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Three Elvises

Andy Warhol, "Triple Elvis".

While reading Steve Jones' (guitarist for the Sex Pistols) memoir, I ran across a name with which I was not familiar, and in a context that intrigued me. Throughout the book, Jones name-dropped artists and bands that influenced him or that he liked. Towards the end he casually mentioned the name Ral Donner and that he was one of the better Elvis sound-alikes from back in the day.

Intrigued I looked him up.

I first turned to Wikipedia, oh blessed open-source encyclopedia, where I learned that he had been born in Chicago and in the late 50s began to exploit a voice that was similar to the rock god himself. He formed a band that sang once with Sammy Davis, Jr., and appeared on Alan Freed's (the man who coined the term "Rock n' Roll") radio show. But then he recorded Elvis' number "The Girl of My Best Friend." It was enough to get him picked up and he began a short ascent to recognition as a quality voice that sounded a hell of a lot like Elvis.

In June of 1961, he released "You Don't Know What You've Got" which sold a million records. The single climbed to number four on Billboard's Hot 100 list. It was the best selling release he would have. You can read a detailed biography here. He continued to record, releasing several more singles and a few albums, he also appeared on a compilation album titled To Elvis: Love Still Burning. By the early 70s, his brief fame began to fade and he only recorded the occasional single. He died of cancer in 1984.

Donner may have made it without Elvis, he was ambitious enough to start his own band and tenacious enough to start moving up in the rock community, but it was the similarities with Elvis that truly brought him into the spotlight. Though he succeeded in distinguishing himself from Elvis, he never truly made it big and he faded after only a few years in the limelight. The intersections of life with Elvis Presley's were enough to give him a break but not so many as to consume his career.

The second artist with a voice once thought similar to Elvis is Charlie Rich. I first discovered him when I picked up a used copy of Peter Guralnick's Feel Like Going Home: Portraits in Blues, Country, and Rock n' Roll. The essay about Rich described a visit Guralnick made to a local bar where Rich played regular gigs and lamented the loss of his former fame. Of the three artists discussed here, Rich was the most successful and the most able to separate himself from Elvis.

He was born in Arkansas in 1932 and served in the Air Force in the early 50s. After his service he formed a band with his wife and, after moving to Memphis, began playing a mix of jazz and blues in local venues. He recorded several demos for Sam Phillips of Sun Records, but the irascible producer--who was better known for having discovered the likes of Howin' Wolf, Johnny Cash, and Elvis--said his sound was "too jazzy." Rich went away and studied a parcel of Jerry Lee Lewis albums until he began to develop the rockabilly stylings that would bring his initial success.

After playing as a session musician for half a dozen Sun artists, his breakout came with his third single, "Lonely Weekends," which sold over a million copies and earned him a gold record. It was noted at the time that Rich possessed a voice familiar in its similarity to Elvis. Unfortunately, none of his follow-up singles enjoyed much success and he began drifting from record company to record company. In 1965, Rich moved to Smash Records where he was encouraged to move towards a country sound. He recorded "Mohair Sam" which became a top 30 pop hit but again subsequent releases failed to capitalize on its success.

In 1967, Rich signed with Epic Records and transitioned fully into the country scene while still carrying his more metropolitan rockabilly sensibility. In 1972, he saw "I Take It On Home" climb to number six on the country charts and the following year released the album Behind Closed Doors which became a number one country hit. For the next three years, he peaked, recording a number of chart-toppers including "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World."

But like so many artists, Rich developed a problem with alcohol and was notoriously intoxicated when he presented at the Country Music Awards in 1975. It began a decline that dragged through the rest of the 70s with minor hits, but by 1979 he had essentially fallen from grace and was destined to ride the circuit tours and play smaller venues where he drew increasingly older fans. He continued to struggle with alcohol and, by the time of the Guralnick interview, was disappearing by night's end into the bottom of the bottle. In 1992 he released an album of jazz standards which is an interesting listen. He died three years later of a pulmonary embolism.

The last man with a voice like the King was Jimmy "Orion" Ellis. Of the three he, perhaps, had the voice most similar, but he was also the one least able to separate himself from the legend from which he sprang.

It is uncertain where Ellis was born--though it happened in 1945--because he was quickly put up for adoption and settled with his adoptive parents in Alabama. It was in Georgia, though, that he began his musical career and recorded "Don't Count Your Chickens" for a local label in 1964. He played small gigs and rambled for the next five years until his voice's parallels to Elvis's drew the attention of Shelby Singleton.

Singleton had acquired the rights to Sun Records back catalog, which included Elvis's early releases, and hired Ellis to record a couple of his songs. The subsequent single was credited to "?" and fobbed off as alternate takes of some of Elvis's early hits. It was a gag that wouldn't bring Ellis immediate fame for it was another ten years before Singleton called again.

After Elvis' death in 1977, Singleton began using Ellis to record songs sung by other Sun Records artists. The idea was to suggest that Elvis had actually recorded versions of the songs while with Sun but they had never been released. The hoax was supported by the artist credit as "Friend" and the co-writer of "Save the Last Dance For Me" who insisted that the singer was, in fact, Elvis. Good Morning America even conducted a voice comparison analysis that concluded the song was actually sung by Elvis.

At the same time as these early efforts to fool the world, Ellis couldn't even escape the similarities with the King of Rock n' Roll under his own name. He released an album titled By Request: Ellis Sings Elvis. Even being himself, he was banking on Elvis and trying to exploit their near-identical voices.

In 1978 a popular novel with the main character based on Elvis portrayed a popular singer who faked his own death. The character was named Orion. Singleton convinced Ellis to take the next step in the myth and Ellis dyed and styled his hair like Elvis and wore a small mask to disguise his true identity. He adopted the stage name Orion, after the novel, and began to intentionally market himself as Elvis's post-death personality.

The scheme worked and through the early 80s, Ellis saw a number of country hits released under his pseudonym. But the veneer wore thin and, tired of playing the role of a resurrected legend, he ripped off his mask during a live performance and revealed his true identity. This was in 1983 and for the next four years he tried to build a career as Jimmy Ellis, a man who just happened to sound like Elvis. By 1987, however, it became apparent that he was not going to get the break he wanted and he returned to the role of Orion.

A short time later he left the music scene and opened a store with his girlfriend in Alabama. He would live another ten years until he was murdered in a robbery of his pawnshop in 1998. His legacy was all but forgot until 2015 when Jeanie Finlay made the documentary Orion: The Man Who Would Be King, which won an award at the British Independent Film Awards that same year.

All three men--Ral Donner, Charlie Rich, and Jimmy Ellis--sounded a lot like Elvis when they made their break. Donner managed to carve a short career from his sound but never truly came into his own as a known commodity. Rich found a niche in country music and garnered millions of fans. He alone managed to escape Elvis shadow. Ellis's story proved the saddest and no matter how hard he tried he could never escape the ghost of the King.

Regardless of the man, however, and their mixed legacies, it is their shared vocal similarities that brought them to the public eye. Three Elvises, not imitators, but individuals blessed with a voice like that of the original. Each one with dreams of the big time, and each one with his own demons that, inevitably, ended prematurely.

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