EIN: Bobby, many thanks for taking time to talk to us today. Before we talk about your friendship with Jimmy Ellis, who is Bobby D?
Bobby D.: I was born in Macon, GA in 1945. Went to Lanier Sr., a great all boys public, military high school. After attended Middle Georgia College and Georgia Southern College before joining the USAF. While in Germany, met my future wife, the daughter of a Major, fighter pilot stationed at the same base. She was 16 going on 21 and I was 21. A real EP story. We were married when I returned to the states. I finished college with a BBA while my wife worked, and I got the GI Bill. I never gave up music and a friend and I played at a local pub for extra money while finishing school.
Many years later, I recorded four songs at Stargem Studios in Nashville, the same studio Jimmy had also recorded at earlier. A couple of songs can be heard at the URLs below. Jimmy really liked my version of My Special Angel that we listened to for the first time while riding around in Nashville. He said: “man you may make it before I do”. I responded: “gosh Jimmy what if I did”. Jimmy said: “I’ll kill you”, and we had a big laugh.
I continued with my Human Resources career for many years and retired in the mountains of NC two years ago. I’m on the upper deck of our cabin in the picture here (see photo above). I still record once in a while at home, as the mood strikes.
EIN: Listening to My Special Angel and He’s Got You it is apparent that you also have a singing voice very similar Elvis’. Is that your natural singing voice?
Bobby D.: Yes, that is just my natural voice.
EIN: Given you have a great singing voice why didn’t you pursue a recording/performing career?
Bobby D.: I loved music but needed to use my education to pay the bills. Besides, I had childhood issues that I was not good enough. And, after I heard Jimmy, I knew I was not.........................>
EIN: Your friendship with Jimmy Ellis. Tell us about that.
Bobby D.: Jimmy Ellis and I met in college at age 18 in 1963. We were in the same dorm building on campus at Middle Georgia College in Cochran, GA. Every morning from my room I would hear this loping sound of cowboy boots coming down the hall and some guy humming and singing lowly. I couldn’t quite make out the voice. A few weeks later, some guys asked me to come down to their room where they were playing music so I decided to go. I was in a small band named the Catalinas in Macon, GA my hometown and loved music. The guys in the room were mostly the college’s basketball players.
One of them, a tall guy with a buzzed haircut, was sitting on a single bed by an old record player and a reel-to-reel tape recorder. The tape recorder was playing the song “Echoes of Love” from Elvis’ Kissin Cousin’s album. The album disc was on the record player. The Kissin Cousins movie was on at the local theater, and I had seen it recently. Being in a band, we did some Elvis songs, and I was a big fan and knew Elvis’ voice well. My mom had bought me GI Blues and a new record player when I was only 10 years old and I would try to play some of the songs and sing. One of the guys asked me if I knew who that was singing on the tape recorder. I thought that was an odd question but I said: “sure, it’s Elvis Presley. Well, he then said: “no, it’s that guy”, pointing to the guy sitting on the bed.
The Masked Man "Orion"
So I said: “come on, that’s Elvis I have the album”. Then, he introduced me to Jimmy Ellis, the guy by the tape recorder who had said nothing. Jimmy grinned sleeplessly and said: “I’ll show you how this works”. He started the album on the record player to play “Echoes of Love”. Then he started the tape recorder and put the little microphone down by the record player and sang with the song overlaying Elvis’ voice with his. I have to say I was floored. I could not believe what I was hearing. Well, once all the other guys left, Jimmy and I sang until late in the night with me strumming a small red guitar he had borrowed and Jimmy and I singing Elvis and Beatles songs.
So, that’s how Jimmy Ellis and I met and became lifelong friends. Later, we met a guy named Jimmy Youmans also a student. Jimmy was a really good guitar player and very musically inclined. He was the one who produced Jimmy Ellis’ first 45 rpm record “Love Is But A Love” and “Don’t Count Your Chickens Before They Hatch” recorded at a radio station in Kibbee, GA. They wrote both of the songs. Youmans put the record on the Dradco Recording Company label. The record got a little airplay in Macon, GA in 1964.
