Today I Discovered The Bizarre, Tragic Story Of 'Real' Elvis Impersonator Orion

Image: Sun Records

In 1979, two years after the death of Elvis Presley, a gold vinyl appeared in record stores across America. The album was titled 'Reborn' and featured a masked man bedecked in an Elvis-style jumpsuit and trademark pompadour. His name was Orion - and his singing voice was eerily similar to the king of rock and roll.

Could it be that Elvis was still alive and performing under a new name?

A sizeable subset of Elvis fans have never been able to accept the way their idol died. (i.e. - In a lonely hotel room in a pool of his own vomit.) It was far easier to believe he had faked his own death in order to eke out a living in dingy nightclubs wearing a bedazzled Lone Ranger mask.

Now before you all scoff, it's worth noting that the mystery performer left a trail of vaguely plausible clues for rockabilly-loving conspiracy theorists to uncover. (Apart from his penchant for sequins, that is.)

First and foremost, Orion happens to be the name of a novel by Gail Brewer-Giorgio about a fictional Southern-based singer who fakes his own death. This went on to become a popular part of 'Elvis Lives' folklore. Clearly, Elvis chose this stage name because he wanted fans to know the truth.

'Reborn' and its followup albums were also released by Sun Records - the first company to record Elvis Presley. Plus, Orion often performed with Elvis Presley's former vocal backing group, the Jordanaires.

And then there was that voice. In a time before Elvis impersonation was a thing, the vocal resemblance between Orion and Presley was considered uncanny:

In reality, Orion was Jimmy Ellis, a rock performer who had been active in the music business long before Elvis' untimely death in 1977.

Throughout his early career, Ellis' singing voice had often been compared favourably to Elvis Presley's. Somehow, a record producer convinced Ellis to give up his name and perform as the masked Orion in a bid to capitalise on this similarity. (The mask was a necessary part of the deception as Ellis looked nothing like Elvis.)

For a while, the jig worked. With his hair dyed black - complete with fearsome sideburns - Ellis made a passable King on stage. Kind of. As Kara Kovalchik over on Mental Floss notes:

Ellis achieved an amazing level of success, considering his whole career was based on keeping fans guessing as to whether or not he was really Elvis Presley. His voice was so similar to Presley's that RCA almost sued [his producer]; they thought he'd unearthed some pirated unreleased Elvis tracks.

'Orion' went on to record nine albums, all featuring him in Elvis-esque clothes with a mask obscuring his features. But the ruse was not to last. Ellis was far from happy about performing incognito. During a 1981 performance, he ripped off his mask onstage and vowed to never perform in costume again.

"I don't mind being compared to Elvis, but I always wanted my own identity as an artist," he later said. Much like Elvis, Orion was now dead.

This story has a tragic postscript. After putting the whole Orion saga behind him, Ellis became a pawnshop proprietor. In 1998 he was murdered alongside his partner Elaine Thompson in a burglary gone wrong.


Comments

    For more information on the rise and fall of Orion, check out the excellent documentary Orion: The Man Who Would Be King.

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