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.

News
peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
Arts and Entertainment
tvHighs and lows of the cast's careers since 2004
News
news
New Articles
i100
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
life
Arts and Entertainment
musicHow female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvHe is only remaining member of original cast
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Cover Supervisor

£75 - £90 per day + negotiable: Randstad Education Group: Are you a cover supe...

Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, MS Offi...

Marketing Executive (B2B and B2C) - Rugby, Warwickshire

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organisation wit...

SEN Coordinator + Teacher (SENCO)

£1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam