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Already, Singleton realized that he needed to continue stoking the idea that Ellis might actually be Elvis. But instead of simply having him sing covers of Presley songs, he began pairing the singer with Presley's famous colleagues from the Sun Records era. To start, he took Ellis in the studio and put his voice onto some old Jerry Lee Lewis masters, issuing the recordings as Jerry Lee & Friends, in hopes that people would think the unnamed singer was Elvis Presley.
It worked, at least to some degree. "Immediately after I put it out, it got on the radio and of course everyone thought it was Elvis, that it was something I found in the can," Singleton says. "We kind of had a reputation for doing weird things anyway." But there were limitations to the gimmick, since there were only so many Sun masters on which Singleton could add Ellis' vocal. And that's when the maverick producer came up with his most brilliant stroke yet.
Singleton had heard about Brewer-Giorgio's unpublished book, Orion: The Living Superstar of Song. Instinctively sensing an opportunity, he decided to contact the author. "I thought that if I could make a deal with this lady, we can take Jimmy and we can make him over to be Orion." Of course, there were a few sticking points. For instance, Ellis may have had thick black hair and long sideburns, but his was not the familiar face of Elvis. Leave it to Singleton to come up with a plan: "I thought, `If he would just wear a mask, we can make him a star,' " Singleton says. But Ellis didn't exactly embrace the idea of spending the rest of his career peering through a mask. "He didn't really want to do it," Singleton says, still incredulous at Ellis' lack of enthusiasm. "I had an artist here at the time that I had to transform in some way to make him famous, and he was resisting. But, looking back, I think he didn't like it because he figured none of his friends would know that it was really him."
Ultimately, Ellis realized he only had two options: put on a mask and take a chance as the mysterious rhinestone Elvis duplicator, or go back home to Alabama and to 15 years of dead-end attempts at becoming a popular performer. Ellis put on the mask and became Orion...and he was in the building, thank you very much.
With Orion's debut, once again, there were those who thought Singleton had unearthed another batch of lost Elvis tapes from the Sun archives. But this time, Singleton went with his original idea of having the singer cut songs Presley had never recorded. In the process, he tapped right into Brewer-Giorgio's plotline: When people heard this singer who sounded so uncannily like Elvis, perhaps they'd think that he was Elvis, and that maybe the King had indeed faked his death. After all, he hadn't recorded these songs before.
In the studio, Singleton set up Orion with a full rock orchestra, approximating the dramatic strings-and-horns sound that Presley favored in his later years. The ensemble recorded a sweeping batch of songs, from Skylark's 1973 hit "Wildflower" to a swinging version of Nat King Cole's "Mona Lisa." Singleton emphasized songs packed with drama and pathos, tunes like "Before the Next Teardrop Falls" and "He'll Have to Go."
To make sure people made the connection that this enigmatic vocalist might be Elvis Presley, Singleton launched Orion's career with a debut album that featured a closed white casket on the cover. The title: Orion Reborn. As it turned out, Ellis not only sounded similar to Presley when he sang; his speaking voice also resembled the late singer's slurred twang. So the first single Singleton issued was a cover of an old Everly Brothers hit, "Ebony Eyes." The song came complete with a recitation in which Orion assumed the hushed speaking voice of a man who, while waiting in an airport to greet his love, discovers the plane has crashed. "People would hear that recitation and get tears in their eyes," Singleton says.
By this point, it was time to take Orion to the stage. "We had several different masks made, in different colors and styles and things like that," Singleton remembers. "The first concert we did was done in a high-school auditorium around Athens, Ala. The place was absolutely packed." Orion began touring regionally, mostly in the Southeast and Midwest. "As he started doing more and more radio interviews and local television shows and the like, the tabloids picked up on him," Singleton says. "They started printing that Elvis was really alive and performing every night as Orion. That's when it really exploded for him."
The reverberations were felt worldwide. Not only did Orion perform to crowds of 1,000 or more in the South; he also staged successful tours of Europe, proving especially popular in England, Germany, and Switzerland, where newspapers, magazines, and television interviews showered attention on the Masked Man Who Would Be Elvis.
