty, Ray Price, Mel Tillis, Genn Campbell, B.J. Thomas and Johnny Paycheck. Songs that I hadn’t heard in years were instantly brought back to mind merely by reading their provocative and memorable titles: “I See the Want To In Your Eyes” and “Slide Off Your Satin Sheets”. Well-written, extremely listenable pop music. Sweet.
My big surprise was that he had written songs that had been hits for one of my favorite country/slash/outlaw artists, Gary Stewart. I had covered “Drinkin’ Thing” and “She’s Actin’ Single (I’m Drinkin’ Doubles)” with my country bands in the late 70’s and early 80’s, and they are still among my faves. If he had never written another song, these would have established a legacy that any aspiring writer would be proud to claim. But there is one song that truly guaranteed Wayne Carson’s place in anyone’s songwriting Hall of Fame: “You Were Always On My Mind”. First recorded by Elvis, and then performed by just about everybody, this song won the 1983 Grammy for Song of the Year and Best Country Song. Since then it has become Willie Nelson’s signature song and one of America’s most unavoidable earworms. And he wrote it in ten minutes at his kitchen table. That, my friends, is some good songwriting.
Wayne Carson didn’t think the Box Tops’ first record was that good. He didn’t really care for the singer’s voice and he thought that the single, “The Letter”, was too short. He also wondered what the producer was thinking, sticking that jet noise on at the end. Pretty typical response for a songwriter. He wouldn’t recognize a hit song even if he wrote it. Wayne Carson passed away on July 20, 2015 at the age of 72 of natural causes, but his songs still pop into people’s minds when they don’t expect it. And I will guarantee you that tonight, someone, somewhere will be playing a Wayne Carson song and the audience will sing along, blissfully unaware of the name, or story, of the guy who blended the beautiful melody with the clever words. They might remember who recorded it, but that’s about as far as the “whose song was that” game goes. That’s just the way it is for songwriters, most of the time. And that’s OK. But today I want to say thank you, Mr. Wayne Carson, songwriter, for leaving us such a fine bunch of tunes.