2671514, 'Disco Inferno' singer Jimmy Ellis of Rock Hill dies at 74|
Posted by crossdamon, Fri Mar-09-12 09:05 AM
The end came silently Thursday morning, but throughout his life, Jimmy Ellis "burned that mother down."
James T. "Jimmy" Ellis - who grew up in a shotgun shack on Pond Street in Rock Hill's Crawford Road neighborhood - died Thursday. He was 74.
But his signature song, "Disco Inferno," will live forever.
Alzheimer's disease - the killer with no regard for greatness that will never be quieted or a song that changed the world - needs no noise for its desperate deed.
There was always sound around Jimmy Ellis.
Songs sung driving a school bus at age 16, winning talent shows and at roadhouses, songs sung to his kids and grandkids, in churches and arenas and on television and in movies.
And the sound above all sounds - words from deep in Ellis' soul, down there way below the diaphragm where the magic lives - that will last until the world ends.
"Doesn't matter where you go, who they are," said Johnny Ellis, Jimmy's younger brother, "everybody knows when they hear the words, 'Burn that mother down!' and 'burn, baby, burn' that the song is 'Disco Inferno.'
"And the man with that voice who sang that song was Jimmy Ellis."
"Disco Inferno" turned The Trammps - the band Jimmy Ellis fronted - and its silver-voiced singer from entertainers into American cultural icons.
The song took off after it was featured in the movie "Saturday Night Fever" in 1977, and on the subsequent soundtrack that sold an astounding 15 million copies as it stayed atop the charts for half a year.
In 1978, "Disco Inferno" sat for several weeks at No. 1 on Billboard magazine's dance music chart..
The refrain - "Burn, baby, burn" - repeated throughout the song, in the background and flowing like lava, hot and burning just like the words, is unforgettable. It is not so much a chorus as a demand, a magical spell.
Ellis' voice careens over mountains and screams through valleys with "Saaaaaaa-tisfaction" - as the Trammps sing "ooh-ooh-ooh" in the background - "came in a chain reaction."
Thirty-five years later, that line, too remains iconic in not just music, but popular culture.
"'Disco Inferno' remains a big favorite in Europe to this day, and is played here and everywhere," said Ellis' wife of 46 years, Beverly. "'Disco Inferno'? The whole world knows the words."
After "Saturday Night Fever," the song was played at discos around the globe, and still is. It has been featured in movies, TV shows and commercials. Most recently, it was introduced to a whole new generation in the movie "Shrek 2."
Jimmy Ellis, with "Disco Inferno," became immortal.
"It does not matter where you go in the world - and I been all over this world playing music - 'Disco Inferno' is being played somewhere on a radio or in a mall or on a train or a plane," said Johnnie "Boggie" King, another legendary musician who grew up playing music with the Ellis brothers.
"To lose Ellis is to lose a legend. The song and our Ellis - we call him Ellis, not Jimmy - is around somewhere. The cat just went to the mountaintop with that one song - and he never come back down."
Even though Ellis and the Trammps had been touring for years before 1978, and had other songs and a bunch of albums, it was "Disco Inferno" that turned Ellis into a household voice.
"We had to move because when that song got huge, it was the biggest thing in the country," said Erika Stinson, 42, the younger of Ellis' two children. "People just showed up at the house. It was unbelievable. All of a sudden here I am a little girl going to school and my father is leaving on tour, and he is dropping me off at school in a limousine.
"I didn't think it was strange that Stevie Wonder came over to see us. It was no biggie that my father was tight with the Bee Gees. The whole world knew the song. And it still does."
Willie Roach, a Rock Hill bluesman who has played music all over the world, put it bluntly:"'Disco Inferno' is the biggest thing anybody from Rock Hill ever did. Ever. It is heard everywhere there are ears to hear it."
Jimmy Ellis, the oldest of six children whose father died when he was just a kid, got his start singing where all black kids did in those days - in church. He and brother Johnny and two other guys sang at dances at St. Mary Catholic Church and other places around Rock Hill and won every talent show in town as the "Four Knights."
