Jimmy Hughes Bell (February 26, 1945 - December 12, 1998) was known internationally for his gifted singing ability and dynamic personal appearances. He has appeared with Loretta Lynn, Jerry Lee Lewis, Tammy Wynette, Ricky Skaggs, Lee Greenwood, Gary Morris, the Oak Ridge Boys and many others.
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 outstanding 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."
Jimmy was born in Pascagoula, Mississippi on February 26, 1945, into a single parent home. Coincidentally, like Elvis, his mother's name was Gladys. When he was two, Gladys and Jimmy moved to Birmingham where he was put up for adoption. Young Jimmy was taken in by R.F. Ellis and his wife Mary Faye, where Jimmy's last name 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, Jimmy 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.
Jimmy later settled into an athletic two-year scholarship at Middle Georgia Junior College in the town of Cochran.
Jimmy 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".
Now, the music industry is filled with many strange tales of artists whose lives took unexpected turns on the winding road to success, but the saga of singer Jimmy Ellis is perhaps one of the weirdest of them all. 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 Jimmy signed with the new owner of Sun Records, Shelby Singleton. Earlier, in 1972, Jimmy 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. That 1972 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 other forces conspired to give it lift-off and mainstream prominence.
After his 1978 signing, Jimmy's star was on the ascendancy as he became intertwined in a complex and clever marketing campaign involving books, records, a mysterious cassette tape recording made after Elvis' alleged 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 U.K. 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/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 the real Presley.
His recording of "I'm Trying Not To Sound 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.
One night in Mobile, Alabama in 1987 Jimmy had stopped and asked two guys for directions to a restaurant. The guys accused Jimmy of being a "cop". One of the men took a 22 rifle from his car and the other guy searched Jimmy's pockets for money. Jimmy put up some resistance and attempted to flee from the thugs. They then shot Jimmy as he ran from the guys after which the thugs fled. Jimmy survived and was back performing later that year.
Ellis was gunned down in his Alabama Pawn Shop on December 12, 1998. He was standing before the display counter in his Jimmy's Pawn and Package Store just after noon Saturday when the gunman burst in and shot Ellis and his ex-wife, Elaine Thompson, killing them both. An employee, Helen King, suffered minor injuries.
"Mr. Ellis never had time to do nothing or say nothing," Dallas County Sheriff Harris Huffman Jr. told APB News. "He just opened fire in seconds and hit Mr. Ellis in the side."
The gunman, whom police believe is Plantersville resident Jeffery James Lee, then fired twice more in an attempt to blast Ellis a second time as he struggled to find a haven behind a computer desk, Huffman said.
The shot missed, and then Lee allegedly turned his attention to the cash register, which he knocked off the counter after he could not open it, Huffman said. He then dropped the gun, fled the store and drove off in a car with two accomplices, authorities said.
Huffman said King, who played dead, was treated and released from a hospital for her hand wound. Ellis died in his store about 10 minutes after the attack, Huffman said.
Later that day, sheriff's deputies caught up with the two alleged accomplices, Andre Darren Lee, 19, who is the alleged gunman's brother, and Jerry Dewayne Johnson, 17, who is his cousin. Police later found Lee holed up in a motel about 30 miles outside Atlanta. All three are being held without bail and are facing the possibility of the death penalty on two counts of capital murder, authorities said. Lee was since sentenced to death in 2000.
Ellis was buried at New Live Oak Cemetery in Selma (Dallas County) Alabama.