Jimmy "Orion" Ellis
Photo of Jimmy's alias trademark look "Orion". Photo by Shelby Singleton, used with permission
|Birth name||Jimmy Bell|
|Also known as||Orion, Ellis James, Shadowman|
February 26, 1945Pascagoula, Mississippi
|Origin||Pascagoula, Mississippi, USA|
December 12, 1998(aged 53)Selma, Alabama
|Years active||1962 – 1998|
Jimmy Hughes Bell (February 26, 1945 – December 12, 1998), stage name Orion, was an American singer. His voice was almost indistinguishable from Elvis Presley's, a fact which he and his record company played upon, making some believe that some of his recordings were by Elvis, or even that Elvis had not died in 1977. Ellis appeared with many artists including Loretta Lynn, Jerry Lee Lewis, Tammy Wynette, Ricky Skaggs, Lee Greenwood, Gary Morris, the Oak Ridge Boys.
Jimmy was born in Pascagoula, Mississippi on February 26, 1945, into a single parent home. His birth certificate states the mother as Gladys Bell and the father as Vernon (no surname). When he was two, Gladys left Jimmy at the Montgomery Children's Home where he was put up for adoption. Young Jimmy was taken in by R.F. Ellis and his wife Mary Faye, where Jimmy's surname was changed to Ellis.
While not much is known of Jimmy's early musical development, he told Goldmine magazine in 1985 that his idols included Elvis, Ray Price and Eddy Arnold and that his first public appearance was at the age of 17 at Orrville High's "Religious Emphasis Week". He sang Peace in the Valley. Subsequently, Ellis won the finals of a statewide talent contest in Alabama where he sang Unchained Melody and The Days of Wine and Roses accompanied only by a piano. The prizes: a trip to the Ted Mack Amateur Hour and a $1,000 savings bond.
Ellis later settled into a two-year athletic scholarship at Middle Georgia Junior College in the town of Cochran. He transferred to Livingston State University where he started playing small clubs. He got a "One Shot Deal" with Challenger Records (MCA) in 1974 before moving to the small Boblo Records label. One of his five singles for Boblo was "I'm Not Trying To Be Elvis".
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. Ellis hailed from Orrville, Alabama and began his recording career in 1964.
In 1978 he signed with the new owner of Sun Records, Shelby Singleton. Earlier, in 1972, he had recorded a cover of Elvis' first Sun single, "That's Alright, Mama" and "Blue Moon of Kentucky", in Florida. It was offered to Shelby Singleton at Sun by the Florida record producer, Finlay Duncan. The single was released on the Sun label with a question mark appearing on the record in place of the artist's name. This marketing tactic effectively, and inadvertently, started the whole "Elvis is alive" conspiracy theory, although it would be another six years before it received mainstream prominence.
After his 1978 signing, Jimmy's star was on the ascendant as he became intertwined in a complex and clever marketing campaign involving books, records, a mysterious cassette tape recording made after Elvis' death and a mask. For a while Jimmy became the "new" Elvis.
Capitalising on Jimmy's close vocal similarity to Elvis, the mask and clever imagery (see "Reborn" album cover), people like Shelby Singleton, Gail Brewer-Giorgio and Gene Arthur enjoyed a financially fruitful time, at least for a few years. Brewer-Giorgio had been made aware of Jimmy and his vocal resemblance to Elvis by her friend, Carol Halupke, in 1980 when they were considering possible lead actors for the proposed but unrealised film based on her fiction novel, "Orion".
In 1980, Cash Box magazine included Orion’s next two albums, Sunrise and Trio Plus (where his voice was overdubbed on old Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Charlie Rich cuts), in their list of Top 75 albums.
The following year, the magazine rated him one of the three most promising male Country artists. Orion continued to put singles on the Country chart, A Stranger In My Place, Texas Tea and Am I That Easy To Forget which all reached the Top 70 in 1980.