Youmans formed a small group and had Jimmy sing at a few local schools. The girls went wild. During that same year, with record in hand, I took Jimmy Ellis to Macon to meet Bobby Smith at his recording studio. Bobby had recorded Otis Redding and Wayne Cochran plus many local bands. Bobby knew a lot of people in the business and was a producer for King Records at one time. We let Bobby hear the record and he liked it but he said that it was too much like Presley, and he didn’t think he could do anything with Jimmy….a huge mistake. Jimmy then met with Phil Walden, owner of Capricorn Records (the Almond Brothers Band and others) in Macon and was offered a contract, but since Jimmy was under age at the time his parents wouldn’t let him sign….another huge mistake. I often wonder what that would have done for Jimmy’s career since Phil Walden was nationally known.
In early 1965, I transferred to Georgia Southern College in Statesboro, GA and lost touch with Jimmy for a number of years. But later after college Jimmy and I reconnected and had experiences in the 70’s where he did various club shows etc., in Macon and other towns. Once Jimmy signed with Sun Records in Nashville, we drifted apart….me with my career and Jimmy trying to make it in the music industry. In later years after the breakup with Sun, Jimmy and I got back together for visits in Memphis. We put the official web site www.orionjimmyellis.com together three months before his tragic death in December 1998. I miss him a lot!
EIN: Jimmy Ellis, the person.......away from the stage or recording studio. Who was he?
Bobby D: Jimmy Ellis was actually the same off stage as he was on stage. He was who he was, no pretense. He and I were alike in that respect. “What you see is what you get”. We were both only children, but Jimmy was not selfish or too self-centered. He was very generous and good-hearted. He would give you things and himself freely. He loved to have a good time, loved to sing and entertain. Jimmy came from a Christian family and held his belief in God the Father throughout his life.
EIN: Jimmy’s first Orion album, Reborn. The “coffin” cover caused a lot of controversy and was replaced. Did Jimmy ever comment to you about the cover?
Bobby D.: Jimmy never commented about the LP “coffin” cover to me, but he was not hot on the mask gimmick from the start.
The controversial 'Reborn' album with its "coffin" cover
EIN: What did Jimmy say to you about his career as Orion?
Bobby D.: Basically he was very happy to get all the publicity from all the albums and live shows Sun Records provided, but he did not like wearing the mask. At first with all the attention he was getting, I’m sure he had fun with it but he really wanted to be known as himself and not try to fool people into thinking he might be Elvis Presley. He once said: “you can’t make it on someone else’s coattail”.
EIN: Did he come to resent the Orion character and if so, how strongly?
Bobby D.: The gimmick of Orion lasted about 3 years. Along the way, and particularly towards the end, Jimmy was not happy with the whole thing. He wanted better recording material (new songs) and production sound in other studios but Sun (Shelby Singleton) would not agree. Well, Jimmy finally had enough and took the mask off at a New Year’s show in the Atlanta area in 1981. At that point Shelby was done with their arrangement and so was Jimmy.
EIN: Did the Orion experience change Jimmy as a person?
Bobby D.: No, not really. Again, he was who he was period. Actually, I think it made him more determined to try to be accepted by radio and the music industry as Jimmy Ellis, even though he sounded like EP. He used to say: “you can sound like other artists and make it but if you sound like Elvis they don’t want to play your records”. When Jimmy would come for a visit to my house in the early days, it was like Elvis was coming…...there was electricity in the air.
EIN: Jimmy’s death was tragic! Many fans will not be aware of this circumstances. What exactly happened?
Bobby D: My recollection is that on Saturday, December 12, 1998, Jimmy was getting ready to go on a duck hunting trip on Sunday with his son, a doctor friend and others. Just before noon, he decided to go by his pawn shop to check on things. That day, Elaine Thompson, his x-wife was filling in for Shirley Connell who had gone home to Memphis for the weekend. Another regular lady was also working that day. Very soon after Jimmy entered the store, a young black guy came in carrying a sawed off shotgun and demanded money. Elaine was sitting on a stool behind the counter top to the left of the entrance door and Jimmy was standing some feet away also behind the counter. The other lady was standing just behind Elaine.
Apparently, it was just a few seconds after the guy entered that he fatally shot Jimmy in his left side and then swung the gun around shooting Elaine in the face killing her instantly. The other lady fell to the floor with blood on her and played dead while Jimmy tried to crawl behind a computer desk. The guy shot at Jimmy again but missed. He then dragged the cash register off the counter and got about $135.00 out of it. He then left the store and caught up with his two young friends waiting down the road in a car. All three men were apprehended. The shooter is in jail with a death sentence. It was obviously a terrible tragedy, and I will never forget the call I got at 11:00 pm on that Saturday night December 12 from Shirley telling me Jimmy was dead. I had just talked to him on Friday December 11. On Monday I carried his CDs to work and played them throughout the day.
