Tag Archives: Elvis

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?

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Wake the Dead: Putting Dead Musicians Back on Stage?

Everyone please welcome my good friend, Brian Conradi to the Defending Axl Rose family! Brian runs a really awesome blog devoted to all-things animated called CARTOONS FOR BREAKFAST.  He’s a great writer and I feel privileged to have him be the first outside person to contribute to DEFENDING AXL ROSE.  Without further ado…

Remember back in April at Coachella when a Tupac “hologram” performed onstage with Snoop Dogg?  To see a dead artist back onstage (and performing with another LIVE  artist) made my mind rush with possibilities.  A guitar duel between Eddie Van Halen and Jimi Hendrix?  AC/DC featuring both Brian Johnson AND Bon Scott?  A reunion of all four Beatles?  The sky was the limit.

Then I thought about it a little more: would it be that neat?  I mean, sure it’s cool to see the first time, but after a while, wouldn’t the novelty start to wear off?  Having been to Universal Studios in Orlando quite a few times, I can safely say that I’m no longer dazzled by all of the bleeding edge technology that goes into the attractions.  It’s fun, sure, but they don’t have that “Wow!” factor anymore.  Maybe that’s just me being cynical though.

Apparently Clint Eastwood didn’t get the memo.

More importantly, does it really honor the lives of these artists to bring them back to life for the sake of profit?  Digital Domain is the digital effects company that made the Tupac image, and they are already in the process of trying to corner the market on bringing dead people back to life. In their last quarterly report, CEO John Textor bragged to investors about creating a projection of Elvis and putting a show together around the country in places like Las Vegas and Branson, MO to boost the company’s revenue.  Never mind the fact that DD’s stock has dropped 75% in the last four months and that John Textor believes that animation students should pay to work on animated films for free.  There are literally hundreds of companies that can pull off this kind of parlor trick.  Recently, businessman Tony Reynolds told Yahoo! News that he is using another VFX company to create a Ronald Reagan projection that was originally going to be unveiled at the RNC in Tampa last week but had to be delayed.

I know that families and estates have control over the likeness rights of the departed, but is it right, particularly in the case of artists who spend their lives expressing themselves, to project them onto a stage and sing and dance to sell more tickets?  Recently, celebrities like Paul McCartney and Madonna have been making moves to try and prevent themselves from undergoing any posthumous publicity.  It was even a topic on “Talk of the Nation” today.  Now that we have the capability to use computers to literally recreate a person, the question of using a person’s likeness after his or her death is an important topic for those who live in the public eye.

Tupac can’t hear you cos…well you know…

I wish that I had been around to see Freddie Mercury, Janis Joplin, and Frank Sinatra perform, but they are dead and never coming back.  I’ve made my peace with that.  No amount of digital puppetry can ever truly bring these visionaries back to life and truly let us know what it was like to be there.  The projection technology itself (a fancier version of  the 19th century “Pepper’s Ghost” illusion) is neat and could have some cool applications, but this just feels cheap to me.  One of the best things about these musicians is that they left behind a legacy of legendary music for us to enjoy forever.  We may never be able to see their faces or hear them live, but they have still left us a chance to peek into their souls and really see who they were.

To find out more on why John Textor deserves your scorn and plenty of other groovy stuff related to cartoons and animation, check out Brian’s blog Cartoons For Breakfast.

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