The following year, he had a quartet of chart records, none of which fared any better, although of interest are his versions of UK Rockabilly band Matchbox’s hit, Rockabilly Rebel and Queen’s Crazy Little Thing Called Love, both of which, although contemporary, bore a Rockabilly sound.
His final Country chart single was the Top 70 double-sided entrant, Morning, Noon and Night/Honky Tonk Heaven. By 1983, however, the charade had definitely lost its charm for Ellis as Orion. His desire to be taken seriously by the music industry as an artist in his own right caused him to sever his connections with Sun and strip off the mask before a capacity crowd at the Eastern States Exposition, vowing never to wear it again. (When his career subsequently waned, he re-donned the mask in 1987.)
Not a true Elvis impersonator in the sense that he did not make a career of recording and performing Elvis’ material, Orion had always been confronted with the irony that unless he altered his natural vocal intonations, he could not avoid sounding incredibly like Presley. His recording of "I'm Not Trying To Be Like Elvis", seems like a "cri de coeur."
Since making his debut as a Sun recording artist in 1979, Orion recorded 11 albums and appeared on shows with the Oak Ridge Boys, Jerry Lee Lewis, Reba McEntire, Ricky Skaggs, Lee Greenwood, Ronnie Milsap and Dionne Warwick.
Life as "Orion"
Shelby Singleton of Sun International decided to disguise Ellis' identity on his first Sun single, "That's All Right (Mama)"/"Blue Moon of Kentucky" (Sun 1129), leaving listeners to speculate that the songs might be alternate takes of Elvis' first two songs. Instead of listing Ellis' first album on the label, Singleton printed a question mark. Ellis first album appearance for Sun was as an unidentified singer singing duet with Jerry Lee Lewis on ten tracks of the 1978 album Duets (Sun 1011). Charlie Rich sang along with Lewis on two other songs. Again, the speculation was that Elvis had sung on the songs, particularly "Save the Last Dance for Me".
In 1979 Jimmy Ellis finally merged with an identity, but it still wasn't himself. He appeared as Orion Eckley Darnell, the character created August 16, 1977, by a Marietta [Georgia], housewife Gail Brewer-Giorgo. Her 1978 novel Orion told the story of a rock and roll singer, very much like Elvis. In the novel, Orion faked his own death, leading real-world conspiracy theorists to believe that Orion was the true story of Elvis.
On Orion's 1979 debut album, Reborn (Sun 1912). Ellis appeared on the album cover wearing a mask over his eyes. The album featured some excellent songs including "Ebony Eyes", "Honey", and "Washing Machine". They were sung in the same style in which Elvis would have sung them.
Ellis's Orion character claimed to have been managed by one Colonel Mac Weiman, and have been born in Ribbonsville, Tennessee on December 31, 1931. Listeners of Orion were initially split into two camps: those who knew that Orion was Jimmy Ellis just having some fun sounding like Elvis, and others who sincerely believed or wanted to believe that he was truly Elvis coming back on the scene after faking his own death. As Orion, Ellis reached Billboards country chart with nine singles.
A fine talent in his own right, Ellis recorded the song "I'm Not Trying" (Boblo 536) and the album By Request - Ellis Sings Elvis (Boblo 78-829)
Ellis made a public confession in 1983, admitting he was Orion. He left Sun Records, never again appearing to the public as Orion until the 1990s.
Backed by the Jordanaires and opening act Sherry Carlisle, Orion sang to a packed house on August 12, 1997 at Nashville's Nightlife Theater. In an article in The Nashville Tennessean newspaper on August 12, 1997, it was reported that "Orion having the same vocal cords as Elvis Presley has been both a kiss and a curse, but Orion sings his own tune."
One night in Mobile, Alabama in 1987 Jimmy stopped and asked two men for directions to a restaurant. The men accused Jimmy of being a "cop". One of the men took a .22 rifle from his car and the other man searched Jimmy's pockets for money. Jimmy put up some resistance and attempted to flee. They shot him as he ran, after which they fled. Jimmy survived and was back performing later that year.
