elvis Rock Flashback: Elvis Is Alive

(Getty Images/Joe Raedle/staff)

On this April Fools Day, there are any number of rock ‘n’ roll hoaxes we could write about: [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Paul McCartney[/lastfm] is dead (probably not), Charles Manson auditioned for [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]the Monkees[/lastfm] (he couldn’t have because he was in jail), [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Keith Richards[/lastfm] once had all of his blood replaced (not exactly). But the king of all rock hoaxes is the one in which [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Elvis Presley[/lastfm] faked his death in 1977 and lives on today, somewhere, somehow. Just google the phrase “Elvis is alive” and you’ll find dozens of web citations and sites devoted to “proof.”

In the late ’70s, a masked singer named [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Orion[/lastfm] was rumored to be Elvis in disguise. He wasn’t — he was a rockabilly singer named [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Jimmy Ellis[/lastfm], who sounded amazingly like Elvis. Longtime Nashville producer [lastfm link_type=”artist_info”]Shelby Singleton[/lastfm] had read an unpublished novel about a young performer who becomes the most famous singer in the world, takes drugs, gains weight, and fakes his own death. The novel, written before the real Elvis succumbed to the complications of superstardom, captured Singleton’s imagination — and he resolved to turn Ellis into Orion, recording him on Sun Records.  The fiction fooled a lot of people for a couple of years, before Ellis dramatically unmasked himself onstage in 1981. (The odd and sad story of Orion is here, and it’s definitely worth the read.)

In 1988, a newspaper item in Michigan reported that Elvis had been spotted in Kalamazoo, a couple of hours west of Detroit. In 1990, it was reported that somebody calling himself Elvis Presley had submitted a census form in Alabama. (That this “proves” anything to anybody is proof only of the decline of critical thinking in modern America.) But as the 1990s rolled on and a generation reached adulthood that had known only the cultural phenomenon critic Greil Marcus calls “dead Elvis,” rumors that he was still alive were just one part of the broader cultural sideshow he had become. Whether he unmasked himself at that point or whether he didn’t would scarcely have mattered, just as it would scarcely matter today.

Here’s Jimmy Ellis in the mid ’80s, singing and talking about being Orion.


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