Sixty-five years ago this summer, Sun Records released a single (“That’s All Right” b/w “Blue Moon of Kentucky”) that paved the way to rock & roll’s throne for its singer. Forty-five years ago, Sun Records released a second version of that single, by a singer many mistook for Elvis Presley and no one bothered to tell them otherwise. Sam Carlson has the real story…
When The King died, he left a power vacuum. Though his star had waned somewhat by the time of his death in August 1977, Elvis Presley’s passing provoked a potent mix of nostalgia and grief, and a spike of interest in his music. Out of this potent ooze sprang one of the strangest legends in rock & roll: Orion. If you’ve ever wondered how the death of Elvis wound up in the same pantheon as the Zapruder film and Roswell UFO crash, then the career of Jimmy “Orion” Ellis goes a long way towards explaining it. The rise and fall of Orion is equal parts clever marketing and sheer gall.
The Man Who Would Be The King
James Hughes Bell, known to us by his stage name, Jimmy Ellis, was born either blessed or cursed with the voice of Elvis. Ellis was compared so incessantly to Presley that he once released a single called “I’m not Trying To Be Like Elvis”.
His similarity to Elvis became apparent in his teens. The likeness dogged him as he began performing around the South until, in 1972, one of his demos found its way into the hands of Shelby Singleton, the owner of the Sun Records catalog.
Singleton began his career specializing in novelty songs and knew a good gimmick when he saw it. He immediately contracted Ellis to sing “That’s All Right” and “Blue Moon of Kentucky”—the A and B sides of the first single by Elvis released by Sam Phillips on Sun Records in July 1954. Singleton released this latter-day version with a giant question mark in place of the artist’s name. Jimmy Ellis was similarly contracted by MCA to record an Elvis-style song called “There Ya Go”.
None of these ventures proved successful, and it seemed that the world only had room enough for one Elvis. Jimmy Ellis’ career seemed to be dead in the water until the real Elvis shuffled off his mortal jumpsuit in a Graceland bathroom.
A Star Is Reborn
Rumors swirled in the wake of Elvis Presley’s death. Helicopters circled his funeral, a man resembling Elvis reportedly boarded a flight to Argentina under the name John Burroughs (a known Presley pseudonym), Elvis’s middle name was misspelled on his tombstone, and the autopsy stated that Elvis weighed 140 lbs. at his death, which anyone with a cursory knowledge of the King’s latter days can tell you is fishy. To complicate matters further, the stepson of Elvis’s longtime manager, Colonel Tom Parker, died the same day that Elvis allegedly did. This morass was ripe for exploitation, and Sun Records was ready to rock and roll.
Re-enter Shelby Singleton. Singleton had heard about an unpublished novel called Orion: The Living Superstar of Song. The novel follows a musician from his rural roots on the road to rock & roll stardom. At the end of the novel, the musician finds himself moldering in his Dixieland mansion. He decides to take action, kicking drugs and faking his own death in order to start anew. Why not play this out in real life? Why couldn’t the real Elvis have faked his death, and started fresh? Singleton, Jimmy Ellis, and Boblo Records president Bob Smith decided to fill the void.
Using the power of suggestion and grief, Sun Records created a new “Elvis.” The trio overdubbed Ellis onto old recordings by Jerry Lee Lewis owned by Singleton, crediting Ellis as a “friend” of Jerry Lee’s. This reissue sold more than a million copies, the speculation being that the recordings were unreleased Elvis material. Good Morning, America even had the voice analyzed, determining that it was, in fact, Elvis. Could it be that the Elvis who was buried was Tom Parker’s stepson or known Elvis lookalike Jimmy Ellis, and that the real Elvis was still out there singing?
Sun Records stoked this fervor by announcing that the voice on record belonged to a mysterious singer named Orion. They released Orion’s debut, an album called Reborn with a front jacket outrageously featuring Orion superimposed over Elvis’s casket.
Orion was a breakout success, and Jimmy Ellis found himself on the road with artists like Jerry Lee Lewis, Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn, and The Oak Ridge Boys. He performed in an Elvis-style jumpsuit and wore a sequined mask to obscure his face. He had finally achieved fame as a performer doing the thing he always resented, being just like Elvis.
Although Ellis considered himself to be an individual artist with his own songs, he now found himself succeeding at being Elvis. His conflict was deepened by the stresses of the road, and the line between himself and Elvis blurred even further. He began to wonder if he might be Elvis’ estranged brother. Not only did he sound just like him but looked a bit like him as well – even more so when he dyed his hair black as he had been as Orion. Ellis had also been put up for adoption by his birth parents, and his biological father had only signed Vernon, just like Elvis’ father, Vernon Presley.
Jimmy Ellis began to drink hard and womanize, traveling everywhere with a suitcase full of dirty Polaroids he called his “Lucys.” He had become trapped in his own gimmick and was rapidly losing control.
A lifetime pursuit of success in music ended in one of music’s wildest Hail Mary’s. Orion became equal parts perpetrator and victim in his own con, finally achieving success by living as someone else and trapping himself inside the gimmick. The con went on until New Year’s Eve 1984 when Ellis finally took his mask off in front of a crowd of 5,000 and declared that he was not Elvis. The gimmick came crashing down around him.
Though Orion revealed himself to be Jimmy Ellis, there are still those who believe that the real Jimmy Ellis was buried in Elvis’ casket, and that the Ellis who revealed himself was, in fact, a post-plastic surgery Presley. Jimmy Ellis continued to perform around the South but never reached the success of Orion.
Ellis (or Elvis, for the true believers) was killed in December 1998 during a stickup at his Orrville, Alabama pawn shop, but he lives on as one of the stranger footnotes in rock & roll.