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NATE'S MUSIC STORIES

#1 - The Strange Career and Death of Jimmy Ellis.

A kiss and a curse.

On December 12th 1998, leaving two accomplices outside in a getaway car, a crazed young man with a shotgun murdered Jimmy Ellis and then Jimmy’s ex-wife in the pawn shop they ran in the little town of Orrville, Alabama.

They called the shop Jimmy’s Pawn & Package Store, and the shooter, who was named J.J. Lee, had taken just a few seconds to turn it into what Sheriff Harris Huffman Junior called a slaughterhouse. The press headlines all read something like:

 Orion - Top Elvis Impersonator - Shot to Death.

The shooter – obviously impersonating a human being - had walked into the store intent on emptying the cash register. It had gone wrong almost immediately and he shot Jimmy in the side, mortally wounding him. As Jimmy tried to crawl away Lee turned the gun on the ex-wife’s face. A female assistant also got hit in the hand by the second blast but had the presence of mind to fall over and play dead and she survived.

The cops picked up the two accomplices very quickly and then tracked down Lee who was hiding out in a motel in Atlanta. They were all charged with two counts of capital murder.

Jimmy had been shot and lived to tell the tale once before - ten years before, on his way to a gig in Mobile. He had stopped his car to ask directions from a couple of guys who for some reason decided he was an undercover cop. Jimmy realised he was in big trouble when one of them pulled a gun and demanded money and patted him down while the other guy ran to their own car. He was on his way back with a rifle when Jimmy managed to break free and run as fast as he could. The two guys both opened up on him. Jimmy was injured but was back performing a year later.    
           
Clearly he was no sensitive flower. There was a local anecdote about him doing a duet on a recording with Jerry Lee Lewis. It was billed as Jerry Lee Lewis and Friend and the Friend had lived to tell the tale. Lewis -‘This is the killer, speaking’ - was known to be stone crazy and the punch line was that Jimmy Ellis had survived ‘The Killer’ and was therefore probably invincible.

When he died the newspapers called Jimmy ‘Orion’ because that was the stage-name he had adopted when he’d got re-invented up there in Nashville. He was said to be have been born in Pascagoula, Mississippi, in 1945, to a single mom who later put him up for adoption and he was taken in by the Ellis couple from Orrville.

Not many of the write-ups are in any way concise where Jimmy Ellis’s life is concerned although Orrville is where he grew up and it’s certainly where he died. It’s about twenty minutes from Selma or twenty miles – take your choice. But his death was one hell of a bloody affair in a small town of some 230 people at the time. Later in life Jimmy adopted a new persona and after that the bios got written and re-written - sometimes at Jimmy’s instigation, or at least with his agreement.  

But in the middle of his unfinished life and his stop-start and weird and unfulfilled career - call it what you like - Jimmy had become world famous when he had put on an Elvis style, MGM Grand, Vegas jump-suit and, for good measure, a fancy mask. But it was the kind of mask that owed more to a Masquerade Ball in 15th Century France than the one the Lone Ranger usually wore. Sometimes Jimmy’s mask was an ornate gold one. He had silk shirts to match and dyed jet black hair.

Jimmy usually allowed that he was ‘okay’ with his new name and his new image and with doing his Orion gig. As for the masks, he said it added a bit of mystery and the ladies seemed to like it.

So, how did he get to be Orion? Who was responsible? Well, it was a guy called Shelby Singleton, record executive, guy who bought the Sun Records label and moved it from Memphis to Belmont Boulevard in Nashville. The iconic Sun Records was started in Memphis by the even more iconic record producer Sam Phillips. There’s a lot of people in that part of the world think they can produce rock n roll but in reality they’re few and far between.

Phillips had discovered Elvis and got it right and then he’d gotten into ‘investments’ after some massive early record-producing successes. Elvis’s manager Colonel Parker had teamed up with RCA Records and they bought-out Elvis’s contract from Phillips. But Sam was a lucky man and an early backer of Holiday Inns - which also started life in Memphis.

After Sun Records had lost its mojo and started to have more misses than hits, Sam had put the label up for sale. In its heyday - with its instantly recognisable yellow sun-rising label and unique slap-back echo technique - it had been not only the first record label for Elvis, but home or halfway-house to Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and Carl Perkins and some other originals and greats. The Sun Story has spawned movies and a hit stage musical.

