The man who would (not) be King!

 

.....one man's struggle for identity and acceptance ends in the ultimate tragedy.....

 

Spotlight article by Nigel Patterson, June 2014

(for the purposes of this article I will use the term Elvis stylist in reference to the person in question) 

 

Who is this person???: Since Elvis' explosion onto the world stage in the mid 1950s there have been countless Elvis tribute artists, imitators, impersonators, stylists and sound-a-likes offering and emulating a watershed musical icon.

Of the thousands who in some way look(ed), perform(ed) or sound(ed) like Elvis there is one performer who stands well apart from the rest.

He is a phenomenon in his own right albeit because of his Elvis connection - a connection which figuratively haunted him throughout his tragically, shortened career.

This dynamic performer differentiates himself from all others for a number of reasons.

He:
  • 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
  • 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 2014!)......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
  • is the subject of a documentary film being released in 2015

So who is this person – a performer whose sad end is one we normally expect from a fabricated and dramatically intensified Hollywood film?

The answer.......Jimmy Ellis aka the masked man, Orion.  The Jimmy Ellis/Orion story is one of great potential, qualified success, ongoing disappointment and ultimately, tragedy!

Jimmy Ellis (with mask) as Orion (note his hair color)

Orion (sans mask) as Jimmy Ellis (note his natural hair color)

Above images sourced from the official "Orion-Jimmy Ellis" website

Genesis....Jimmy Hughes Bell was born on 26 February 1945 to a single mother (named) Gladys. Also like Elvis (surviving twin), he experienced an early life major event when, at the age of 4, he was adopted by Robert and Faye Ellis.

Little is known about Jimmy's life before becoming a recording artist - what is known is that he was raised by traditional but loving parents who ensured he was able to receive a good education. A talented athlete, Jimmy was awarded a two-year athletic scholarship at Middle Georgia Junior College and was courted for a baseball career and a tryout with the Milwaukie Braves but turned it down. Perhaps critically, Jimmy had made a decision that a sporting future wasn't to shape the his story, and in so doing his future would be frustratingly shaped by his vocal chords as Jimmy's singing voice sounded remarkably like Elvis'.

That voice!....While he had a natural Elvis-like singing voice, throughout his adult life Jimmy strove to be recognised as a serious artist in his own right, a person who was inherently a wonderfully talented and gifted entertainer whose magical presence touched many people. That talent was genetically pre-determined and embryonically, DNA dictated.......its essence was not because he sounded remarkably like Elvis! Inevitably, being born 10 years after Elvis, his struggle could never be won.

However, in the beginning recordings like Save The Last Dance For Me, Ebony Eyes and Honey convinced many Elvis fans that their King was still physically among them. Which brings us to the incredible story of Orion.

Who was that masked man?....Sadly, the convergence of artistic, commercial and greed/fame infused forces which would shape Jimmy's future meant he became a pawn in a multi-faceted promotional campaign involving author Gail Brewer-Giorgio (9 years before her best-selling non-fiction books asking if Elvis really died in 1977) and new Sun Studio owner, Shelby Singleton, when because of his voice Jimmy was marketed as the mysterious, masked singer, Orion. As the Orion story unfolded, it was clear these forces played straight to the hearts and deep-seated psychological needs of many Elvis fans!

It was (at least initially) a win-win-win situation as all three parties benefitted: Jimmy became an international star, Gail Brewer-Giorgio sold hundreds of thousands of copies of her "Orion" novel and Shelby Singleton sold truckloads of "Orion" records. 

It is pertinent to say that while Jimmy was fanatically worshipped by fans, it was Gail Brewer-Giorgio and Shelby Singleton (remember the infamous "Duets" album with Jerry Lee Lewis) who were banking the lion's share of money as the cash registers kept on "ching chinging" as Jimmy Ellis/Orion connected with an avid, loyal and increasingly fanatical audience.

In the 2006 EIN article, A Tribute to the "Masked Man": Jimmy Ellis aka "Orion", I observed:

Of course his friends knew him from his early days as a child and when he started out as a singer, but this didn't stop the promoters of the "Elvis is alive" conspiracy theory. They vociferously took advantage of, and preyed upon, those Elvis fans, the "true disbelievers", who had a deep seated need to disbelieve a more prosaic, greed fuelled reality and motivation for the carefully constructed "Orion" character.

For almost 5 years the Orion phenomenon captivated its natural audience, not only in the US where fans had easy access to Orion, but also overseas - somewhat surprisingly given it was a snail mail, pre-tabloid, pre-Internet era. Orion's mystique and allure was so universally popular among fans that Orion singles and albums were released in Europe and "downunder" in Australia.

Watch a fascinating interview in 1979 with both Orion and Gail Brewer-Giorgio promoting his career and Ms Brewer-Giorgio's "Orion" novel

 

(BTW, the back story to the "Orion" novel, full of dirty dealings, "he says-she says" and legal machinations, is deserving of an article all to itself!)

