Tag Archives: Elvis Presley

Orion: The Man Who Would Be King

The truth, it is often said, is stranger than fiction.  The strange tale of Jimmy “Orion” Ellis is one of the stories that’s so bizarre it can only be real.  Showbiz is a creepy place, filled with unsavory characters that basically earn a living preying on the dreams of vulnerable people.  This story begins with the death of a legend: on August 16, 1977 the King of Rock ‘n Roll, Elvis Aaron Presley died in his Tennessee mansion.

Jimmy Ellis was born ten years after Elvis in 1945, in Mississippi. Ironically, Jimmy’s mother was named Gladys—the same name as Elvis’ mother. Jimmy was blessed (or cursed depending on how you look at it) with a voice that sounded nearly identical to the King of Rock.  While Elvis was alive, Ellis struggled to make it as a singer who just happened to sound exactly like the world’s biggest music star.  One of his early single’s was actually called “I’m Not Trying To Be Like Elvis.”

A record produced named Shelby Singleton bought the legendary Sun Records in 1969 from Sam Phillips.  Sun Records is the recording studio/label where Elvis first hit it big.  In strange move, Singleton signed Jimmy Ellis to his Sun Records. The first thing Singleton did was to release two Elvis covers that Ellis had recorded back in 1972, “That’s Alright Mama” and “Blue Moon of Kentucky.”  Singleton was no fool, though, he knew that people wouldn’t really be interested in hearing some unknown singer from Mississippi re-record two Elvis songs—no matter how much he sounded like the King—so Singleton had the songs released with a question mark on the cover.  Thus neither Elvis nor Ellis was credited for the songs, though it was just an unsavory marketing gimmick, the releases fueled growing speculation that Elvis was, in fact, not dead. This trick was used again on a Jerry Lee Lewis duets album, in which Ellis sang with Jerry Lee on “Save the Last Dance for Me.”  Again, no credits were attributed to either Elvis or Ellis leaving many to think that the King had somehow magically come back from the dead to sing.

The biggest mystery surrounding Orion? Where he got that snazzy mask.

So far this is pretty incredible story, right?  Can you believe I haven’t even told you the weird part yet?  I often wondered why exactly people love to believe that Elvis is still alive.  I’m sure that a lot of it has to do with the disbelief that such an amazing talent could really, truly be gone.  When our heroes die it reminds us all of our own mortality, and some people can’t really handle that I guess.  But what I find so incredible about the myth/legend surrounding Elvis’ death is that all of these tales spread and grew before the Internet.  Mass media as we know it was still in its infancy, how were these tales of Elvis’ life-after-death spread? Unscrupulous businessmen like Shelby Singleton no doubt helped to stoke the fires of conspiracy enthusiasts/despondent Elvis fans, but can you believe it was a housewife from Georgia that kicked the Elvis-is-Alive phenomenon off?

When the king died in 1977, Gail Brewer-Giorgio wrote a book about a Southern rock singer who decided to escape from the limelight by faking his own death.  The name of the book? ORION.  In the book the singer wears a mask on stage to cover his face, which is what Jimmy Ellis started to do when he performed on stage under the name Orion. Putting on the mask was no doubt so that people in the audience were left guessing whether or not Ellis was Elvis, however the strange part is that Jimmy Ellis never said he was Elvis.  He also wasn’t an Elvis impersonator; the songs he sang were for the most part songs that weren’t Elis songs.  Amazingly, Ellis charted 9 times on the country music charts as Orion. In 1981 Cash Box Magazine (a magazine dedicated to the coin-operated music industry) named Orion one of three most promising country music acts.

By 1983, Ellis was weary of the Orion act and wanted to be taken seriously as an artist.  During a live appearance he angrily took off his mask and refused to put it on again.  Despite being a talented singer and having achieved moderate success in the world of country music, Orion’s career never recovered.  The cat was truly out of the bag: Jimmy Ellis was Orion not Elvis Presley.  Ellis left Sun Records and pretty much faded from the music biz.  On December 12, 1998 Jimmy Ellis was murdered in his Alabama pawnshop during a robbery gone bad.

I cannot believe someone has not made the story of Jimmy Ellis into a film because it has all the makings of a really great movie.  Perhaps there have been attempts to bring Ellis’ story to the big screen but they’ve failed due to the outlandish nature of his story.  I know I was skeptical when I first heard all of this.  Orion’s musical career had the negative side effect of helping to keep Elvis Presley off of US postage stamps.  The rule for celebrities/public figures to appear on United States postage is that they must be dead for at least 10 years—the uncertainty created by Orion and conspiracy theorists kept Elvis’ image from appearing on US postage until 1993.