An old Tin Pan Alley mate of mine from London who lived in Nashville for a few years – and at one time lived on Belmont Boulevard just down from the new Sun GHQ - knew Shelby who told him that Orion had been all his idea. At that time, 1982, my mate had just produced a punk-ish new wave album that had got a lot of publicity but had pissed-off a lot of the Nashville hierarchy. Shelby – who loved a good controversy - wanted him to produce an album on Orion.

Shelby told him that Jimmy Ellis was a gifted and a charismatic performer: ‘He’s good,’ said Shelby: ‘I was always convinced he could be a star in his own right given the breaks.’ Shelby also said that Jimmy’s big problem (and therefore his own big problem, too) was that he was burdened, if that’s the right word. No matter what Jimmy said or what he sung, he always ended up sounding exactly like Elvis. ‘It’s fantastic but it’s also a crying shame and it’s something Jimmy can’t do a damn thing about. He’s tried but it’s a kiss and a curse.’

Jimmy Ellis had grown up on a family farm in Orrville, did all the usual boy-type sporty things, and then started singing in bands. At one time he came to the attention of Capricorn Records in Macon, Georgia, who tried to sign him up. However, somebody must have run the idea of Jimmy signing with Capricorn past Jimmy’s dad because Daddy Ellis was totally against it.

Getting an approach from Capricorn Records was a big deal. They were a bona fide Southern-Fried Boogie, and soul-band, money-making success-story and home to the likes of the Allman Brothers and the Marshall Tucker Band and Dobie Gray. Capricorn was an original – even if its staff were a little more fried than your usual record folks. Capricorn attracted bikers and outlaws and hippies and rock chicks to wild parties where presidents like Jimmy Carter mixed with cranked-up Hells Angels and the likes of Hunter Thompson mixed with Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton. But it didn’t matter with Jimmy. His dad adamantly refused to let him sign because he was intent on him going to college - on a baseball scholarship.

It’s more than possible that Jimmy’s dad had read about the Capricorn boys exploits in the Georgia newspapers – especially stories about the Allman Brothers. Maybe he wanted to save the boy with an education? But the big question is really another matter altogether: if Jimmy had signed with Capricorn he wouldn’t have been marketed as an Elvis clone – that’s for sure. Capricorn boss Phil Walden and his honchos were more suss than that. So… what kind of Capricorn act would Jimmy Ellis have been?  

Who knows? He took the baseball scholarship and after that he did the rounds of the talent contests again so college was basically wasted on a Jimmy who was intent on performing and… who eventually got a break. Well, a sort of break. He began recording for a label with the strange name of Dradco Records who were located in Kibee, Georgia. Jimmy’s first recording for them was in 1964 and it was entitled Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched.

It attracted local airplay and Jimmy went on to record for the Dradco label under several names one of which was Ellis James and another was Steve Silver. But he also recorded under the name of Shadowman which leads me to believe that maybe he’d seen the way his future would probably shake out. Maybe he had already accepted that he might have to compromise simply because he had the voice.  

So he was gigging and waiting around for the right opportunity to come along and when it didn’t he decided to give his career a push and, like so many others had done before, he went off to Nashville. In 1972, and still billing himself as Jimmy Ellis, he met up with Shelby Singleton.

Shelby was quite an interesting guy. When he was dying he went out and bought himself a Rolls Royce because he’d always wanted one. He was born in Texas and fought in the marines in Korea. He was a former executive and producer for the giant Mercury Records. He had bought the Sun label after his own label Plantation Records had scored a massive worldwide #1 on both the country and the pop charts with a catchy song called Harper Valley PTA - recorded by Jeannie C Riley in 1968.

The song sold 6 million singles and spawned a movie. Of course it did, because the song itself, written by Tom T Hall, was clever, timely and controversial. It was about a single mother who had scandalised the local community and the PTA - the Parent Teachers Association - with her short skirts and her thoroughly modern attitude. The nut of the song is where it takes off and Ms. Single Mom finally ‘straightens out’ the hypocritical PTA members and shows them all up. The song title was probably taken from a place just outside Nashville off Highway 100 called Harpeth Valley.

But, when it came time to make a record with Jimmy for Shelby’s new Sun label the decision about song material was taken out of Shelby’s hands. A Florida record producer called Finlay Duncan suddenly showed up out of nowhere and offered Shelby a tape with two performances he’d already recorded on Jimmy.

But they were exactly the same two songs Elvis had cut for Sam Phillips and the old Sun label in Memphis back in the 50’s when rock and roll had begun. When Shelby played them his mouth fell open. After that his thinking about Duncan’s offer was probably something like: Well, why not? It’ll sure as hell be controversial!