In context, the Ellis/Orion dichotomy and how it resonated through its personal community would always be (organically) problematic for its symbolically conflicted, opposing sides.

Similarly, there was an incontrovertible and diametrically opposed outcome for each side. For one side, they would quite naturally (and self-directed), psychologically rationalise and morph their needs to maintain internal equilibrium and ongoing personal and social engagement.......for the other side his outcome would be economically directed and physically terminal, as his 'what if' life diverted to a course which outwardly may have offered some degree of financial and personal satisfaction, but one which (pragmatically) was also underpinned by a volatile socio-economic environment which could potentially (and did) result in a seriously intense incident or incidents:

Jimmy Ellis' new (primary) career as a bail bondsman and pawn shop proprietor would very sadly, very unfairly, result in his violent, premature death on 12 December 1998.

Reflecting on the somewhat strange, certainly unusual life of Jimmy Ellis, Michael McCall in his excellent (although somewhat hyperbolic) article for the Rockabilly Hall of Fame: It's Only Make-Believe The Strange and Ultimately Sad Story of Elvis Sound-Alike..."Orion", cogently observed:

It's a tale not just about the American fixation with celebrity, but about the ways in which the myth of stardom can go awry and shoot off in the oddest of trajectories, leaving in its wake a breakable, mortal human like any other........

In a town steeped in strange success stories, hidden agendas, and dashed dreams, Orion's tale is one of the most curious ever to originate in Music City USA--which is saying something. In its way, the story underscores some of the dark, disturbing aspects of image-making, music marketing, and how the music industry builds stars but destroys individuals.

Artefact from Shelby Singleton's personal collection.......conspiracy theorists, note the date!

I'm Leavin'....Despite an initially (somewhat) artistically and (somewhat) financially beneficial arrangement for Jimmy Ellis, eventually the combination of an increasingly unfulfilling and unwanted masked career as an Elvis sound-a-like confronted his primal burning desire to be recognised and appreciated as "himself". The apposite outcome saw Jimmy dramatically rip off his Orion mask in frustration during a" live" performance in 1983.

With fans more interested in seeing "Kemo Sabe" rather than Jimmy Ellis, he spent the next few years focusing more on his business affairs than his music career.

'I'm Not Trying To Be Like Elvis'

(Jimmy Ellis single on the regional Boblo label - released in 1978 - it is viewed by many as the singer's plea for acceptance in his own right rather than because of his uncanny Elvis-like singing voice)

Click the image to hear the song

If I Can Dream.......The internal struggle that Jimmy Ellis had with his Orion alter-ego and his burning desire to record quality music appears to have been ever present. Even before the Orion phenomenon had really taken off he released a self-penned single on the small Boblo label, I'm Not Trying To Be Like Elvis.

In their illuminating examination of the infamous 'Elvis Underground' and activities around the belief Elvis did not die in 1977, Professors R. Serge Denisoff and George Plasketes addressed the Orion phenomenon. Their fascinating book, True Disbelievers The Elvis Contagion, featured excerpts from several interviews with Jimmy Ellis which shed further light on his frustration with his musical direction, including:

On working in the recording studio with Shelby Singleton, Jimmy stated:

We'd play it back, you know, in Shelby's office, and I'd say, "That's not right." He said, "Don't worry about it, you don't buy the fuckin records anyway." You know , it was like, here I am creating this and doing the work. It's like an artist painting a picture. He makes a mistake and some asshole over here says don't worry about it, it will be alright. And that's the way it was.

Jimmy continued, commmenting on the frustration he felt when he would have to stop the recording session because Shelby Singleton had arranged for a tour group to come through the studio:

Now, what's the priority. A hit record or some fuckin' tour we did that on many a time. That's not recording. That's not a career.

His hectic touring schedule as Orion also restricted Jimmy's time to write songs and this must have also added to the frustration with his career. Jimmy was an accomplished songwriter who could write uptempo, slow and country songs as recordings such as the rockin' Washing Machine, poignant ballad It Ain't No Mystery and catchy, toe tapping Some You Win, Some You Lose, attest to.

After his "unmasking" more and more fans accepted Orion was not Elvis, and for those who could not let go of the King a new theory took form - yes the original Orion wasn't Elvis but the real (still alive) Elvis was replacing Jimmy Ellis on stage at various concerts!

More recently, one of the few remaining groups in the once prolific and infamous (so-called) 'Elvis Underground' has stated that Jesse (aka the 'still alive' Elvis) believes some of the Orion/Jimmy Ellis recordings are actually him (Jesse) singing.

