Tuesday, August 15, 2017


Elvis Presley's drugged up body had barely been hoisted out of his Memphis mansion that sad day in August 1977 when a bizarre new genre sprouted up. It took place in the seedy environs of Las Vegas and on the pages of the National Enquirer. It was time for Elvis sightings, Elvis impersonators, and Elvis tributes. Elvis was being seen everywhere. The murder of John Lennon may have been sadder, and the death of Michael Jackson just as unexpected, but nothing compares to the loopy frenzy that happened when Presley died. It was as if Elvis' adoring public simply couldn't part with him. So saddened were fans by his death that it may have actually brought them momentary comfort to think he'd staged the whole thing and was secretly living in Mexico in a spaceship, or working at a Chevron, his face altered by surgery. One of the strangest offshoots of the phenomenon was a recording artist known as Orion, a fellow who performed behind a sequined Lone Ranger mask and sounded a lot like Elvis. As we see in Orion: The Man Who Would be King,  a well-made documentary by Jeanie Finlay, Elvis had some mighty big shoes to fill. A guy could die trying.

His name was Jimmy Ellis,  and he was a towering horse rancher out of Alabama. He was a shower singer, a guy who secretly wanted to be in show business, but coming from a background of rural types who had never traveled beyond their zip code,  he wouldn't try to live his dreams until he was in his 30s. The problem was that he sounded so much like Elvis that he couldn't get a break. He wasn't trying to imitate Elvis, it's just that when he opened his mouth, Elvis came out. Ellis went to L.A., got some gigs, did what he could. As he struggled, a novel called Orion by Gail Brewer Giorgio hit the bookstalls and became a subject of fascination for the Elvis cult. It chronicled the life of a fictionalized pop singer, one very much like Elvis. In the novel, this Orion fellow staged his death to get away from the stifling music business. One night Giorgio happened to see Ellis performing in a small roadhouse. It occurred to her that Ellis could be her Orion. She gave him the book, and he brought it to sleazeball music producer and president of Sun Records, Shelby Singleton.

There's some debate as to who actually came up with the idea, but in time Singleton had convinced Ellis to start dressing like Elvis and to wear a mask. He would go on the road as Orion, while the maniacal Singleton began planting tongue in cheek "Elvis is Alive!" advertisements in the press. For a while, it worked pretty well. As Orion, Ellis was suddenly playing to full houses throughout the southern states, and even in Europe. He recorded seven albums in two years, a couple of them placing high on the country music charts. Under contract to keep the mask on at all  times, Ellis grew to hate the Orion image and eventually came to blows with Singleton. Still, Ellis couldn't deny that he had, in a weird way, become a star. He had no shortage of groupies, that's for sure. Strangely, in what he probably thought was typical rock star behavior, Ellis kept Polaroid snaps of their vaginas.

In Orion: The Man Who Would Be King, Ellis comes off as stubborn, moody, and a bit of a goofball. Those who knew him speak well of him, but he was clueless. He, and others in the movie, try to paint the music business as the bad guys, but I'm not so sure. Ellis was both gullible and greedy. When the Orion gimmick wore out, Ellis hired a new group of "semi-Mafia" advisors who tried to relaunch him as a teen idol in the Rick Springfield mold. It was laughable, and he soon turned back into Orion. The footage of him onstage shows a tall, 40-ish man lumbering around as if trying to recall some hastily taught dance steps; he's like the aging jock who tries to get laughs by doing 'The Twist.' The singing varies. There are moments when he roars, like Elvis in his "How Great Thou Art" period, and others when he sounds like a talented amateur, heaving and hiccuping just like the gosh-darn King.

There's a fascinating bit in the movie where it's suggested Ellis may have been related to Elvis - as he aged, he bore an eerie resemblance to Elvis' father, Vernon - but ultimately, the story is a sad, showbiz fable, the likes of which could only happen in America. Ellis came to a bad end, and I won't spoil it for you. Could Ellis have made it if he chose a different route, or was he just too much of a hick to understand the music business? Should a guy get by on talent alone, or does he need a gimmick? What is talent, anyway? Oh well, he met a lot of nasty ladies out there in those Holiday Inns along the highway. If Jimmy Ellis wasn't the king of rock 'n' roll, he was certainly the king of something.

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