On December 12, 1998 Jimmy Ellis was murdered in his Alabama pawnshop by one Jeffrey Lee during a robbery. Lee was later convicted of murder and sentenced to death. His appeal against the sentence was refused on 9th October 2009.
Orion: The Man Who Would Be King
In 2015, film-maker Jeanie Finlay released a documentary film about Ellis' life and career entitled Orion: The Man Who Would Be King.     The film went on to win 'The Discovery Award' at the British Independent Film Awards 2015. It was released theatrically in the US by Sundance Selects on December 4th.
|Year||Title||Label||Tracks (If additional were available)||Credited As|
|"Don't Count Your Chickens"||Dradco||Don't Count Your Chickens / Love is But a Love||Jimmy Ellis|
|"Blue Moon of Kentucky"||Sun||Blue Moon of Kentucky / That's All Right||Jimmy Ellis|
|"Changing"||Sun||Changing / I Use Her to Remind Me of You||Jimmy Ellis|
|"There You Go"||MCA||There Ya Go / Here Comes That Feeling Again||Jimmy Ellis|
|"It's You Again"||Boblo||It's You Again / The Closer He Gets||Jimmy Ellis|
|"Tupelo Woman"||Boblo||Tupelo Woman / Just Out of Reach||Jimmy Ellis|
|"There You Go"||Boblo||There You Go / Here Come's That Wonderful Feeling Again||Jimmy Ellis|
|"Movin' On"||Boblo||Movin' On / My Baby's Out of Sight||Jimmy Ellis|
|"I'm Not Trying to Be Like Elvis"||Boblo||I'm Not Trying to Be Like Elvis / Games You Been Playing||Jimmy Ellis|
|"That's All Right"||Sun||That's All Right / Blue Moon of Kentucky||"?"|
|"Save the Last Dance For Me"||Sun||Save the Last Dance For Me / Am I To Be the One||Orion|
|"Cold Cold Heart"||Sun||Cold Cold Heart / Hello Josephine||Orion|
|"Honey"||Sun||Honey / Ebony Eyes||Orion|
|"Washing Machine"||Sun||Washing Machine / Before the Next Teardrop Falls||Orion|
|"Remember Bethlehem"||Sun||Remember Bethlehem / Silent Night||Orion|
|"Stranger in My Place"||Sun||Stranger in My Place / It Ain't No Mystery||Orion|
|"Faded Love"||Sun||Faded Love / Texas Tea||Orion|
|"Am I That Easy to Forget"||Sun||Am I That Easy to Forget / Crazy Arms||Orion|
|"Rockabilly Rebel"||Sun||Rockabilly Rebel / Memphis Sun||Orion|
|"Crazy Little Thing Called Love"||Sun||Crazy Little Thing Called Love / Matchbox||Orion|
|"Be Bop A Lula"||Sun||Be Bop A Lula / Break Up||Orion|
|"Born"||Sun||Born / If I Can't Have You||Orion|
|"Some You Win, Some You Lose"||Sun||Some You Win, Some You Lose|
|"Feelings"||Sun||Feelings / Baby, Feel Say Yes||Orion|
|"Honky Tonk Heaven"||Sun||Honky Tonk Heaven / Morning, Noon and Night||Orion|
|"Listen To Daddy"||Sun||Listen to Daddy / (some copies has) I'll Sing What to Dream (or) Remember Bethlehem (1979)||Orion|
|"I'm Saving Up My Pennies"||Sun||I'm Saving Up My Pennies||Orion|
|"I'm Saving Up My Pennies"||Kristal KS||I'm Saving Up My Pennies (1982) / I'm Starting Over||Orion|
|"One Hundred Pound of Clay"||Kristal KS||One Hundred Pounds of Clay / Because He Lives||Orion|
|"Thank God for America"||Southern Tracks||Thank God for America / I Make the Livin'||Jimmy Ellis|
