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
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
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
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."
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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?
Orion Discography Website
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