Skip to comments.'Disco Inferno' singer Jimmy Ellis of Rock Hill dies at 74
Posted on 03/08/2012 6:44:46 PM PST by John W
The end came silently Thursday morning for Jimmy Ellis. But the life, before death at age 74, was never quiet. Jimmy Ellis burned that mother down.
James T. Ellis, "Jimmy," died Thursday, but the song "Disco Inferno" will live forever.
The silent killer, Alzheimers, with no regard for greatness that will never be quieted or a song that changed the world, needs no noise for its desperate deed. But in a lifetime that lasted 74 years until Thursday, there was always sound around Jimmy Ellis who grew up in a shotgun shack on Pond Street in Rock Hills Crawford Road neighborhood. Songs sung driving a school bus at age 16, winning talent shows and at roadhouses, songs 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 Elliss soul down there way below the diaphragm where the magic lives, that will last until the world ends.
Burn that mother down! said Johnny Ellis, Jimmy Elliss younger brother. Burn, baby burn. Doesnt matter where you go, who they are, 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.
That song, "Disco Inferno," turned The Trammps - the band Jimmy Ellis fronted, and its silver-voiced singer from entertainers into plain - out American cultural icons. The song was featured in the "Saturday Night Fever" movie in 1977, and the subsequent soundtrack that sold an astounding 15 million copies as it stayed atop the charts for half a year. In 1978, "Disco Inferno" as a single became for a while the Number One dance song in America, and thus, the world.
The refrain Burn, baby burn sung throughout that song, in the background and flowing like lava, hot and burning just like the words, is unforgettable and will surely last as long as there is music on the face of the earth. It is not so much a chorus as a demand, a magical spell, or just plain fated destiny. The song sung by Jimmy Ellis of Rock Hill, a voice that careens over mountains and screams through valleys with Saaaatisfaction -(and in the background the Trammps singing ooh-ooh-ooh) came in a chain reaction, remains, 35 years later, iconic in not just music, but popular culture and life.
The song Disco Inferno remains a big favorite in Europe to this day, and is played here and everywhere, said Elliss wife of 46 years, Beverly. Disco Inferno? The whole world knows the words.
The song was played at discos around the globe - and still is. Disco Inferno is in movies and on TV shows and commercials. Jimmy Ellis, with that song, became plainly, 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 with the Ellis brothers playing music together. 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 Elliss 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 didnt 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 his 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. Then Jimmy toured for a while with Bobby Plair and his group, but to make it in show business Jimmy Ellis had to escaped late 1950s segregation by heading for the northeast.
He landed in New Jersey, where he worked for a family doing maintenance, gardening, chauffeur, whatever, and sang at night and on weekends. He won talent shows in Atlantic City, sang on the pier, and was discovered.
He went to Philly - Philadelphia - and never looked back, said his brother.
Jimmy formed a band called The Exceptions, then The Trammps in the late 1960s, all 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 worked at a hospital or 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 the flashy clothes and the huge Afros and the dance steps during live and television performances.
But then in an avalanche disco fell on America. Disco was panned by some, but loved by the masses. Discotheques sprang up around the country. The Trammps recorded Disco Inferno in 1976 and released it, but the big break came when the song was used in the Saturday Night Fever movie that was the biggest hit in America in 1977. The soundtrack album became the soundtrack to the disco way of life.
Then Disco Inferno, the single, in 1978 reached the top of the charts itself for U.S. dance music. The song won a Grammy and was a Gold Record - more than 500,000 copies sold.
The Trammps, Jimmy Ellis front and center belting out the burn, were on Soul Train and other 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. Ellis performed with the Trammps consistently through 2008 when the early stages of his disease started to manifest, but still pulled a few unforgettable performances. He performed one last time in Atlantic City in 2010, and live outside the Today Show on NBC.
And one unforgettable time at Beef OBradys in Fort Mill, after his daughter sang karaoke.
I still get chill bumps when I hear the song or see it on a video, said Erika Stinson, Ellis daughter. I go into a Walmart 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 fathers voice and I am thinking: Wow!
Through all the success, Jimmy Ellis remained humble. He would perform 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 anybody - I saw him a dozen times at stores and other places - and 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 both in Rock Hill and 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.
The 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 of Disco Inferno, with Ellis in the front in a white suit or a 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.
Lets hope he’s not hearing someone say ‘burn baby burn’ now.
Was he KGB darted?
Amen to that.
That would be Rock Hill, South Carolina. . . about 10 miles south of Charlotte, N.C.
“Through all the success, Jimmy Ellis remained humble. He would perform benefits and small gatherings for free. He would sing his favorite Gospel songs in church and anywhere else.”
Somewhere in the back of my mind...I knew I was an idiot! On the prowl...but still an idiot!
Many of us did and for that very reason.
As a former resident of York County, I had no idea.
I was listening to The Ramones back at that time...sorry Jimmy.
Probably the best song on that entire soundtrack.
I was listening to Purple, Zeppelin, and the NWOBHM.
I’m sure his intent in the song was metaphorical for the passion of the dance, not some literal invocation of hell. But of course I hope he got right with God if he wasn’t already.
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I still have my Saturday Night Fever album and LOVE it.
Did you ever listen to the Angel Witch record? Good NWOBHM. I ask because a lot of Americans never heard it, import only.
That song has one of the “sickest” grooves ever.
Who is that?
Other than the disco beat, the record sounds very much like Philly Sound disks of the era.
Oh, New Wave of British Heavy Metal