Later, Ellis toured for a while with Bobby Plair and his group, but to make it in show business, he had to escape late-1950s segregation by heading for the Northeast.
He landed in New Jersey, where he worked for a family doing maintenance, gardening, chauffeuring - whatever - singing at night and on weekends. He won talent shows in Atlantic City, sang on the pier, and was "discovered."
"He went to Philly and never looked back," said his brother.
Ellis formed a band called The Exceptions, then The Trammps in the late 1960s - both based in Philadelphia.
"They toured with James Brown, they were all over the place," said Johnny Ellis.
And all the while, when not on tour, Jimmy Ellis worked in a meat packing plant or at a hospital or in a Navy supply depot to make extra money for his wife and two children, Erika and Jimmy II.
"It was nothing for my father to finish a tour and to stay busy, work two jobs," his daughter Erika said. "He was always humble. Just a country boy singing music. When the music finished, he went to work like anybody else.
"He had to stay busy, he just grew up working, so he worked."
In 1972, The Trammps had a hit with a cover of "Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart," and the band became stalwarts in the rhythm and blues world because of their flashy clothes and huge Afros and dance steps during live and television performances.
But then, in an avalanche, disco fell on America. Panned by some, but loved by the masses. Discotheques sprang up around the country.
The Trammps recorded and released "Disco Inferno" in 1976, but it wasn't until it was featured in "Saturday Night Fever" - the 1977 movie that got America pointing to the sky, then down at the floor, then back at the sky again - that it took off.
As a single, "Disco Inferno" reached the top of the U.S. dance music charts in 1978. It won a Grammy and was a gold record - selling more than 500,000 copies.
The Trammps - with Jimmy Ellis front and center, belting out the burn - appeared on "Soul Train" and other popular music shows.
"People remember that song; it was the biggest song in the world at one time," Johnny Ellis said. "He was in Germany when the song became such a hit, and it was huge over there and still is."
The Trammps never had another hit of "Disco Inferno" magnitude, but the group still toured the country and the world, even after Ellis moved back to Rock Hill in 2000. He performed with the Trammps regularly through 2008, when the early stages of Alzheimer's started to manifest.
Despite that affliction, Ellis still put on a few unforgettable performances. He sang one last time in Atlantic City in 2010, and live outside the "Today" show on NBC.
And one unforgettable time at Beef O'Brady's in Fort Mill, after his daughter sang karaoke.
"I still get chill bumps when I hear the song or see it on a video," Erika Stinson said. "I go into a Wal-Mart and open up a birthday card and the song plays. I turn on the radio and it is on. There is a rap remix by 50 Cent, and another one with Rihanna.
"I see 'Saturday Night Fever' on reruns and there is my father's voice and I am thinking: Wow!"
Through all the success, Jimmy Ellis remained humble. He would perform at benefits and small gatherings for free. He would sing his favorite gospel songs in church and anywhere else.
A 2007 benefit in Rock Hill was so packed the fire marshal was called. But Ellis was still the same guy. I saw him a dozen times at stores and other places. He would stop and talk and he was just a super guy who had time for anybody and sang to his grandchildren.
Funeral arrangements are not yet final, but memorial services will be held in Charlotte on March 16 and in Philadelphia.
"Before my father was so sick, he would say what a great life he had, how he knew that he had done something special in his life," Erika Stinson said.
Jimmy Ellis' whole life was special.
The long version of "Disco Inferno," at 10 minutes and 51 seconds is a marathon of disco funk and style. The short version, with Ellis out front in a white or purple suit and an Afro that reached the ceiling and a voice that reached the heavens - that 3 minutes and 40 seconds played on the radio a million times is more than special.
It is in the Dance Music Hall of Fame. But more, "Disco Inferno" is forever.
"'Disco Inferno' is one of the songs that will never die, that is part of the history of music and America," said Johnny Ellis. "My brother from Rock Hill sang that song. And it is still around, and always will be."