'My voice is both a blessing and a curse' (Jimmy Ellis/Orion during media interview)

Controversial Sun Records 1978 Orion 'Reborn' (coffin) album cover

...........replaced with a completely new cover and no coffin!:

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

For unofficial publicity purposes Orion continued to strike a favorite pose for the cover of:

Orion Remember Me (Hit One Music label)

(one of nearly 150 'unofficial' Jimmy Ellis/Orion/Ellis James albums - with a striking but obvious graphically altered 'rip-off' cover design/image of the "reborn" Sun Records "Reborn" LP - as with its origination - Orion's facial expression on the cover nicely reflects the album title)

The Comeback....While Jimmy probably never wanted to resurrect the Orion character, there was an inevitable comeback. With few bookings for Jimmy Ellis 'live on stage' there was still a substantial (albeit diminishing) demand of fans to satisfy their deep-seated psychological need and hope that their King had not left them.  Consequently, this meant Jimmy could only get well paying work if he donned the Orion mask and (to him) even worse, an Elvis jumpsuit. For a proud man who had so much wanted recognition as Jimmy Ellis - not Elvis Presley - we can only imagine how galling and emotionally and psychologically scarring this was! 

By the late 1980s, Jimmy was again performing on stage in his Orion persona and while not enjoying the buoyant career he had between 1978 and the early 1980s he had regular bookings, including in Europe where he was especially sought after. Popular Ellis/Orion bootleg releases included titles such as Crazy on the Blue Danube and Jimmy In A Viennese Cellar. For the next 10 years Jimmy would balance music and his business interests.

The King is gone....Long live the King!....Jimmy's mortal life ended tragically when, on 12 December 1998, he was fatally shot in his Alabama pawn and package shop during a robbery gone bad. Fittingly, his legend lives on, and quite ironically, both as Jimmy Ellis and Orion! Given Jimmy's keen sense of humor he must be looking down and smiling!

Evaluating the Jimmy Ellis/Orion legacy.....While many continue to dismiss Jimmy Ellis as simply an Elvis imitator, to do so ignores critically important organic elements which place his story on a very different level to that of normal Elvis tribute artists!

I mean:

  • How many Elvis tribute artists have had 10 Top 100 hits on the Country Music Chart?
  • How many Elvis tribute artists have a fan club with more than 15,000 members?
  • How many Elvis tribute artists have had any unofficial album releases let alone 150 bootleg albums released?
  • How many Elvis tribute artists made a living without singing Elvis songs for most of their career?
  • How many other Elvis tribute artists have book, film and radio documentary adaptations of their story?
  • How many Elvis tribute artists have commercially produced memorabilia released about them?
  • How many Elvis tribute artists are still remembered nearly 20 years after their death?
  • How many Elvis tribute artists have several websites devoted to them?

The answer is: NONE! Only Jimmy Ellis/Orion can lay claim to these remarkable achievements (and he could only be categorised as an Elvis tribute artist in his final years, well after his seminal period as the masked man, Orion).

Very sadly, it is possible, even probable, Jimmy Ellis never fully realised the enormity and significance of his impact as a recording and performing artist!

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In 1999, the famed German company, Bear Family Records, released a 4CD box set of 108 Orion recordings:

Buy: Orion who was that masked man?

From the pr for the box set: It was Orion Eckley Darnell, keeping the flame of rootsy Southern music alive in the Seventies, and doing it by sounding remarkably like Elvis Aaron Presley. This boxed set documents Orion's career on the legendary Sun Records label. It begins with the 1972 single on which Orion, then simply Jimmy Ellis, recorded 'That's All Right/Blue Moon Of Kentucky.' It was issued on Sun without an artist name, and created a furor because Ellis bore such an uncanny vocal resemblance to Elvis.

Then, shortly after Elvis's death, legendary producer Shelby Singleton reconnected with Ellis, signing him to Sun, and creating the myth of Orion, the hero of a book, in which a famous star fakes his own death, and takes himself and his music back the roots. Singleton duly took Orion back to Elvis's roots in rockabilly, rock 'n' roll, country, blues, and gospel. He began by overdubbing him onto recordings by Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Charlie Rich, and then recording solo albums which many fans thought were better than many of Elvis's later LPs. The association ended in 1982, and this boxed set includes the very best of the recordings that Jimmy Ellis made for Sun. Among the titles are 'Such A Night', 'Honey', 'Patches', 'Ebony Eyes', 'Rocky', and 'Release Me'; the complete overdubs with Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Charlie Rich, and Carl Perkins, plus many previously unissued titles.

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A selection of the many colorful Orion masks, each with its own name

(much like how each of Elvis' jumpsuits had its own name):

Black Reborn
Fresh
Gold Glitter
Red Swirl

Mask images sourced from: oriondiscs.com

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The Orion Legend......

Orion (Jimmy Ellis) with (also in character) members of supergroup KISS, Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons

------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Two of the many Orion items still being sold in 2014:

----------------------------------------------------------------------

Find out more about the Orion - Jimmy Ellis story:

***Orion - Jimmy Ellis: The Official Web Site***:

(includes news, photo gallery, Books, CDs and DVDs 'For Sale' and 'Free' MP3 downloads)

***Orion: The Man Who Would Be King***:

(documentary film site with promo video)

***Orion Discs***:

(includes brief Orion biography, worldwide Jimmy Ellis/Orion discography info, bootleg info and gallery of the many different Orion masks)


             
             
             
             

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