“If Elvis is alive, he wears a mask and goes by the name Orion.”
Ever heard of Orion? An unknown singer plucked from obscurity and thrust into the spotlight as part of a crazy scheme that had him masquerade as Elvis back from the grave.
Jimmy Ellis was born James Hughes Bell in Pascagoula, Mississippi on February 26, 1945. He began recording rockabilly songs and ballads for the Dradco label in 1964, never attaining much success as record executives and local DJ’s found he sounded too much like a “second-rate” Elvis Presley.
Things changed dramatically for Ellis in 1972 when Shelby Singleton, owner of the Sun Records catalog since buying it from Sam Phillips in 1969, heard one of Ellis’ singles. The likeness between Ellis’ voice and Elvis’ was so uncanny to Singleton that he asked that Jimmy record Presley’s career-launching “That’s Alright Mama” and “Blue Moon of Kentucky” on a single, that was subsequently released without a name credited on the label. When RCA Records, the owners of the rights to Elvis’ songs, heard the recording, they thought Singleton had unearthed lost Presley tapes and had released them without consent, very nearly suing Singleton until convinced the voice didn’t belong to Presley by running voice-print analysis.
In 1977, Ellis was preparing to release the album, Ellis Sings Elvis, when Elvis Presley passed away at his Graceland mansion. Taking advantage of the event, producer Bobby Smith rushed the product onto the market while at the same time asking Singleton if he wanted in on their project. After a meeting with both Bobby and Jimmy, Shelby began formulating the idea that would turn Ellis into “Orion,” partly based on an unpublished book he had heard about written in the early 1970s by Gail Brewer-Giorgio, which imagined the life of a rags-to-riches rock singer who eventually died after succumbing to drugs and ill-health, startlingly similar to the life of Elvis.
Singleton took the fictional character’s name of Orion Eckley Darnell and gave Ellis his new alter ego, and thereafter took steps to trade off on the public’s reluctance to believe that Elvis Presley was really gone. The resemblance between the two singers’ voices paired with Ellis’ thick black hair and Elvis-like wardrobe (the mask was devised by Singleton to hide the fact that, facially, Jimmy bore no resemblance at all to Elvis) helped to give Orion audiences of 1,000+ in his appearances in the American south during the late 1970s and into the 1980s. Orion’s reputation grew, garnering him a devout fan-base; at one point he had 15,000 members in his fan club; some fans would travel across the country to see him perform, and two fans consisting of a mother and daughter would follow Orion on tour for months at a time.
Ellis started to become at odds with his fame, some speculating because he wasn’t being recognized as himself, but merely as an Elvis imitator under a mask. Tension grew between he and Singleton over Ellis wanting to record under his real name, eventually ending up with Jimmy pulling off his mask in mid-performance during a 1981 New Year’s Eve concert; a photographer caught the unmasking and the myth of Orion was exposed, showing the fans that he looked nothing like Presley and thereby shattering the illusion. Singleton parted ways with Ellis immediately afterward.
Ellis continued to record under the Orion name, but to smaller and smaller sales and audiences alike; during the mid-to-late 1990s, he virtually retired from performing and opened several stores near a highway on land that he inherited from his parents, including a gas station and convenience store.
On December 12, 1998, Ellis was murdered during a robbery in his store, Jimmy’s Pawn Shop. Jeffrey Lee was convicted of the murder of Ellis and Ellis’ ex-wife Elaine Thompson, who was working as an employee at the store, and the attempted murder of employee Helen King. Lee was sentenced to death and his appeal against the sentence was refused on October 9, 2009.