|"Sunday Father"||Southern Tracks||Sunday Father / Thank God for America (1986)||Jimmy Ellis|
|"Down in Mississippi"||Vulcan||Down in Mississippi||Steven Silver|
|"Unchained Melody"||Radio Active NR||Unchained Melody||Orion|
|"I Want You, I Need You, I Love You"||Stargem||I Want you, I Need You, I Love You / Plastic Saddle||Orion|
|"Love It Back Together"||Stargem||Love It Back Together / If That Isn't Love||Orion|
|"Feel Right"||Stargem||remains unreleased and remains as a private item||Unknown|
|"I'll Be With You Always"||Golly Music||I'll Be With You Always||Jimmy Ellis|
|Reborn||Chairty||Honey / Lover Please / Got You on My Mind / Mona Lisa / Before the Next Teardrop Fall / Ebony Eyes / Washing Machine / Baby, I Still Love You / You Can Have Her / Lonesome Angel||Orion|
|By Request, Ellis Sings Elvis||Boblo||Moody Blue / Return to Sender / Hurt / Kentucky Rain / Can't Help Falling in Love / It's Now or Never / Burning Love / You Don't Have To Say You Love Me / My Way / Love Me Tender / Mean Woman Blues / Teddy Bear||Jimmy Ellis|
|Reborn||Sun||Re-release of the 1978 album||Orion|
|Sunrise||Sun||Secret Love / You Can't Judge a Book / San Francisco is a Lonely Town / Then I'll Be Over You / I Heard You Talking With Your Eyes / Stranger in My Place / I Hear you Knocking / Turn Around, Look at Me / Baby You Got It / It Ain't No Mystery||Orion|
|Country||Sun||Texas Tea / Faded Love / What Did I Promise Her Last Night / Green Green Grass of Home / Crazy Arms / Send Me the Pillow You Dream On / Help Me Make It Through the Night / Release Me / Please Help Me I'm Falling / The Long Black Veil / Am I That Easy To Forget||Orion|
|Rockabilly||Sun||Rockabilly Rebel / See You Later Alligator / Suzie Q / I'm Gonna Be a Wheel Someday / Rockin' Little Angel / Crazy Little Thing Called Love / Long Tall Sally / Memphis Sun / Peggy Sue / Matchbox||Orion|
|Glory||Sun||Where He Leads Me / Sweet Hour of Prayer / I Surrender All / Peace In the Valley / It Is No Secret / I Believe / He Touched Me / Softly and Tenderly / Where No One Stands Alone / Just a Closer Walk With Thee||Orion|
|Fresh||Sun||There's No Easy Way / Baby Please Say Yes / Born / If I Can't Have You / Ain't No Good / Some You Win, Some You Lose / Look Me Up (And Lay It On Me) / Old Mexico / Rainbow Maker / Anybody Out There||Orion|
|Feelings||Sun||Feelings / No One Will Ever Know / I Love You Because / What Now My Love / Somewhere My Love / I Can't Stop Loving You / He'll Have To Go / Snowbird||Orion|
|20 All Time Favorites||Suffolk Marketing||Snowbird (1981) / Save the Last Dance For Me (1978) / Honey (1978) / Please Help Me I'm Falling (1979) / Feelings (1981) / Help Me Make It Through the Night (1980) / Am I That Easy to Forget (1980) / Mona Lisa (1978) / Before the Next Teardrop Falls (1979) / I Love You Because (1981) / Faded Love (1980) / Crazy Arms (1980) / Release Me (1980) / Green Green Grass of Home (1981) / Secret Love (1979) / He'll Have To Go (1981) / What Now My Love (1981) / No One Will Ever Know (1981) / I Can't Stop Loving You (1981) / Somewhere My Love (1981)||Jimmy Ellis|
