August 16th marked the 29th anniversary of the passing of the King of Rock & Roll. At the time of his death, Elvis Presley was a bloated, corpulent, despondent sad figure of a man slouching toward mediocrity and irrelevancy. But even in his latter day performances he was still able to awe and mesmerize his audience, sometimes while slurring or ouright forgetting words to songs. He still had "it". There has been a voluminous amount of books, articles, and documentaries attempting to explain "it" and the status of Elvis in popular culture. What made Elvis, Elvis? Maybe just as important is the question why so many of us want to impersonate the King?
Impersonators come in all sizes and shapes. They come from every part of the globe. The Prime Minister of Japan recently visited Graceland and of course was obliged to offer his own take on Elvis. Elvis has been impersonated on stage and screen, from one man shows to films such as 3,000 Miles To Graceland with Kevin Costner as a casino robbing Elvis to the cult hit Bubba Ho-Tep with the delightful Bruce Campbell portraying a decrepit nursing home resident Elvis. Some impersonate the King as a hobby, while others pursue it as a full time calling. Many dislike the term "Elvis Impersonator", preferring "Elvis Tribute Artist" instead.
For the avid impersonator, the financial cost alone can be staggering. A jumpsuit similar to the one Elvis wore in Aloha From Hawaii can set you back at least $1100 and there are no refunds or exchanges. Then there is the psychodrama for some to stay in character 24/7. When you're out in public, you're stared at affectionately or derisively. Revered or abhorred at the supermarket, gas station, or your favorite house of worship.
Perhaps no one capitalized more on his ability to mimic Elvis than Jimmy Ellis, aka Orion. His story is a fascinating and riveting southern gothic tale of death and rebirth. Born in Alabama in 1945, Ellis was a romantic balladeer and rockabilly entertainer struggling for years to make the big time. With the death of Elvis in 1977, everything would change for Ellis. As fate would have it, he came in contact with record producer/myth maker Shelby Singleton (q.v.) who by that time had acquired Sun Records, the place where Elvis got his start. Ellis was so good at sounding like Elvis, he even fooled executives at RCA who thought a treasure trove of lost Elvis tapes had been discovered.
Thus a plan was hatched whereby Ellis would perform under the stage name Orion. The Elvis-like character was based on a work of fiction by Gail Brewer-Giorgio. In the book, Orion, tired of being a prisoner of fame, decides to fake his own death with the help of his father. He attends his own funeral and then hits the highway in search of a simpler life.
Ellis played right into the hands of crazed fans and conspiracy theorists who would not let Elvis die. Elvis would be reborn as Orion with Jimmy Ellis playing the lead role. Though Ellis had the voice, the black hair and sideburns, he had no facial resemblance to Elvis. That would pose a problem that was soon solved with the introduction of the sequined mask. The mask wearing Orion performed to throngs of fans in the U.S. and Europe. He recorded nine albums in three years all the while encouraging the faithful to believe that maybe, just maybe this was the King himself.
At some point, the pressure and strain of trying to keep the facade alive began to wear on Ellis. He began to have an identity crisis. Always reluctant to don the mask, Ellis became increasingly eager to become a recognized performer in his own right. At a concert in 1983, Ellis finally made the decision to discard the mask. The gig was up. He refused to be King. He refused to be Orion. He just wanted to be Jimmy from Orrville, Alabama. His popularity soon plummeted but he would perform sporadically well into the 90's. Ellis did however make peace with himself and started a new career as an entrepreneur, opening up several businesses in his hometown.
I wish there was a happy ending to his story but on the night of December 12, 1998 Ellis was behind the register at a pawn shop he owned when three local teens charged in brandishing sawed-off shotguns. The gunmen shot and killed the 52 year old Ellis along with his ex-wife who happened to be visiting that day and wounded an employee. It's baffling as to why Hollywood hasn't brought the story of Ellis to the big screen. If they ever do, let's hope they get it right. Ellis was a gifted and talented performer who was blessed and cursed with the voice of Elvis.
Impersonating Elvis for some has to be easier than living in your own skin. But just when you start feeling comfortable in your own skin, you're shot down in an Alabama pawn shop. Elvis has left the building. So has Jimmy Ellis. But a legion of impersonators remain to entertain or enrage us. Long live the King.