Jimmy Ellis: Singer with the Trammps, of 'Disco Inferno' fame


The soulful, gravelly voiced tenor Jimmy Ellis was the frontman of the Trammps, the Philadelphia-based group best remembered for the 1970s hits "Hold Back the Night" and "Disco Inferno". His emphatic delivery of the lyrical hook "Burn, Baby, Burn" and his gruff, gospel-tinged ad-libs helped turn "Disco Inferno", written by the Trammps' keyboard-player Ron "Have Mercy" Kersey and Leroy Green, into one of the most memorable and successful dancefloor fillers of any era.

The title track of the Trammps' fourth album, Disco Inferno, made the British Top 20, and gained even wider exposure when the full-length version, running at nearly 11 minutes, was included on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack (1977). The John Badham film – starring John Travolta as Tony Manero, the New York native who lives for the weekend – was a huge hit and its soundtrack became ubiquitous, with worldwide sales of 40m. Coincidentally, much of the film was shot at the Odyssey 2001 Club in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, New York, where the Trammps had a monthly residency. The group rode the disco wave, which peaked when Saturday Night Fever won the Grammy Award for Album of the Year in 1979, but never scored another major hit. However, the enduring "Disco Inferno" has been covered by Tina Turner and Cyndi Lauper, adapted by Madonna and John Otway, and enjoyed many revivals on television, in other films and at sports events.

Born in 1937 in Rock Hill, South Carolina, Ellis was the eldest of six children. He sang gospel in his local church and with his brother Johnny formed the Four Knights, a vocal harmony group which won local talent shows. In the late 1950s he moved to New Jersey, where he had a succession of odd jobs and performed in Atlantic City at weekends, before relocating to Philadelphia. There, while working in a meat-packing factory, at a hospital or in a Navy supply depot to support his wife and children, he sang and recorded with the rhythm'n'blues outfits the Cordells, the Whirlwinds and the Exceptions.

This brought him into contact with the drummer and bass singer Earl Young, one of the busiest musicians in Philadelphia, along with the bassist Ronnie Baker and the guitarist Norman Harris. Baker, Harris and Young played on many Philly soul classics and helped shape the sound and rhythms of disco as they branched out into songwriting and production. In 1972, they masterminded the formation of The Trammps as a quintet comprising a core membership of Ellis and Young, as well as Robert Upchurch (baritone) and Harold and Stanley Wade (first and second tenor). Young named the group after Charlie Chaplin, adding an extra m to turn them into "high-class tramps." For a while they wore denim dungarees but soon switched to bright red suits with wide lapels and bell bottoms or the lime flares they sported on Soul Train when promoting "Where Do We Go From Here" in 1974.

Ellis and Young sang alternate parts on the disco-flavoured adaptation of "Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart", the Broadway show-tune previously recorded by Judy Garland, and on their cover of the risqué R'n'B chestnut "Sixty Minute Man"; both charted in Britain. The killer combination of Young's bass and Ellis's gruff tenor also graced the message song "Love Epidemic" and the lush ballad "Down Three Dark Streets", but Ellis took the lead on their subsequent hits, includingd "Hold Back the Night", a soulful composition by Baker, Harris, Young and Allan Felder, revived by Graham Parker in 1977, as well as the ebullient "That's Where the Happy People Go" and "Soul Searchin' Time", for Atlantic, the label they signed to in 1976.

The mixer and producer Tom Moulton maintained that "Disco Inferno" owed its urgency and punchiness to the fact that his assistant engineer hadn't set the mixing desk levels properly before he worked on it. Lyrically, the composition referenced both the 1974 disaster movie The Towering Inferno and the "Burn, Baby, Burn" catchphrase of the African-American radio presenter Magnificent Montague which was taken up by rioters in the Watts neighbourhood of Los Angeles during August 1965.

The Trammps recorded half a dozen albums and three times as many singles for Atlantic, but even "The Night the Lights Went Out", their attempt at cashing in on the New York City blackout of July 1977, was overshadowed by the re-release of "Disco Inferno". By 1983, they were on Philly Sound Works and asking "What Happened to the Music" before moving into the nostalgia circuit. Ellis remained with the Trammps until 2008, when the onset of Alzheimer's disease forced him to retire, though he made a poignant return to the group for a farewell performance in Atlantic City two years ago.

The Philadelphia session-guitarist, songwriter and producer Bobby Eli, who often recorded with the Trammps, said: "Jimmy Ellis was straight out of church. The church never left him.And even for a church singer, he was unique. He had a scream on him that couldn't be touched. He was the voice of the disco era for the Sound of Philadelphia, but he never wanted to be a disco singer. He considered himself a rhythm'n'blues singer."

Pierre Perrone

James Thomas Ellis II, singer: born Rock Hill, South Carolina 15 November 1937; married (one son, one daughter); died Rock Hill, South Carolina 8 March 2012.

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