Prior to the 1974 appearance of Capitol Records’ ambiguous, Jim Morrison doppelganger, aka The Phantom (Arthur Pendragon), the city of Detroit cultivated its first musical “Phantom” in 1966 with a faceless, Vox organ-inflected quintet out of Flint, Michigan, fronted by the perpetually sun glasses-clad (masked) Rudy Martinez, aka ? (Question Mark).
Scoring a local hit on Flint’s WTAC (home to the famed “Sherwood Forest” concerts in nearby Davison) and Detroit’s KCLW radio with “96 Tears,” Neil Bogart, then a 23-year-old sales manager for Cameo-Parkway Records (later of Buddah, and the founder of Casablanca and Boardwalk Records; see the careers of Kiss and Joan Jett), purchased the master tapes of ? and the Mysterians’ hit single, along with Bob Seger’s first singles, for national release in 1966.
However, Question Mark and the Mysterians was not the first rock band to experience chart success by concealing their identity.
In the early days of 1964 Beatlemania, an unknown American rock band with a catchy Beatlesque, Merseybeat single, “Roses Are Red (My Love),” found themselves packaged as the You Know Who Group—insinuating it could be a new single by the Beatles—and reached #43 on the U.S charts and #21 in Canada. Then, in 1965, a promising Canadian band became one of the biggest selling pop-rock groups of the early Seventies, in spite of their initial marketing under the same “mysterious” circumstances.
Upon hearing Chad Allan & the Expressions’ cover of “Shakin’ All Over,” a pre-Beatles British Invasion hit by Johnny Kidd & the Pirates, Quality Records insinuated members of the Beatles and other popular British Invasion bands recorded the song as a “supergroup”—with a playful “Guess Who?” moniker (like the earlier Masked Marauders who had a hit with “I Can’t Get No Nookie“). As with Question Mark and the Mysterians, the gimmick worked. Forever known as the Guess Who, their first single reached number one in Canada, #22 in the U.S, and #27 in Australia. The success set the stage for their RCA Records debut, Wheatfield Soul, and its 1969, U.S Top Ten hit, “These Eyes.”
The gimmick of a mystery group was not unique to the late Sixties. All the above noted bands were preceded by another mystery singer—a Fifties rockabilly singer who also utilized the “Phantom” moniker: Jerry Lott.
Born in Mobile, Alabama, in 1938, Lott played country music until 1956; then Elvis Presley’s melding of country and “race records” took him in a new musical direction. This lead Lott to compose “Love Me,” recorded in 1958 at Gulf Coast Studios, located in Mobile, Alabama. National audiences discovered the song thanks crooner Pat Boone’s Cooga-Mooga Records. Based on the song’s Elvis sound-alike qualities, Pat Boone suggested the “Phantom” stage name to Lott to maximize the record’s marketing potential. Tragically, just as the record started to break, Lott’s car skid off a 600-foot mountainside outside of Spartanburg, South Carolina. The accident left Elvis’s first “phantom” paralyzed.
In the wake of Jim Morrison returning from the dead in 1974 as the Phantom and Canada’s Klaatu working the charts in 1977 as a phantom Beatles, it turned out Elvis Presley’s death—like Jim Morrison’s—was “faked.”
The idea for this second “phantom” Elvis birthed in the fictionalized pages of Gail Brewer Giorgio’s novel, Orion. Published prior to Presley’s August 1977 death—with a somewhat analogous storyline to Jim Morrison’s alleged The Bank of America of Louisiana tome (and predating P.F Kluge’s similarly-styled 1980 novel, Eddie and the Cruisers)—Giorgio’s novel concerned an Elvis-styled singer who faked his death to escape fame.
Under the Orion facade was Alabama-born Jimmy Ellis, a musician who knocked around the country-music business since 1964—blessed (or cursed) with a singing and speaking voice analogous to Elvis (as with Arthur Pendragon’s to Jim Morrison’s; listen to the Phantom’s backward poem, forwarded). After hearing an Ellis demo, Shelby Singleton, the then owner of Sun Records, Elvis Presley’s old recording home, pinched from Giorgio’s book (Giorgio was not complicit in Singleton’s marketing scheme) and created an Elvis doppelganger—Orion.
Adorning Ellis in Elvis-inspired capes and jumpsuits, then slapping on a pompadour wig and jeweled Lone Rangersque-mask (Jerry Lott wore a similar eye-mask), the “marketing” worked. Not only was Orion’s 1978 album, Reborn (You Tube/full album), embraced by radio and the Elvis-loving record-buying public, Giorgio’s book, once ignored, received renewed interest from those who believed the King was not only alive, but that Giorgio’s book was actually Elvis Presley’s memoirs thinly disguised as a fictional novel. In addition, as with the Guess Who and Question Mark and the Mysterians before him, Orion’s first singles entered the marketplace with a question mark (?) nom de plume to create a pre-release buzz for the full-length Orion album.
As with the Arthur Pendragon’s Jim Morrison-albatross, Jimmy Ellis suffered under his phantomesque yokes with a desire for everyone to see the real person under the mask. Sadly, the recognition Jimmy Ellis craved and deserved arrived too late. A failed 1998 robbery at his Alabama pawnshop resulted in his murder. He was unable to see his career preserved in the 2015 documentary, Orion: The Man Who Would Be King.
So goes the tales of the marketing hype with phantom rockers, ghostgroups and supergroups, as well as concept albums and rock operas, rock theatrics and ad-hoc studio supersessions—and, in most cases, their resulting lack of achieving commercial inroads. Unfortunately, there is more to rock ‘n’ roll than just the song in the business end of rock ‘n’ roll; it is about the packaging of the sights and sounds, of the images and marketing: for every Jim Morrison, there’s a Phantom. For every Knack, there’s a Nirvana.
And for every Elvis, there’s a Jimmy Ellis.
About the Author: You can learn more about the writings of R.D Francis on Facebook. He also writes for B&S About Movies and publishes on Medium. You can find his books on the career of Arthur Pendragon—The Ghost of Jim Morrison, the Phantom of Detroit, and the Fates of Rock ‘n’ Roll and Tales from a Wizard: The Oral History of Walpurgis—as softcover and eBooks in the online marketplace at all eRetailers—including Amazon.