The book that started it all (in classic conspiracy fashion, its 'first edition' featured two 'author' names!!)
EIN: There are conflicting reports of who else was with Jimmy at the time, some reports say his fiancé, others say his ex-wife. Could you clarify who was working with him that day?
Bobby D.: As mentioned before, it was Elaine Thompson, Jimmy’s ex-wife and another lady who normally worked at the store.
EIN: The Jimmy Ellis story "lives on". Scheduled for release next year is Jeanne Finlay's intriguing film, Orion: The Man Who Would Be King, and also due for release in 2015 is a radio documentary about southern USA music which includes a segment about the Jimmy "Orion" Ellis story.
Bobby D.: Jimmy's story and music is important- he was very talented - and these releases will celebrate his life and career.
Watch the stunning trailer for Orion The Man Who Would Be King
EIN: What is Bobby D. doing, musically, these days?
Bobby D.: Not very much except recording at home when the mood strikes. I love music too and do some song leading at church. I do miss playing live. (EIN Comment: Bobby D. should get back to playing "live" - he is naturally gifted with a great voice!)
EIN: Does it surprise you that Jimmy still has so many fans nearly 20 years after his tragic death?
Bobby D.: Not really. Jimmy Ellis was one of the super talented yes like Elvis, Tom Jones, Engelbert – my all-time favorite solo artists. Jimmy had the voice and charisma that drew you to him. He had perfect pitch, automatic vibrato, and wide range in his voice. He also had a great personality with a quick wit. Anyway, he got that voice from somewhere in his original family….not from Sears, as he once said.
EIN: You operate the official Jimmy Ellis/Orion website. How did that come about and what can fans expect to find on the site?
Bobby D.: A few months before Jimmy passed away, I had suggested we put a web site together to sell his CDs. He didn’t know anything about computers and web sites so I had a company in Raleigh, NC develop the original site for us. Jimmy was very happy we did this and he liked getting a periodic check for CD sales. So, I have kept the site going since 1998. Sales have not been great since the fan base has long since scattered but I enjoy doing it to keep his talent known, as much as possible. The upcoming Orion documentary being done by Jeanie Finley in England should broaden exposure. She is an accomplished documentary film maker with 6+ well known films.
EIN: Bobby, you currently have a special offer on the site. Please tell our readers about this and how they can order.
Bobby D.: Well, we just had a limited number of the out-of-print CD - Orion Country repressed. That one along with the first original album now on CD - Orion Reborn are offered for $8.95 each. That’s the special since the regular price is $12.95. The sale is temporary to offer fans who missed these CDs the first time around a real deal. The CDs are offered on the official web site: www.orionjimmyellis.com.
EIN: One of the incredible things about Jimmy and his Orion alter-ego is that there were around 150 bootleg recordings of his studio and live recordings released. EIN often receives requests for information on these releases. Are they still available in 2014?
Bobby D.: Actually, I know there are bootleg ones out there, but I’m not familiar with all of them. I hope people will remember that some of the masters are owned by us and others over in Norway/Denmark.
EIN: Bobby, is there anything else you would like to say to our readers and Jimmy Ellis/Orion fans?
Bobby D.: I suppose I just want to continue to help get Jimmy’s name and talent out there for people to enjoy what was missed. Jimmy just could not help that he sounded like someone else – EP. But, it was really him. He was NOT an impersonator, as he tried desperately to explain. If you sat in a room with him and heard him sing Happy Birthday, the National Anthem, or It’s Now or Never, he sounded exactly the same. Bobby Smith, owner of Boblo Records once told his engineer, Chet Bennett: “take him in the studio and record different songs. If he sounds different on them, I will know he is faking”. Chet came back and said: “Bobby, he sounds the same on all of them”. Bobby then immediately offered Jimmy a recording contract. That eventually led to Sun Records in Nashville.
EIN: Bobby D. it’s been great talking with you. Many thanks again and all the best for the future.
Bobby D.: It was a pleasure. Adios till we meet again!
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