|New Beginnings||Aron||I Need You In My Life / Lay Around and Love On You / Sunday Father / America / Never Too Old to Rock and Roll Sweet Mississippi Memories / Back On the Street / Old Time Rock (re-recording) / I Can't Get Used to Sleepin' By Myself / The Way My Dog Loves Me / Her Memory Just Won't Let Us Lay Down / Down in Mississippi||Jimmy Ellis|
|Genuine||Stargem||Only a Woman Like You / Love It Back Together / Lookin' For a Way / She Wakes Me With a Kiss Every Morning / We Can't Go On Living Like This / Plastic Saddle / I Want You, I Need You, I Love You / Hooked On a Feeling / Separate Ways / If That Isn't Love||Jimmy Ellis|
|The Legend Continues||Stargem||Feel Right / Since I Met You Baby / Slow Hand / Nothing Short of Dying / Love Is In the Air / That's the Thing About Love / At This Moment / It Only Hurts When I Cry / Tips of My Fingers / Treat Me Nice||Jimmy Ellis|
|Because He Lives||Stargem||Just a Closer Walk With Thee / Amazing Grace / Where Could I Go But to the Lord / You'll Never Walk Alone / I'll Fly Away / Lead Me, Guide Me / Peace In the Valley / Stand By Me / Because He Lives / Precious Memories||Jimmy Ellis|
|Special Moments||Stargem||Restless / Lay Around and Love On You / I Need You In My Life / Out of the Blue / Memories Won't Let Us Lay Down / Dream On Me / Can't Get Used to Sleeping By Myself / Sunday Father / Old Pipeliner / Old Time Rock||Jimmy Ellis|
|Steady as She Goes||Kardina||Steady as She Goes / He Has His Hand on Your Heart / Love is the Only Way Out / Between Hello and Goodbye / Rock Your Baby / I Know Where You Are Coming From / My Boogie Wants to Boogie With You / The Power of Your Love / If You Ever Want a Fool Round / Starting Over||Jimmy Ellis|
|Holiday Tribute To the King||Kardina||Here Comes Santa Claus / I'll Be Home for Christmas / O' Little Town of Bethlehem / Blue Christmas / Santa Bring My Back Back To Me / Holly Leaves and Christmas Trees / Silent Night / Santa Claus is Back In Town / Jingle Bells (re-recording) / It Won't Seem Like Christmas Without You||Jimmy Ellis|
|A Christmas Filled With Love||Kardina||Christmas Memory / A Christmas Filled With Love / The Funny Little Man All Dressed in Red / An Old Fashioned Christmas / Christmas Spirit / Christmas Eve / The Fireplace / You're All I Want for Christmas||Jimmy Ellis|
|2000*||Ellis Sings Elvis - The Last Recordings||Kardina||Stuck On You / Don't Be Cruel / Crying In the Chapel / All Shook Up / Are You Lonesome Tonight / Teddy Bear (re-recording) / If I Can Dream / I Want You, I Need You, I Love You (re-recording) / That's Al Right (re-recording) / Follow That Dream||Jimmy Ellis|
* Released after Jimmy Ellis's death in 1999
These songs have appeared on other compilations or a collection of songs.