"It was kind of an easy thing to get press on him, because of all the controversy," Singleton says. "Needless to say, we sold a lot of records too. We sold records in every country where we could get the record distributed."
Because some people objected to the casket cover on Orion's debut, Singleton reissued the record with a new sleeve featuring Orion in a mask, his thick black hair and sideburns combed to look as much like Presley as possible. After that, the albums kept coming in a seemingly unstoppable flood of product. Next was a collection called Sunrise--an overt reference to Presley's first record label. Then Singleton had Orion create a series of albums in which he covered famous songs in a specific genre. There was Orion Rockabilly, Orion Country, a collection of gospel songs titled Orion Glory, and an album of love ballads, Feelings. In all, there were nine albums in three years, and they all sold decently enough to keep Singleton coming up with new angles and schemes.
"I think at one point we had 15,000 fan club members," Singleton says. "We could guarantee any promoter that at least 500 people would show up at any gig, because there were that many people who were following him around the country. Wherever he was playing, they were there. There were hundreds of people in different parts of the country who would travel 500 miles, 1,000 miles, or whatever to see every show they could see. You'd see the same people at every show."
The most extreme of the fans were a mother and daughter who lived in a car in the parking lot behind the Sun Records building on Belmont Boulevard. When Orion's bus took off, the duo followed, buying tickets at each show and sitting as close to the stage as possible. They'd occasionally disappear, only to return again, sometimes following Orion nonstop for months at a time.
Singleton's theory was that scores of people desperately wanted to believe that Presley hadn't died, and he was more than happy to exploit that desire. "They really hoped that in some way Elvis could still be alive," he says. "They wanted to believe so badly. I think that's why Orion had the kind of following he had."
In retrospect, it's hard to imagine that people could have actually believed Elvis Presley was still living, cloaked in the guise of Orion. After all, this is the stuff of crackpot conspiracy theories. And yet the fact that fans latched onto Orion only underscores the incredible power of the Presley myth. And in this particular case, the tale of death and rebirth weirdly mirrors that of another, truly religious icon of Western culture.
It was no doubt a heavy and psychologically taxing burden for Jimmy Ellis to shoulder, and the whole charade started to gnaw at him. On one hand, he'd achieved a measure of the success that he'd always dreamed of attaining. On the other hand, he couldn't even fully savor it. He heard the applause, but he had to realize it was for the ghost he was resurrecting. Like a character in a Shakespearean tragedy, the conflict burning inside of him only loomed larger the longer he tried to suppress it.
Ellis started talking incessantly of retiring his mask, but the perks of his ersatz stardom were difficult to give up--and that only made the dilemma all the more unresolvable. "After he became Orion, he had women all over him all the time," Singleton says. "He became hooked on women. He got married at one point, but when he'd take [his wife] on the road, he'd have girls in two or three other rooms sometimes. He'd sneak out of his room and go see the other girls while his wife slept or waited for him to return. They fought a lot." Even worse, the role even began to play with Ellis' very sense of identity. Though he'd grown up on a farm in Alabama, his parents had adopted him from a hospital in Birmingham, Ala. As Singleton tells it, "Jimmy started to do some research, and he came across something that said that Vernon and Gladys [Presley] had some trouble in the mid-'40s and that Vernon had left home for a while. There was this other story that Vernon had spent some time in jail too. So, in Jimmy's mind, he started to think that maybe he was Elvis' brother. He thought that maybe he had been fathered by Vernon and put up for adoption."
Ellis and Singleton began to feud. It started with the singer asking politely about recording under his own name, without the mask. Singleton balked, not wanting to risk trading a money-making venture for a dead-end gamble. But as the producer held out, Ellis grew increasingly insolent; Singleton, in turn, grew angry, feeling that his protégé didn't appreciate the success or the wealth he'd given him.
Then, on New Year's Eve of 1981, the tension reached a head: In mid-performance, Orion ripped off his mask during a dramatic crescendo. A photographer captured the moment; the photos made it clear that the man onstage bore little resemblance to Elvis Presley.
