Year after death of Rock Hill singer, ‘Burn, baby, burn!’ still lights up the world

Herald columnistMarch 8, 2013 

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In the past year, more than a million people have clicked on the videos on the Internet to hear Rock Hill’s most famous native son sing the words that will live forever: “Burn, baby, burn!”

That refrain from the Trammps song “Disco Inferno,” on the 1977 soundtrack of the movie “Saturday Night Fever,” was sung by Rock Hill’s own Jimmy Ellis. He died a year ago today from Alzheimer’s disease.

Yet the song, and Ellis’ voice, can still be heard in movies, videos, TV shows and more. His death prompted a resurrection of interest among younger people watching “Disco Inferno” online, with just one version on YouTube getting more than a million hits just since Ellis’ death.

Between just the top two most popular “Disco Inferno” videos on YouTube, almost 11 million people have watched. In the past year, people from six continents have sent thousands of messages to Ellis’ family about the song.

“Burn, baby, burn!” might be bigger than ever.

“Goodness, I hear it all the time and people ask me about it almost every day, no matter where I go,” said widow Beverly Ellis, who was married to Ellis for 46 years. “The song is immortal. Those words are worldwide.”

“Disco Inferno” was the top dance song in the world in 1977. Ellis and the Trammps won a Grammy award for it. The song is in the Dance Music Hall of Fame. Somewhere in the world it is played every day, whether as a full song or as part of a commercial or in a TV show or movie.

“Ellis is the only person from here to ever win a Grammy, and his song and voice is one of the most famous songs ever recorded,” said Johnnie “Boggie” King, another Rock Hill musician who toured worldwide years ago. “The cat sang a song that is more than words. The song is part of the life of the world.

“Nobody else from Rock Hill ever did what he did. The man was a world superstar.”

More than 35 years later, the “Burn, baby, burn!” chorus remains a living, breathing growl that has appeal to all generations.

“In the entertainment world, the Internet, movies – all of it – the song and those words are still heard every day somewhere,” said musician Willie “Bluesman” Roach, who grew up with Ellis. “Nobody from York County ever made a mark in the world the way Jimmy Ellis did with that one song.

“They play the song in Afghanistan, man. They play it in places that never saw a disco. That song is played where nobody knows English.”

Yet in Rock Hill, there still is not a marker, a permanent picture or anything anywhere that honors the local legend.

“It would be nice to have something here where he was born and raised, where he came back to,” Beverly Ellis said. “When anybody goes to the mall or downtown, they would see the man who sang that song that is still sung and heard everywhere.”

York County has a local sports hall of fame, with the enshrined pictures on a wall at the Rock Hill Galleria, but there isn’t anyplace in the city that tells the world that Jimmy Ellis was from right here.

The city of Rock Hill has not made any plans for any marker, said Katie Quinn, a city spokesperson.

Boggie King and Willie Roach say Ellis deserves such a marker.

“People can look at it and say, ‘ ‘Disco Inferno’ came from here.’” Roach said. “ ‘Burn, baby burn!’ burned right here, baby!’ ”

During Rock Hill’s Black History Month program in February at the Baxter Hood Center, Roach and other musicians performed “Disco Inferno” to close out the show. Ellis’ brother, John “Bird” Ellis, a distinguished gospel singer his whole life, sang his brother’s parts.

“We did burn that mother down,” laughed John Ellis, referring to a line from the song. “It was great, a tribute to Jimmy.”

But the reach of the Internet has meant that millions of people still watch the video and listen to “Disco Inferno.” All can see the 1970s clothes, the platform shoes, the hair, the style.

The voice. Rock Hill’s own Jimmy Ellis.

Worldwide superstar.

“Burn, baby, burn!” will never die, sung by a man who was born and raised right here and lived the last decade of his life here after years of stardom. A man whose family is still here.

The Jimmy Ellis flame is eternal. It burns, baby, it burns.

Andrew Dys •  803-329-4065 •  adys@heraldonline.com.

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