|"Save the Last Dance For Me" (duet with Jerry Lee Lewis)||Duets - Jerry Lee Lewis and Friends||Friend|
|"Sweet Little Sixteen" (duet with Jerry Lee Lewis)||Duets - Jerry Lee Lewis and Friends||Friend|
|"I Love You Because" (duet with Jerry Lee Lewis)||Duets - Jerry Lee Lewis and Friends||Friend|
|"C.C. Rider" (duet with Jerry Lee Lewis)||Duets - Jerry Lee Lewis and Friends||Friend|
|"Cold Cold Heart" (duet with Jerry Lee Lewis)||Duets - Jerry Lee Lewis and Friends||Friend|
|"Hello Josephine" (duet with Jerry Lee Lewis)||Duets - Jerry Lee Lewis and Friends||Friend|
|"It Won't Happen With Me" (duet with Jerry Lee Lewis)||Duets - Jerry Lee Lewis and Friends||Friend|
|"What I'd Say" (duet with Jerry Lee Lewis)||Duets - Jerry Lee Lewis and Friends||Friend|
|"Good Golly Miss Molly" (duet with Jerry Lee Lewis)||Duets - Jerry Lee Lewis and Friends||Friend|
|"Christmas Greetings"||Christmas to Elvis||Orion|
|"Jingle Bells"||Christmas to Elvis||Orion|
|"Up On the House Top"||Christmas to Elvis||Orion|
|"I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day"||Christmas to Elvis||Orion|
|"Deck the Halls"||Christmas to Elvis||Orion|
|"Joy to the World"||Christmas to Elvis||Orion|
|"Hark! The Herald Angels Sing"||Christmas to Elvis||Orion|
|"We Wish You a Merry Christmas"||Christmas to Elvis||Orion|
|"It Came Upon a Midnight Clear||Christmas to Elvis||Orion|
|"Away In a Manger"||Christmas to Elvis||Orion|
|"Be Bop A Lula" (duet with Jerry Lee Lewis)||Trio Plus||Orion|
|"Good Rockin' Tonight" (duet with Jerry Lee Lewis)||Trio Plus||Orion|
|"Money" (duet with Jerry Lee Lewis)||Trio Plus||Orion|
|"On My Knees" (duet with Charlie Rich)||Trio Plus||Orion|
|"Gentle As a Lamb" (duet with Charlie Rich)||Trio Plus||Orion|
|"Break Up" (duet with Charlie Rich)||Trio Plus||Orion|
|"Sittin' and Thinkin' (duet with Charlie Rich)||Trio Plus||Orion|
|"Dixie Fried" (duet with Carl Perkins)||Trio Plus||Orion|
|"Matchbox" (duet with Carl Perkins)||Trio Plus||Orion|
|"Gone, Gone, Gone" (duet with Carl Perkins)||Trio Plus||Orion|
|"He is Gone But Not Forgotten"||A Tribute to Elvis (K-Tel)||Jimmy Ellis|
|"Merry Christmas Love"||Holiday Collection (Kardina)||Jimmy Ellis|
|"Santa Bring My Baby Back To Me"||Holliday Collection (Kardina)||Jimmy Ellis|
|"It's All In the Game" (duet with Andy Lee Lang)||Duets - Andy Lee Lang||The Shadowman|
|"Matchbox" (re-recording)||They Thought They Were Elvis||Orion|
|"Puppet on a String" (duet Andy Lee Lang)||Together - Andy Lee Lang||Orion|
* Released after Jimmy Ellis's death
Orion charted singles
|Year||Song||Peak chart positions|
|1980||"A Stranger in My Place"||69|
|"Am I That Easy to Forget"||65|
|"Crazy Little Thing Called Love"||79|
|"Some You Win, Some You Lose"||83|
|1982||"Morning, Noon and Night"||69|
|"Honky Tonk Heaven"||70|
- Film: Orion: The Man Who Would Be King (2015)
- Whitburn, Joel (2008). Hot Country Songs 1944 to 2008. Record Research, Inc. p. 306. ISBN 0-89820-177-2.
- BlackCat Rockabily, article by, Todd Venezia at APB News. 
- Elvis: His Life From A to Z, by: Worth, Fred and Steve Tamerious. Copyright © 1990, Wings Books.
- Elvis Information Network, article by Nigel Patterson, EIN, 1998. 
- Official Orion-Jimmy Ellis Website, Copyright © Orion-Jimmy Ellis/TimeStar. 
- The Strange and Ultimately Sad Story of Elvis Sound-Alike..."Orion", article by Michael McCall. 
- Worldwide Discography Of Jimmy "Orion" Ellis, 
- Jimmy Ellis's Official Site
- ORION: The Man Who Would Be King a film by Jeanie Finlay Official Site
- Jimmy Ellis's Biography on Answers.com
- Jimmy Ellis's Gravesite Info on Find A Grave