"It exposed who he was, and that ended my gimmick," Singleton says, frowning. The producer immediately severed his contractual ties with the singer. "I told him, `You can do something else, or you can keep on being Orion. I don't care. I'm not going to fool with you anymore.'"
Singleton still expresses disappointment over the parting. "He probably could have been a superstar if he would have listened and taken the guidance he needed," says Singleton, not one to underestimate his own advice. "But he was like most entertainers. Once you create the image and the act, they get to thinking if it wasn't for them, this wouldn't have happened. They don't realize that the creation of the product is what makes them what they are. They go from the opposite standpoint: They think they're responsible for the success, not the product and the packaging and all the business that puts them there."
Singleton may exist on the fringes of the Nashville music industry, but his comments only reaffirm that Orion's tale is a uniquely Nashville tale--one in which the business of music somehow ends up becoming greater than the very sound of music. Elvis may always be associated with the Bluff City, but his doppelganger was clearly a creation of Music City, a town where careers are made and broken and, of course, reborn.
After Singleton and Ellis parted ways, the Sun Records chief was flooded with calls. "Back then, there were probably 100 Elvis imitators out there, and they all tried to contact us to see if we could do something similar with them." But by that point, the magic--or whatever it was--was gone. "I told them no. It was a different deal. Jimmy wasn't an Elvis impersonator. He just happened to sound like Elvis. Of course, nobody believed that. He was always called an impersonator, because of the way he sounded. But...he was just being himself, and we put a mask on him and called him Orion."
Ellis, meanwhile, continued to record and perform as Orion. He even began to record covers of Presley's hits, to dress in bejeweled jumpsuits, and to act and move more like Presley onstage. In other words, the man who wasn't an Elvis imitator started to become one. For years, he continued to make his living on the road and to find different backers who would help him record and distribute albums. In the mid-1980s, he still drew crowds of a few hundred people in some outposts, mostly in rural Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee.
By the '90s, Ellis was performing fewer than 50 shows a year. He spent most of his time on a farm near Selma, Ala., that he inherited from his parents. Because the land was near a highway, Ellis opened several small stores--a liquor store, a convenience market, a gas station--to serve travelers and locals.
In a 1990 interview with Rick Harmon, a small-town newspaper reporter in Alabama, Ellis expressed disappointment at ever taking on the guise of Orion. "I just wanted to perform, to use the talent that I had," he said. As the years wore on, Ellis continued to distance himself from his fictional persona, and from the entertainment business as a whole. Last year, he performed fewer than a dozen paying shows, most of them in Europe. He spent most of his time working at his stores in Selma.
If he was never completely able to leave behind his bizarre recording career, at least he had attained a degree of peace about it. But even that was short-lived: On the night of Dec. 12, 1998, Ellis was behind the register at his convenience store when three local teens charged into the store brandishing sawed-off shotguns. The gunmen shot the 53-year-old Ellis, his 44-year-old fiancee Elaine Thompson, and a friend, Helen King. Ellis and Thompson were killed; King was severely wounded but has recovered. Ellis was survived by his son Jimmy Ellis Jr.
After a career paying tribute to a man who led such a glorified life, Jimmy Ellis' own existence ended abruptly, violently, unfairly. If there's any kind of parallel to Elvis here, it's that death is rarely ever reasonable--and yet it unifies us all in the most definitive way. And even if Orion doesn't inspire the kind of posthumous hero-worship that Elvis Presley does, it's clear that his talents have regardless survived him. The man who turned Jimmy Ellis into Orion grants one thing: The singer truly was a gifted vocalist and a charismatic performer. "He really was good," Singleton says. "I think he could have been a star on his own, except he was burdened by the fact that, no matter what he did, he sounded like Elvis. That's a shame, but it was something he couldn't do anything about." Editor's note: Michael McCall contributed liner notes to the Bear Family label's recent Orion four-CD box set, Who Was That Masked Man?
Source: Rockabilly Hall of Fame
Amazon: Jimmy Ellis (Orion)
iTunes: Rockabilly Rebel - Sun Collector Classics: Rockabilly