Watch the Tunes: Orion: The Man Who Would Be King

On August 12, 2016

by Jeffrey Harvey

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There is an absurdly vast selection of music movies and documentaries available on Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, and on and on and on. But it’s hard to tell which ones are actually worth your 100 minutes. Watch the Tunes will help you pick what music doc is worth your Netflix and Chill time every weekend. This week’s edition covers Orion: The Man Who Would Be King, which is streaming over on Netflix.

“The problem with fame is that you get frozen in one frame and nothing you can do can alter the nature.” - Jerry Rubin

There’s a feeling one gets when out digging for records. An unexpected racing of the heart, triggered by bizarre-looking LP’s or 45’s that seem so out of place, even holding them in your hands is a minor thrill. Such was the case when I first encountered a handful of “Orion” LP’s many years ago at a junk shop in the Midwest.

Released on Sun Records, and almost always pressed on vibrant, bright-colored vinyl, the mystery man gracing the covers of these records was adorned in sequined Lone Ranger masks, satin button-ups, and seemed to be mugging for the camera with all his might. Titles like Reborn, Glory, and Feelings hovered close to his well-coiffed, jet-black hair. Yes, these records looked too good to be bad.

Unfortunately the music contained in the grooves was pretty underwhelming. An Elvis impersonator giving somewhat flaccid renditions of cover songs, spanning the popular music genre gamut, just didn’t connect with me.

From “Return To Sender” to “Suzie Q,” whoever Orion was, he seemed not to care what song he was doing, as long as he was doing it. I tossed the records in my chudd pile, and subsequently lost interest.

That was, until about a month ago when I stumbled upon Jeanie Finlay’s documentary Orion: The Man Who Would Be King streaming on Netflix.


Finlay, who also directed the music docs The Great Hip-Hop Hoax and Sound It Out, happened upon an Orion record at a yard sale with her husband in England. She became obsessed with the character on the cover, immersed herself in all things Orion, and ultimately uncovered the stuff of legend.

The film spotlights the star-crossed career of a man named Jimmy Ellis, who was born into poverty in the Deep South, and adopted at a young age.  As he grew, Ellis showed an effortless ability for singing, and his smooth, Elvis-like baritone was constantly on display for friends, family, and whoever else would listen.

While in high school, Ellis recorded a one-off 45 in a friend’s garage with a group called The Apollos, pressed 500 copies, and handed them out to friends. A Macon, Georgia radio station picked up on the disc, and Ellis was offered a solo recording contract. But, as he was underage at the time, his parents balked at the idea, and his dream of being a singing star faded into the background while he tended to the family business of raising show horses.

Disenchanted with small town life, and ready to prove himself to the world, Ellis took off for Los Angeles at the age of 30, leaving behind a wife and newborn son. The big city proved to be too fast for him, and after being ruthlessly bilked out of his life savings by shady PR representation and back-alley huckster management, Ellis was back home – broke and depressed.

With his music dreams crushed, and no concrete plan for his life, Ellis was encouraged by a friend to give Nashville a try. He did, and ultimately found himself tangled up in the mess that would (for better or worse), come to define his legacy. Music business entrepreneur, and noted character Shelby Singleton had acquired Sun Records from owner Sam Phillips in 1969, and by the time of Elvis’ death in 1977, had tapped Jimmy Ellis to assume the role of “Orion,” a character out of a book series, intentionally promoted to be The King re-incarnated.


With Ellis’ dead-ringer Presley vocal styling and comparable good looks, the Orion persona took off like a bottlerocket with still-grieving Elvis fans, and anyone who didn’t want to believe The King was truly dead. The celebrity status of the fabricated character Singleton created soon eclipsed even the wildest dreams of both manager and performer. They were selling out venues, travelling in large tour buses, and “entertaining” women in hotel rooms after shows.

The only problem was, the entire stunt was dependent on Ellis wearing the mask over his eyes - not only while performing - but at ANY time he was in the public eye. When he ate dinner out in restaurants, he wore the mask. When he met with music industry executives, he wore the mask. When he did fan meet-and-greets, he wore the mask. And at one point, when he somehow managed to meet KISS… Well you get the idea.

Jimmy Ellis soon realized that his desire to be appreciated for his singing ability was not being fulfilled, and in reality, audiences didn’t even know who he was. He was just some guy in a mask that sounded EXACTLY like Elvis, and Ellis soon grew to resent the character he was playing. The story only gets crazier from there, but I’m going to let you discover it for yourself, just like I did.

Orion: The Man Who Would Be King is a sobering reflection on the often-flawed human side of the entertainment industry. The side that preys on people’s most intense, deep-seeded personal desires. The side that so desperately wants to be appreciated, that it will go to any length to achieve success. The side that “gets frozen in one frame and nothing you can do can alter the nature.”

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