KING HIM: SINGER JIMMY EL­LIS

Pasatiempo - - TERRELL’S TUNE-UP -

The life of Jimmy El­lis of Or­rville, Alabama, is one of the great­est od­dball rock ’n’ roll sto­ries of all time. You prob­a­bly aren’t fa­mil­iar with the name of Jimmy El­lis. How about his stage name — Orion? Not fa­mil­iar with that ei­ther? Well, no mat­ter. If you like true-life bizarre tales from the sleazy side of rock, you’ll en­joy the doc­u­men­tary Orion: The Man Who Would Be King.

El­lis was born in 1945. He had an amaz­ing gift — a singing voice nearly in­dis­tin­guish­able from that of Elvis Pres­ley. But, as the movie by Jeanie Fin­lay ex­plains, when El­lis moved to Los An­ge­les in the early ’70s to pur­sue a mu­si­cal ca­reer, what he first saw as a bless­ing turned out to be a curse. No la­bel of any size wanted to sign him pre­cisely be­cause he sounded so much like Elvis. At one point, af­ter Pres­ley died, El­lis re­leased a sin­gle called “I’m Not Try­ing to Be Like Elvis” — but no­body was con­vinced. It was af­ter this that things started get­ting strange.

A nov­el­ist named Gail Brewer-Giorgio had writ­ten a book about a Presleyesque singer called Orion who had faked his own death to es­cape the pres­sures of fame. She was look­ing for some­one to sing Orion’s parts for a never-made movie ver­sion of her book. She met El­lis through a mu­tual friend.

Shelby Sin­gle­ton got wind of the pro­ject and of the amaz­ing singer El­lis. Sin­gle­ton, a wheel­ing-deal­ing huck­ster on par with Col. Tom Parker him­self, had pur­chased Sun Records — the com­pany that launched Elvis’ ca­reer — from Sam Phillips. Sin­gle­ton first had El­lis record a vo­cal track over an old Jerry Lee Lewis song, “Save the Last Dance for Me,” and re­leased it as a sin­gle by Jerry Lee Lewis & Friends. Sim­i­lar duets came out on clas­sic old Sun Records tracks by Carl Perkins and Char­lie Rich — tracks that the real Elvis had noth­ing to do with. The way I see it, Sin­gle­ton should have been ar­rested for des­e­crat­ing his­toric mon­u­ments.

Then Brewer-Giorgio’s Orion came to life. Un­der Sin­gle­ton’s di­rec­tion, El­lis donned gaudy jump­suits and colorful Lone Ranger-style masks and went on the road. His first al­bum had a car­toon of Orion as­cend­ing from a cas­ket, but that taste­ful idea went out the win­dow af­ter re­tail­ers ob­jected.

The al­bum cover lifted text from the Orion novel (the doc­u­men­tary re­veals that Brewer-Giorgio never got paid for it). Many gullible Elvis fans ac­tu­ally be­lieved that Orion was the King in dis­guise. And the Sin­gle­ton-era in­car­na­tion of Sun Records, of course, did noth­ing to dis­cour­age the strange be­lief.

At first El­lis basked in the ded­i­ca­tion of his fans, which, ac­cord­ing to the film, in­cluded a num­ber of at­trac­tive fe­males ea­ger to of­fer them­selves to the masked man. But as the record and con­cert ticket sales de­clined, he grew tired of the mas­quer­ade. In 1983, he tore off his mask, which proved to be a deal-breaker for Sin­gle­ton. Sun Records dumped him, and El­lis’ ca­reer took a nose-dive. Af­ter try­ing a num­ber of dif­fer­ent names and per­sonas, El­lis even­tu­ally went back to the mask. But the lat­ter-day Orion failed to cap­ture the old fire.

Fin­lay tells the story through in­ter­views with El­lis’ friends, fam­ily (in­clud­ing El­lis’ son), side mu­si­cians, and oth­ers. Brewer-Giorgio gets a lot of time. She spent much of her ca­reer writ­ing non­fic­tion books, push­ing the idea that Pres­ley, like her fic­tional Orion, faked his own death. If Fin­lay men­tions this in the film, I must have missed it when I blinked.

Best of all, there is gen­er­ous live footage of El­lis/ Orion per­for­mances. And there is a still photo of Orion with mem­bers of KISS. Ap­par­ently they per­formed on the same bill in Europe in the early ’80s.

Orion was a man haunted by huck­sters. And un­for­tu­nately, Fin­lay en­gages in a lit­tle huck­ster­ism of her own. Near the end of the film, she im­plies there might be a ge­netic rea­son El­lis sounded so much like Pres­ley. El­lis was adopted, you see, and the only name for his father on his birth cer­tifi­cate was “Ver­non,” just like … just like ... But mostly, Fin­lay brings real dig­nity to the life of a man who pre­vi­ously has been dis­missed as merely a weird mu­si­cal joke.

Orion: The Man Who Would Be King opens at the Jean Cocteau Cinema (418 Mon­tezuma Ave., 505-466-5528) on Fri­day, Jan. 22.

Also rec­om­mended

There’s an­other cool mu­sic doc­u­men­tary open­ing in Santa Fe this week — The Wind­ing Stream, di­rected by Beth Har­ring­ton. This one is the story of the Carter Fam­ily, that ven­er­ated clan from Vir­ginia of­ten cred­ited as the orig­i­na­tors of what has come to be known as coun­try mu­sic. The bulk of the film fo­cuses on the orig­i­nal group: A.P. Carter, his wife, Sara, and his sis­ter-in-law May­belle. No, the Carters didn’t in­vent coun­try mu­sic, but they were the first hill­billy vo­cal group to achieve wide­spread pop­u­lar­ity. And A.P.’s de­ter­mi­na­tion to col­lect and record the songs of the moun­tains helped en­sure the en­durance of this mu­sic.

Mak­ing a case for the im­por­tance of the Carter Fam­ily is not a ma­jor un­der­tak­ing. Just on the strength of their most fa­mous songs — “Will the Cir­cle Be Un­bro­ken,” “Keep on the Sunny Side,” “Wild­wood Flower,” and oth­ers — their rep­u­ta­tion would be set in stone.

Har­ring­ton’s real task was mak­ing them seem hu­man. Sara, the main singer of the orig­i­nal group, had a voice that seemed re­signed and weary. Un­like the songs of their chief con­tem­po­rary, Jimmie Rodgers, the Carters’ tunes rarely, if ever, show any hu­mor. Pho­tos of Sara and A.P. al­ways re­mind me of Grant Wood’s Amer­i­can Gothic. (May­belle Carter, who kept per­form­ing with her daugh­ters for decades, in­clud­ing a stint with her son-in-law, Johnny Cash, never had a prob­lem seem­ing warm and hu­man.) Through in­ter­views with var­i­ous Carter de­scen­dants, Har­ring­ton brings warmth and depth to those stony icons, A.P. and Sara Carter. And that helps you ap­pre­ci­ate the clas­sic songs even more.

One quib­ble: There is lit­tle footage of the orig­i­nal Carters per­form­ing. Har­ring­ton tried to bring some of the songs to life by an­i­mat­ing still pho­tos. Un­for­tu­nately this process looks like some mod­ern-day Clutch Cargo car­toon, more bizarre than il­lu­mi­nat­ing.

The Wind­ing Stream opens at The Screen (Santa Fe Univer­sity of Art & De­sign, 1600 St. Michael’s Drive, 505-473-6494) on Fri­day, Jan. 22.

If you like true-life bizarre tales from the sleazy side of rock, you’ll en­joy the doc­u­men­tary

Orion: The Man Who Would Be King.

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