Orion’s 1979 album REBORN is available on Spotify and I’ve been listening to it trying to figure out if it’s the single greatest or worst thing.  It’s one thing to be inspired by or influenced by a singer or band…but Orion is another thing entirely.  Musically, I guess you could call Orion a tribute act but even that feels wrong.  A lot of people have made millions of dollars off of Elvis and his tragic death; most of them are vultures, parasites of the music industry. I can’t really put Jimmy Ellis into that category though.  True he was complicit in a sort-of-conspiracy that in hindsight seems really tacky, but he was also a victim.  Dreams are a powerful carrot, and people will do strange and terrible things to achieve them.  I can’t fault Ellis for trying to make it as a singer, by any means necessary.

I think the ultimate irony would be if someone out there started performing as Orion.  But that would just be crazy, right?

Advertisements
Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Memories of (Fat) Elvis

Controversial statement: I like so-called “Fat Elvis” better than “Young, Not Addicted to Pain-Killer Elvis.” Fat Elvis had a better wardrobe, had more of a flair for the dramatic, and hung out with cooler people. Sure, he was full of himself (literally) and a bit paranoid, but Fat Elvis was cool. Actually, I feel really bad for Elvis, fat and thin. He was a prisoner of fame and success. Other than Jesus, I can’t think of a single person more famous than Elvis. Can you imagine what that must of felt like? I can’t.

One of the last vacations my family took was to Graceland. It was so surreal and sad. I can still see the big metal gates of his estate. They weren’t just keeping people out, they were keeping him in. Having one’s home turned into a museum is the very definition of success, right? I mean, there’s an entire cottage industry based on showing slack-jawed yokels (such as yours truly) the home of a dead rock-star. What must it be like to literally create a vast economy? One that supports hundreds of people long after you are dead?

Fat Elvis meets the Devil.

Elvis was more than a man–he was a God. And he had the problems of a God.  I hope that wherever he is now, he has some peace.

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

Classic Albums Revisited: SOLO IN SOHO

A lot of people have the wrong impression of Thin Lizzy.  They weren’t the dunder-headed hard rockers that people think they were.  Thin Lizzy were rockers with heart.  And that heart came from lead-singer/songwriter Philip Lynott.  When a songwriter is dubbed a “poet,” I can’t help but think of doilies and Shakespeare…the truth this, a poet is someone who can take complex feelings and distill them in way just about everyone can understand.  It’s more than just pretty words.  I can write about love and explain it to you, but only a true poet will be able to not only describe love but also convey the feeling of love.  Phil Lynott was a poet and there was nothing stupid or dunder-headed about his work.

Thin Lizzy exploded when they released JAILBREAK in 1976.  They’d been doing their thing for a while but it was that album that put them on the map with songs like “Running Back,” “The Cowboy Song,” and of course “The Boys Are Back In Town.”  That last song in particular doomed Thin Lizzy by both setting their expected level of commercial success higher than the band could ever reach again while also providing Thin Lizzy with the means to indulge their bad habits*.  Just before Thin Lizzy called it quits, Lynott started his solo career.  His first album, SOLO IN SOHO, was released in 1980.  I think the album is a both astonishingly diverse and heartbreakingly sincere.

NOUN: A thing done by one person unaccompanied, in particular.

The first song, “Dear Miss Lonely Hearts” sounds like it would fit nicely on just about any Thin Lizzy album (which makes sense considering that Lynott’s backing band consisted of most of Thin Lizzy, along with Mark Knopfler from The Dire Straits, and oddly enough Huey Lewis on harmonica).  I really like this song, which is an awesome rocker about a guy who writes an advice columnist when he falls in love with his girlfriend’s sister.  As trashy and, frankly ridiculous, as that sounds “Dear Miss Lonely Hearts” doesn’t come off silly at all.  Lynott switches perspective back and forth during the song from the author of the letter and the titular “Miss Lonely Hearts.”  The ever complex and sensitive Lynott seems to sympathize more with women in the song than the confused Casanova.   

