The music industry is filled with many strange tales of artists whose lives took unexpected turns on the winding road to success, but the saga of singer Jimmy Ellis is perhaps one of the weirdest of them all. He was professionally known as Orion, and his double-edged claim to fame was that his natural speaking and singing voice sounded almost exactly like that of Elvis Presley. Raised in Orrville, Alabama, Ellis began his recording career in 1964. In 1972, he worked for Sun Records (Presley’s label) with producer Shelby Singleton in Nashville. His first two singles were covers of two of the King’s former hits, “That’s All Right” and “Blue Moon of Kentucky.”
The strange part of the tale began in January 1979, when author Gail Brewer-Giorgio received a bizarre early-morning phone call. Two years before she had begun a novel about a musical superstar, Orion, who faked his own death to find much-needed peace and privacy, based on the circumstances surrounding Elvis’ death. The mysterious phone call came from a stranger with a Presley-like voice, claiming to be Orion. A year prior, Jimmy Ellis’ voice had been overdubbed with Jerry Lee Lewis on an old single from the Sun archives, “Save the Last Dance for Me”; on it, Ellis was billed only as “Friend.” The single made the Top 20 and caused quite a stir as listeners tried to guess the mysterious Friend’s identity. An album featuring the duet came out and the controversy really heated up when Good Morning America had the Friend’s voice “scientifically scanned and analyzed” and concluded that it could be no one but Presley. Giorgio’s book had just come out, so Singleton decided to cash in on its popularity and transform Jimmy Ellis into the mysterious “Orion” who had phoned the author earlier that year. Ellis’ hair and long sideburns were dyed black, and he dressed in a loud, bejeweled polyester jumpsuit, with a mask to protect him from crazed fans.
“Orion” recorded a single, “Ebony Eyes,” for Sun in 1979, which became part of his debut album, Reborn. The album cover itself generated controversy because it depicted a phantom singer rising from a coffin, and was later withdrawn. He released the Country, Rockabilly, and Glory albums in 1980, along with Trio Plus, which featured Orion’s voice overdubbed on old cuts with Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Charlie Rich. The albums were quite popular, and Orion had three Top 70 hits, including “Am I That Easy to Forget.” He had four minor hits the following year, including the contemporary rockabilly song “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” originally recorded by the rock group Queen. Ellis continued recording and performing through 1983 as Orion, and scored only one more minor hit before trying to break his Sun contract to become a recognized performer in his own right.
While performing at the Eastern States Exposition, Ellis took off the mask and swore to never wear it again. Unfortunately, despite the fact that most of the songs he recorded were not covers of Elvis songs, he could not escape the uncanny similarities between their natural voices. At one point he even released the single “I’m Trying Not to Sound Like Elvis.” During his time with Sun, Ellis/Orion cut over 11 albums and toured with the Oak Ridge Boys, Jerry Lee Lewis, and other stars like Dionne Warwick. As Jim Ellis, he released an album in 1987 and continued to tour North America; interestingly, he resumed wearing his mask.
On December 12, 1998, Jimmy Ellis and his ex-wife were both shot and killed by a man who was robbing his pawnshop in Alabama. ~ Sandra Brennan, Rovi