Maybe Jimmy and Finlay Duncan had worked out a plan between them? Jimmy would go to see Shelby first and then Duncan shows up with the tape? But at the time Shelby considered himself on a roll. He thought maybe history would repeat itself so he put out a record of That’s All Right Mama and Blue Moon of Kentucky.

And Shelby went one step further. He didn’t put Jimmy’s name on the record. This was before he talked Jimmy into being Orion, and some of Shelby’s friends are adamant that Shelby was also hoping to copy the success of the artist called Question Mark and the Mysterions? And so there were no artist credits on the record; just a question mark – or marks.

History didn’t repeat itself. There was, however, some controversy and Shelby re-pressed the record with the name Jimmy Ellis hoping it would create some more controversy. And it did, but not enough. Whatever Elvis versus Orion war Shelby was hoping to generate and capitalise on with the radio and newspapers, didn’t happen.

For 1972 Jimmy and Shelby went their own ways but then six years later in `78, they re-connected and decided to give it another shot. This time it’s said that Jimmy signed a proper contract with Shelby (or not) but they went in and made a new album for the Sun Label called Orion Reborn.

The dates and info in various Orion bios and Sun blurbs and articles are often out of whack so why bother trying to make sense of it or write it better? And who cares about all that when the guy sings like Elvis? The release date of Orion Reborn was `78 and then Orion Reborn was revised and re-released in `79. Why? Because of a tasteless cover shot of a masked Jimmy climbing out of a coffin – Reborn!!!...Yo!!! – Shelby had finally got his controversy. Thing is, I think that one was un-planned. 

Never mind about Reborn, Jimmy seems to have junked and re-adopted the name Orion at various times in his career. Don’t sweat it. Doesn’t matter. Makes yer brain hurt. Orion was good but as with any good voice you’ve still got to have some very good material. Or, as RCA exec and hit writer Norro Wilson was once heard to say – loudly, and in an elevator: ‘If you ain’t gotta song, boy, you ain’t got shit.’

Orion’s new album was pressed up on gold vinyl. All Orion’s Sun albums would be pressed-up in gold:

My old Tin Pan Alley mate said that he once introduced Shelby to an English guy who had turned up in Nashville from Walton-on-the Naze. The English guy – a good sort and generous - was intent on starting a business making bespoke ‘gold record awards’ in nice frames for record exec’s walls. They contained any hit LP you liked and golded - with a can from Walmart. My mate was embarrassed to show them to Shelby but had been talked into it in a bar: ‘The awards were tacky as shit. Shelby was delighted. He immediately ordered about thirty five.’   

Orion became the best Elvis Presley impersonator around and it wasn’t long before the gig became a cottage industry and then a real industry. I’ve seen good Elvises at the Frog & Nightgown pub in the Old Kent Road, in London, and then another Chinese Elvis at a nearby chinese restaurant on the very same day. At least, I think it was the same day - or night? But I do believe the Elvis impersonator industry begat the modern Music Tribute Act.

However, one day, Jimmy’s image and story suddenly got blurred. Maybe he couldn’t resist the temptation? Maybe it was all Shelby? Maybe it was a bit of both of them? But whoever’s fault it was, one of them had got hold of a new book called Orion written by an American woman called Gail Brewer-Giorgio.

And what is certain is that Gail brought plenty more strange-ness to the party. She told the newspapers that she had begun to write her novel at the very moment she’d heard about Elvis’s death in August 1977. She also said that she had begun to write it because, intuitively, she knew that Elvis had merely faked his own death in order to escape a fish-bowl existence. And… she had based the name Orion on Elvis’s dead twin-brother, Aaron.
 
In 1988 Gail appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show and she was quite convincing about Elvis still being alive. So convincing that although the King had been certified dead back in August 1977, the U.S. Post office apparently sat on the fence with their commemorative Elvis stamp issue until 1993.

Another piece of outright genius propaganda Breakfast TV idiocy was that - because Orion’s speaking voice was so uncannily like Elvis’s, and his singing voice closer - when he went on the coast-to-coast TV show Good Morning America they insisted on conducting a scientific voice-scan test with an expert from Houston.

You’ve probably guessed the result. Yes. The test concluded that Orion really was Elvis. All those Elvis is Alive! rumours were now flying. All the supermarket check-outs had loads of magazines with Orion/Elvis on their front page. Elvis seen in Piggly Wiggly supermarket in… Memphis?