“King’s Call” is another song that sounds like it could have appeared on a Thin Lizzy album.  It’s a poignant song about the singer’s reaction to the death of Elvis Presley.  Listening to this song today, one can’t help but draw an unfortunate parallel to Lynott’s own death in 1986.  It’s especially difficult to hear him sing about drinking “a bottle of wine and gin” when Elvis dies (Lynott died of complications from substance abuse). The song is bittersweet, however, because as Lynott attests in the song, “You can always hear the King’s Call” can also apply to Lynott and the amazing work he did.  I also find it a little funny that a ballsy rocker like Lynott so idolized Elvis.  I think a lot of people from my generation tend to under-appreciate Elvis and his cultural significance.

The rest of the album departs from what many would expect to hear from the lead-singer of Thin Lizzy.  “A Child’s Lullaby” is just that, a lullaby to Phil’s daughter Sarah.  The lyrics, which are simple but clearly from the heart,  are beautifully paired with an orchestral arrangement that’s as delicate as Lynott’s vocals.  I can’t think of a song further from “The Boys Are Back In Town,”  and it a way it bums me out that this side of Phil Lynott is not the one people remember the most.  As raucous and rebellious as Thin Lizzy was, Lynott was big softie at heart.   “Tattoo (Giving It Up All For Love)” is a super-catchy R&B number that also should have been a monster-hit**.  “Girl” is another R&B-like departure which manages to defy Lynott’s tough-guy/Thin Lizzy image.  Worth noting is the fact that this song, and “Solo in Soho” both feature a really weird spoke-word segment by this British woman who sounds a bit like a robot.  I’d say that that this one detail is the only blight on an otherwise awesome record (this woman does not know what “emote” means and speaks in the flattest possible manner).

SOLO IN SOHO is noteworthy for addressing the subject of race, something not really touched upon by Thin Lizzy.  On “Ode To A Black Man” Lynott seems both angry and filled with pride about being black.  It’s funny, but I never really thought about Lynott’s race growing up, he was just the dude from Thin Lizzy…but Lynott wasn’t a white guy.  I won’t pretend to understand the complexities of coming from a racially mixed background (especially during the 50’s and 60’s when Lynott grew up) but I find “Ode To A Black Man” fascinating.  It makes me wish Lynott had written more songs about his experiences of being black.

Blinded by Rock? Can you believe I never gave much thought to Lynott’s racial background?

“Yellow Pearl” is an awesome and a bit baffling bit of techno-pop.  It’s pretty much as far from Thin Lizzy’s classic rock sound as one can get, and yet it’s pretty fantastic in it’s own right.  I’ve listened to this song a few times and I’ll be honest…I have no idea what this song is about (if you know congratulations, you’re smarter than me, please tell me in the comments below).  It’s trippy and cool and ahead of it’s time/completely awesome, you really need to experience it for yourself.  The album ends with “Talk In ’79” which is an almost spoken-word piece about the music scene at the time.  As a piece of history it’s interesting, as Lynott name-checks Brian Eno, The Police, and Rockpile of all things.  In the last line of the song Lynott mystically says:

“This broadcast was brought to you in 1979

I’m just talking to you over these waves

Not just another time and another place

And before we knew it

The old wave was gone and controlled.”

An interesting fact that people don’t know about Phil Lynott is that he was friends with The Sex Pistols and was a champion of the early punk scene.  I find this curious because those same punk-rockers would be the same people who would eventually turn the tide against rock bands like Thin Lizzy.  “Talk In 79” seems like a critique on both the music press and the music “scene” in general.  I wish Lynott hadn’t died because I’d like to know what his reaction to music press in the digital age.  Genres are more splintered and the audience is doubly fickle.   An artist like Phil Lynott probably wouldn’t have been allowed to flourish and mature.  I can’t imagine an album like SOLO IN SOHO coming out today.  Lynott was a well-established artist but based on his previous work with Thin Lizzy, SOLO IN SOHO was a gamble.  Sadly, the album isn’t very easy to find today.  I wasn’t able to download it on iTunes or stream it on Spotify.  My local record shop didn’t have a copy, either, so the only way I was able to get my hands on it was to buy it from Amazon as a (gasp!) physical CD.  I find that a shame because there is so much good stuff on SOLO IN SOHO.  If you’re in a second-hand record shop and you see SOLO IN SOHO pick it up, it’s a fantastic record by an often overlooked artist.

FOOTNOTES:

*Both musically and pharmacologically.

**Interestingly enough, “Tattoo (She’s Giving It All Up For Love)” was covered by Huey Lewis & The News on their 1982 album PICTURE THIS.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Advertisements