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It's Only Make-Believe
The Strange and Ultimately Sad Story of Elvis Sound-Alike..."Orion"
By Michael McCall
The myth of Elvis Presley looms large in popular culture. Not only did he play a key role in the birth of rock 'n' roll music--thereby forever changing the course of American history--Tupelo's most famous son became the embodiment of everything both glorious and tragic about stardom in the late 20th century. If the years since Presley's passing have taught us anything, it's that his legacy has only grown. He may have been massively, unprecedentedly popular before, but it was only in death that he could truly become a symbol, an icon to be worshipped and desecrated in equal measure. Nothing quite offers a testament to Presley's iconic status like the proliferation of impersonators who've flourished in the years since The King's death. No other performer has inspired this kind of tribute, or at least to such an enormous degree.
Looking at these impersonators, we might find that Presley's own tragic story is repeated in miniature, dozens of times over. At least in the case of one such artist--who perhaps ironically insisted he wasn't imitating Elvis--the story is arguably even more tragic and without a doubt far stranger. 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.
The story of the singer Orion began as fiction and grew into a fanciful real-life tale that wound up trapping a desperate performer behind a mask he never wanted to put on. Unavoidably, the story was also about Elvis Presley--about the uncanny resemblance between an unknown singer's voice and the voice of an American legend.
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.
If you've ever set foot inside a used record store and flipped through the country bins, you've seen them--countless albums, all emblazoned with the same masked man on the cover. The clothes are always some variation on tacky '70s stagewear, but that sequined mask is always there, without fail, revealing only a rounded chin below and a full, black head of hair up top. After seeing a dozen variations on the same image, you can't help but ask: "Who is this guy, what the hell is his story, and who does he think he's kidding?" That man was Orion, and in his day, he and his producer, Shelby Singleton, apparently fooled more than a few people.
In a sense, there really were two Orions: There was Jimmy Ellis, the man behind the mask, and there was the fictional persona he perhaps all too willingly assumed. This latter Orion was born in the mind of a Georgia-based writer, Gail Brewer-Giorgio, who in the early '70s concocted a novel about a charismatic rock 'n' roll singer, Orion Eckley Darnell. Known to millions by his unusual first name, the fictional Orion was a poor, handsome young man from the Deep South who became the most famous performer of his time; the enormity of his popularity led him to be dubbed "The King."
The parallels in the story are obvious enough. As time passes, this shy, sensitive superstar begins to view his fame as a trap and a curse. Unable to buy groceries or fill a tank with gas without drawing a mob, he's forced to live in seclusion. His body bloated from drugs and a bad diet, he sinks into a deep, miserable depression.
But, this being fiction, the man devises a fantastical escape from his living hell. With the help of his sympathetic father, he creates a wax figure of his own overweight image. Then he grows a beard, loses weight, and fakes his own death in the mansion that has become his prison. After attending his own funeral, he drives off into the sunset in a beat-up station wagon with luggage strapped to the roof. As he motors down the road, the first tribute song to the life and death of Orion blasts from his radio.
Brewer-Giorgio wrote Orion: The Living Superstar of Song prior to Elvis Presley's death on Aug. 16, 1977. But she didn't get it published until afterward. By then, she'd already gained a fan in Nashville-based record producer and music mogul Shelby Singleton, who had purchased the rights to the Sun Records catalog from famed record producer Sam Phillips in 1969 and relocated the company from Memphis to Nashville. Since Elvis had first come to fame on Sun, Singleton had a heightened interest in anything to do with Presley's legacy.
It was in the early '70s that Singleton first crossed paths with Jimmy Ellis, the man who would become Orion incarnate. Born in 1945 in Orrville, Ala., Ellis had been recording songs and yearning for a big break since 1964, when he first began issuing dramatic ballads and traditional rockabilly songs on the Dradco label. By the time he encountered Singleton, he'd spent nearly a decade pursuing a career as a romantic Southern crooner and hip-shaking rocker. But he'd found little success, partly because deejays and record executives said he sounded too much like a second-rate Elvis.
Then, in 1972, a Florida record producer named Finlay Duncan sent Singleton a two-song single that Ellis had recorded in Fort Walton, Fla. When Singleton heard the song, he thought, "Man, either that is Elvis Presley singing, or it's someone who sounds just like him." Once Duncan convinced Singleton that the singer indeed was Ellis rather than Elvis, the Nashville owner of Sun requested that the producer cut a couple more songs on the performer. Singleton made specific requests: "That's Alright Mama" and "Blue Moon of Kentucky," the two songs that launched Presley's career on Sun Records in 1954. "I told them to try to duplicate the Elvis records as close as possible," Singleton recalls. "And that's what they did."