Jimmy Ellis had changed the world of popular culture but never really got to capitalise. Probably grabbed at anything new that drove by. And get a load of this: Jimmy said he had called Brewer-Giorgio up in 1979 two years after Elvis’s death, and told her he had already been Orion for some time before El’s death in 1977. She said: ‘Hey! Wait a minute! Orion’s character was a product of my own imagination.’ For what it’s worth - Jimmy replied: ‘I know. But I am Orion. I was born today.’

And then he hung up. And so it goes and it all makes no sense. Unless he was drunk, or unless she’d mis-heard him and what Jimmy said was ‘I was born too late.’ That would work. But maybe it wasn’t supposed to make any sense? Or it didn’t matter? Or it never happened? On talent shows these days the celeb judges sign up knowing they’re gonna get alternatively shredded and revered. Hired and fired. Dissed and pissed. Pregnant or not. It doesn’t matter. In the end it’s all ‘just keep me in the frame’ propaganda stuff.   

But with his new beginnings Orion went viral and if the internet had existed back then he would have been rich - like Shelby. A big promo campaign was at once set in motion (and yes, Shelby was in there and grinning and swinging). The new plan used the fictional persona of Orion taken from Gail’s book. There was a whole new fake background: Orion had now been born in BF, East Jesus, Tennessee, (but in 1936, if you will), and to a brand new old Mom & Pop called Jess and Dixie. Went to High School in Nashville. Married a girl called Danielle. Had a kid called…

Orion gave up the mask. Took it off for good at a big East Coast Expo concert in 1983 but it was back in `87 by popular overdraft.
  
            What the hell? These days – and especially where older stuff and archive stuff and stars and half-stars are concerned – all the facts depend on which obit you read. It’s like the Who Shot Liberty Valence thing where the myth finally got bigger than the story and so you have to print the myth.

Jimmy could have made the big time. He was good enough and blessed with a great voice but he lacked great songs - or at least one big hit song to break him regardless of the Elvis thing. And maybe he needed a good producer, too? - one who would take some chances. Orion changed popular culture. In semi-retirement he worked hard and for all his efforts he was killed in 1998 by a jerk - in a pawnshop.
 
But, right here, before I wrap it up, let’s quickly digress. There’s something I can’t resist telling you about: My Tin Pan Alley friend had a meeting with Orion about recording an album. Shelby had arranged the meeting but was suddenly insisting he wanted this new album done in two days flat. Maybe he was channelling Colonel Parker? Maybe he needed Orion product before ‘his boy’ upped and split?

My friend arrived at the apartment block and, searching for the right door found that – not only did Orion’s next-door neighbour share a surname with my mate – but that the neighbour’s Christian name was Kermit. Not a good portent. Run away now. But Orion had been keeping an eye out for his visitor and opened his own door in the Full Elvis with the mask on. My mate sighed and went on in. Accepted Chablis from a decanter. Room temperature. Open for God knows how long.

But…despite everything he said he liked Orion, and would have loved to have done a good rockabilly album and got his own name on a record on the Sun label. He thought it might be a good idea to get in some young musos and go into overdrive. But, he sensed that Shelby’s new Orion album would not get made – and it didn’t.

Punky musos? My friend was also recording a band at the time called The Boppin’ 88’s who were a Stray Cats-type trio from Champagne, Illinois, and who could have used the session fees. The 88’s wrote songs like Two Rigs about a trucker driving a rig through outer space and along the Milky Way while shooting-up speed in order to keep on trucking – i.e. two rigs.

The chorus went: I’m driving two rigs - I’m driving one through Tennessee – And the other rig’s sticking in my arm – Itsa driving me -   

A song like that might have done the trick for Orion. But, then, maybe not? The Boppin’ 88’s were too edgy. They also did punky-rockabilly versions of classic Hank Williams songs, wore make-up on the streets around Music Row, and the drummer was about to marry one of the Cash family daughters. Masks. Make-up?

To paraphrase Hank Williams – that same Hank who was standing in the middle of the highway outside his house as dawn was breaking on the last day of his life. The Hank who turned to his wife and said: ‘Honey? I think I see Elvis coming down the road. Hey! No! Wait a minute. He’s wearing a fucking mask.’

Many of the people involved in the whole Jimmy Ellis story seem like they’ve just stepped out of the pages of a book. Well, I think some of them had, and some of them were the just products of big hope, cheap propaganda and wild imaginings:

Spray it on the wall. Spray it big. But make sure you spray it in gold, right?