Jazz, film, and improvised culture.
Orion: Who was that Masked Man?
nobody was more responsible for the Elvis Presley death hoax brouhaha than Gail
Brewer-Giorgio. She wrote the conspiracy book shrink-wrapped with a cassette
tape of the King supposedly explaining how he pulled it off that you might
remember from late television commercials. She also wrote an earlier novel
about good old boy rock icon Orion Eckley Darnell, who faked his death at the
height of his fame. It was intended to be a fantastical allegory, but the new
boss of Sun Records used it as a business plan. Jimmy Ellis was the aspiring
singer whose voice fit Orion’s mask. Ellis’s strange and sad career is
chronicled in Jeanie Finlay’s Orion: the
Man Who Would Be King (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.
during his teenaged years, people were struck by how much the late Jimmy Ellis
sounded like Elvis Presley. That might sound like a blessing, but for a prospective
vocalist hoping to establish his own identity and career, it was more of a
curse. Nobody wanted to sign an Elvis sound-a-like, until Shelby Singleton, the
new owner of Sun Records and its storied catalog came across Brewer-Giorgio’s
like the protagonist so clearly inspired by Presley, Singleton had Ellis
perform as “Orion Eckley Darnell.” Since he only looked Presley if you were
squinting like a bat in a spotlight, Ellis was required to wear a Lone Ranger
mask whenever appearing in public. They never really said he was Presley, but
there was a whole lot of winking and nudging going on. It was bizarrely successful
for a while, as far as Singleton was concerned. Yet, Ellis inevitably became
frustrated with the misplaced adulation and lack of proper recognition.
makes viewers understand full well the sad irony that had there never been an
Elvis Presley, Jimmy Ellis could have been huge. He was not some cheesy Roger
Clinton southern fried freak show. Ellis always sang with feeling and could
croon a ballad with the best of them. Like Presley, he was attuned to many
forms of southern music, from rockabilly to gospel. There was just no getting
around that Elvis voice of his.
story turns out to be even sadder than we expect, but Finlay’s treatment gives
him the respect and perspective he deserves. She engages in a bit of
speculation regarding the adopted Ellis’s birth parents, but it is convincing
enough to makes you wonder (but not about Elvis Aron, mind you). There is just
some really nice documentary-storytelling going on in Orion. Plus, if you dig Elvis, you will definitely groove to Ellis’s
spooky dead-ringer recordings.
It would be nice and altogether fitting if we
could start speculation Jimmy “Orion” Ellis faked his death to once again
pursue his musical dreams with a clean slate, but the senseless criminal nature
of his murder and that of his employee are simply not conducive to fun
conspiracy theories. Frankly, they both deserved far better. At least Finlay’s
documentary will foster an appreciation of his talent, under his own name,
which is not nothing. Highly recommended for fans of Presley, Orion, and old
school Sun Records, Orion: the Man Who
Would Be King opens this Friday (12/4) in New York, at the IFC Center.
Labels: Documentary, Jimmy "Orion" Ellis