Flaming Star, EC, 2016, 406 pages, Illustrated, Hardcover, Discography, ISBN-13: 978-8292567098. Released with bonus 22 track CD: In The Shadow Of A King (running time: 73 minutes).
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The Jimmy “Orion” Ellis story is one of the more fascinating in the wonderfully eclectic world of Elvis Presley.
With a vocal similarity to Elvis that could, and did, fool many fans, his story is one of prodigious talent, courage and a seminal battle against an often corrupt entertainment machine which wanted to exploit him because of his "Elvis like" voice, while all he wanted was to be recognised as a successful entertainer 'in his own right'. Sadly, Jimmy's brief success was dependent on donning a mask as "Orion" - and even more sadly, a tragic end to his life was fated.
Jimmy Ellis - In the Shadow of A King is a tremendous release - a mammoth 400+ page deluxe coffee table book full of excellent narrative, voluminous imagery and important historical archival material. The authors are to be congratulated on their exhaustive research in compiling a very detailed biography of Jimmy Ellis from his birth in 1945 to his sad death in 1998. That the book is published by Flaming Star, the Pål Granlund organisation associated with FTD book releases, is a strong indication of the book design quality you can expect.
The Jimmy Ellis story is an intriguingly fascinating one with many twists and turns. Born Jimmy Bell in Pascagoula, Mississippi in 1945, his unmarried mother, Gladys Bell (apart from their vocal similarity, Elvis and Jimmy had other things in common), was unable to care for baby Jimmy and gave him up for adoption. The birth certificate listed his father simply as Vernon! (no last name! - more about this later). After a period in foster care Jimmy was adopted by a loving couple, Furniss and Mary Faye Ellis.
Jimmy enjoyed a good formative life with his adoptive parents and excelled at school in sports, particularly as a horseman, playing football and baseball (he was awarded a baseball scholarship at Middle Georgia Jr. College in Cochran, Georgia)
. It was in his teens that Jimmy would pursue his love of singing. At that time he could not have known how his musical career would be affected by the King of Rock and Roll, nor how major success would prove personally unfulfilling and what fate awaited him.
The book takes the reader behind the scenes of the amazing life of Jimmy Ellis and his alter-ego, the masked singer, "Orion". It traces and faithfully records both the prosaic and more important things in his life including:
- (a very strong) account of Jimmy’s life before becoming a singer;
Jimmy's struggle to establish himself as a music star;
being ripped off by the new owner of Sun Records, Shelby Singleton;
the infamous "Duets" album with Jerry Lee Lewis;
the fateful meeting with the author of Orion, Gail Brewer-Giorgio;
success as Orion, including performing in front of crowds over 10,000 screaming fans;
- life on the road;
- Jimmy's problematic personal life;
- succumbing to the temptations that accompany fame;
leaving the music business and establishing several businesses; and
Jimmy's ongoing struggle trying to find acceptance as himself, not as an Elvis clone.
In presenting the Jimmy Ellis story the authors have been able to infuse their central character with a humanity often missing in other biographies. The reader can feel who Jimmy Ellis was, share his joys and frustrations, and understand how his life had so much potential but was ultimately flawed because of one unfortunate double-edged factor.
The narrative is evocative:
ON THE ROAD AGAIN
1980 was a busy year for Orion and he kept burning up the road. Bookings were coming in and his booking agent at Sun Records, Johnnie Massey, had an easy job. Orion and his band were on the road four to five days a week giving concerts in big arenas as well as smaller ones. Jimmy was having the time of his life. He met new people everywhere and finally had the attention he had always dreamed of, especially from the women.
It also explores the twists and turns in the Jimmy Ellis story which are myriad and engrossing (and would continue even after his death). From an initially unsettled but eventually secure and fruitful young life and the self-interested and disingenuous shenanigans of Shelby Singleton to the amazing success "Orion" would continue to have in Europe and the personal and creative frustration which would slowly embitter Jimmy, there are many stories which intrigue, amuse and inform:
(during a promotional visit to Europe):
Shelby had told him they would walk to the next place. Jimmy wanted to to take the mask off but Shelby said no. He thought, I have to walk across town wearing this stupid mask. But he did not have to walk across town. The next place was just two doors down. This added fuel to the fire that was already burning. The fire went out of control when he walked in and discovered this was just a restaurant and he would have to stand on a table in the middle of the room. As Jimmy later explained, "Here I was standing on a table in the middle of the room with my head almost touching the ceiling, wearing a stupid mask, lip synching a tape in a language that nobody understands while all these people were trying to eat." By the time he was finished with the songs, Jimmy was boiling. He got down from the table, went out the front door, turned around and actually knocked Shelby down on the sidewalk.
Most readers will be familiar with the basics of how Jimmy became the masked singer "Orion" One of the most interesting stories in the book concerns the Jimmy Ellis birth certificate. While the original birth certificate could not be found to be included in the book, "Orion's" former road manager, Steve Kelley, is one of a number of people who claim to have seen it with its listing of Jimmy's father as a man named only as "Vernon".
So, is Jimmy Ellis’ biological father, Vernon Presley? The authors investigated the potential Jimmy-Vernon biological connection and while they did not uncover anything definitive, they did establish that it would not be that surprising if Vernon had met Gladys Bell while he worked in Pascagoula.
And the comparison photo of adult Jimmy with Vernon is eerie! We will probably never know the truth, but it’s a great story!