Singleton had a plan. "I put the record out on Sun Records without a name on it," the record company owner recalls, a devilish twinkle in his eye. "Everybody came back and swore that I had some long lost Elvis tracks, that I found them in the Sun vaults and rereleased them."
After Singleton had bought Sun Records several years before, he made several moves that drew the ire of RCA Records, the company that bought the rights to Elvis Presley's music from Sam Phillips in 1955 for $35,000. RCA pressed several lawsuits against Singleton, most of them involving the Sun label's reissuing of early Presley songs and the release of the "Million Dollar Quartet" album, which featured old, previously unreleased studio tapes of Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash.
When RCA heard the Jimmy Ellis recordings, it too thought Singleton had dug up more lost Elvis tapes. "RCA came very close to suing me over the record," Singleton says. "I kept telling them it wasn't Elvis, but they didn't believe me, and they thought I kept a name off the single because it was Elvis.... So they ran a voice print on it. That's when they found out it really wasn't Elvis."
A few years after the release of the single, which encountered some success thanks to rural radio play in the South, Ellis got involved with another record man, Bobby Smith of Macon, Ga. The two collaborated on a couple of singles and an album, Ellis Sings Elvis, that traded off on the singer's uncanny vocal resemblance to the most famous rocker in the world. The album was created before Presley's death. But as Ellis and Smith were preparing to put the album out, Presley passed away at his Graceland mansion. Overnight, of course, the star evolved from a pitiable shadow figure of a once-great artist into the overwhelmingly revered Dead Elvis. Interest in all things Elvis immediately heightened. Smith rushed the Ellis Sings Elvis album onto the market, at the same time contacting Singleton to ask if Sun might want to get involved.
A maverick from the start, the Texas-born Shelby Singleton was among the wave of music executives who came to prominence in the '60s--unlike Owen Bradley, Chet Atkins, Fred Rose, and other founders of Music Row, he came from the business side rather than the musical side of the industry. He gained his reputation as a free-thinking promoter who often stepped outside of normal business practices.
A former U.S. Marine, he entered the music business in the late 1950s as a regional promoter for Mercury Records. His knack for creative ideas moved him quickly through the Mercury system. By 1960, he was based in New York, eventually becoming vice president of Mercury and then the top executive of subsidiary Smash Records. During his tenure at Mercury, he produced both pop and country acts, most of them Southern-based. His early successes included Brook Benton's "The Boll Weevil Song" and Lee Roy Van Dyke's "Walk On By" in 1961, and Bruce Chanel's "Hey Baby" and Ray Stevens' "Ahab the Arab" in 1962. He also produced hits for Jerry Lee Lewis, Roger Miller, Charlie Rich, and Dave Dudley in the early to mid-1960s.
In 1966, Singleton left Mercury to form his own production company, SSS International, and eventually his own record label, Plantation Records. In 1968, he scored one of the biggest independent-label hits in Nashville history with Jeannie C. Riley's recording of a Tom T. Hall song, "Harper Valley P.T.A." The single sold 4 million copies, and the accompanying album more than 500,000 units. Flush with cash from that success, Singleton purchased Sun Records from Sam Phillips.
In the years that followed, he stayed busy conceiving outlandish ways to repackage Sun recordings, all of which allowed him to keep selling the same famous songs over and over again. But his business plan had one major stumbling block: He only had access to a limited number of recordings by Sun's biggest stars, which, besides Presley, included Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Charlie Rich.
But when Smith contacted him about Jimmy Ellis, Singleton was skeptical about the singer's potential. Nonetheless, he agreed to meet with the two men. In the meantime, in true enterprising fashion, he began to wonder if Ellis might sound like Elvis even when singing material that Presley never recorded. So when Ellis and Smith arrived for the meeting, Singleton took the singer into the studio. They cut the classic song "Release Me," as well as several other songs that Presley hadn't ever recorded. Listening to those recordings now, it's obvious that Ellis managed to resemble Presley's vocal tone and mannerisms more than other sound-alikes and imitators. "It sure sounded like Elvis to me," Singleton affirms.
Drawing on his legendary ability to scheme up unique record promotions, the producer felt the wheels of invention start to turn inside his crafty head: Surely there must be some way to make money off this Southern farm boy, with his jet-black hair and long sideburns. Looking back, Singleton says he only wanted to help Ellis come up with an attention-getting persona--and, of course, to make some money for both of them. "He wasn't an imitator, he was a sound-alike," Singleton stresses. "I thought we could do something with him if we came up with an angle that was unique."
Amazon: Jimmy Ellis (Orion)
iTunes: Rockabilly Rebel - Sun Collector Classics: Rockabilly