Quite strangely, there is also a birth certificate shown in the book with (adoptive parents) Furniss and Mary Faye Ellis cited as Jimmy's biological parents.
Also discussed is that Mary Faye Ellis said she knew the Presley family when they lived in Tupelo.
Jimmy Ellis' premature and very sad end is potently recorded in Jimmy Ellis - In The Shadow of A King. On December 12, 1998, while working in his pawn shop with his former wife, Elaine Thompson and another employee, Helen King, Jimmy's life came to a violent end, as did the life of his ex-wife. An attempted hold-up by three young Black Americans, Jeffrey Lee, Andre Darren Lee and Jerry DeWayne Johnson, went horribly wrong when Jeffrey Lee opened fire with a sawn off shotgun.
The detailed narrative-visual account of Jimmy's death and the ensuing trail of those responsible for his murder is powerful. A Courtroom Brief prepared by Steve Kelley is a riveting minute by minute account of a trial which took a major unexpected twist when the judge overturned the jury's verdict of LIFE IN PRISON WITHOUT POSSIBILITY OF PAROLE and changed it to DEATH!
After Jimmy Ellis' murder, one newspaper ran the story with the headline THE KING IS DEAD - AGAIN.
The authors' diligence in thoroughly researching the Jimmy Ellis story from birth to post-death has produced a potent, richly detailed, multi-layered biography. Featuring a wealth of archival clippings, reviews and interviews with those who knew him, there is an absolute treasure trove of information and imagery. The exceptionally strong and informative narrative is well balanced by the archival material and hundreds of fascinating visuals that draw the reader in. The visuals cover all of Jimmy's' life from childhood to death. They are a heady mix of personal candids, photos captured by fans, promotional stills and dynamic on-stage performance shots of Jimmy Ellis/Orion doing what he/they loved doing most!
The inclusion of a comprehensive Discography of Jimmy Ellis and Orion commercially released records/CDs will please many fans and is a testament to the prodigious Jimmy Ellis/Orion recording output.
It is hard to fault this release. Perhaps the authors could have included a list of Orion bootleg releases (how many other Elvis-like artists have had bootlegs, let alone more than 100 bootlegs, released of their recordings and concerts?). Perhaps they could also have included a greater discussion of the Jimmy Ellis’ role in the “Is Elvis alive” conspiracy story - Orion (+ Orion #2) was an integral part of this fanciful tale for many years and as such, while a tangential issue, is nevertheless an important element in the broader Jimmy Ellis and Elvis histories.
The CD album that comes with the book is a beauty. Twenty-two great sounding recordings (licensed from Sun Records) spanning the period 1975 to 1992. The tracks include Last Date/Without Love (There Is Nothing); Daddy Don't You Walk So Fast; Moving On; Secret Love; Can't Get Used To Sleeping With Myself; Let Me Dream I Lay With You Tonight; Sunday Father; I Make The Living (You Make the Living Worthwhile); Down in Mississippi [Elvis tribute]; Hooked On A Feeling; You'll Never Walk Alone, Unchained Melody and I'll Be With You Always. Surpridingly not included on the album is Jimmy's early single, I'm Not Trying To Be Just Like Elvis. Regardless, this is an album that wonderfully showcases the power, range and quality of a great artist with a great voice!
Verdict: Jimmy Ellis - In The Shadow of A King is an overdue entry in the Elvis related book canon. Jimmy Ellis' impact on Elvis fans (and the Elvis story) goes way beyond that of any Elvis tribute artist and also left an indelible mark on the marketing of the Elvis legacy after his death. Ultimately the Jimmy Ellis life ended in tragedy, but what went before and what continues to resonate today, is a fascinating and richly textured story which transpires not only in the shadow of the King, but also in the shadow of "what if?/what could have been". Jimmy Ellis - In The Shadow of A King does its subject proud.
This is a rewarding read!
About the Authors: Kenneth Dokkeberg is the world's foremost expert on Jimmy Ellis. Steve Kelley served as Jimmy Ellis' road manager during his time as the masked singer, "Orion". Bobby Dillard became a close friend and confidant of Jimmy Ellis in college and currently operates the "official" Jimmy Ellis website.
What set Jimmy "Orion" Ellis apart from Elvis tribute artists:
- was blessed(?) with a natural singing voice remarkably similar to Elvis’
- had 10 Top 100 hits on the Country Music Chart in the US!
- had a stage presence which entranced his fans
- was an accomplished singer/songwriter
- was enduringly popular internationally.......especially in Europe
- did not want want to be an Elvis imitator
- for most of his career did not make a living singing and performing Elvis songs
- had a fan club with over 15,000 members
- had fans who travelled (often as a family) up to 500 miles to see him perform
- is the only Elvis stylist to have had an album replaced due to controversy
- is the only Elvis stylist to have a best-selling book published about his persona
- is the only Elvis stylist to have had bootleg material released – more than a dozen labels have released around 150 albums of his studio and live material!
- is the only Elvis stylist to have merchandise and memorabilia released (still sold online in 2016!)......more than 20 items including coffee mugs, beer steins, calendars, mouse pad, t-shirts, sweat shirts and clocks
- is the only Elvis stylist who nearly 20 years after his tragic death still elicits interest from his fans
- is promoted today by a commercial company operating in his name
- has several websites devoted to his life and music
- had several of his recordings featured on the soundtrack of a number of films
- has featured in a number of documentaries about music in the southern states of the USA
- was the subject of an award winning documentary film (Orion: The Man Who Would Be King) released in 2015