The service Friday was for the man who sang the three words – and the service was because that man who sang the three words had died. Everybody in the Central Church of God knew somebody would mention the three words that will live forever.
It took exactly 90 seconds after the service started.
The Rev. Reggie Coleman kicked things off with the three words: “Burn, baby, burn.”
Forever, any mention of Rock Hill native Jimmy Ellis, the lead singer of the Trammps, will use those words that Ellis alone put into the language.
“Burn, baby, burn.”
The refrain, at the start of the song after the thrumming two basses and the syncopated drumbeat and the keyboards, sung as a chorus almost throughout “Disco Inferno,” made Jimmy Ellis what a friend named Alan Seidman called on Friday “a superstar to the whole world.”
‘None of us knew’
The song was used in the smash hit 1977 movie “Saturday Night Fever.” John Travolta snaked his hips to the song, and then the world tried to dance to it. The song was on the soundtrack for the movie, an album that sat at No. 1 for half a year, and to this day is only topped by Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” for consecutive weeks on the album charts.
The single was the top dance tune in the world in 1978, when disco was king.
That meant Ellis, back then, in a flame-orange suit, almost red, with a wide white collar the size of a kite, in white platform shoes and a smile that would not cease – using a voice honed in a church and never far from it – was then the king of singers on Planet Earth.
Ellis died March 8 of Alzheimer’s disease. He was 74.
But everyone in that Charlotte church Friday agreed – the words “burn, baby, burn” were great, the man even greater.
So many people talked about how humble James T. Ellis II – “Jimmy” of the Trammps and just “Ellis” to his family and church friends – never told anybody he was a star.
People in Jimmy Ellis’ Sunday school class at this church, where he and his wife started attending after they moved back to Rock Hill in 2000, didn’t know Ellis was a star.
“He sat right there in the front row of Sunday school, next to his wife, and none of us knew he was a celebrity,” said Sylvia Anderson, a member at the church.
Only later, one time only, was the Disco Inferno video played in that Sunday school class.
Jimmy Ellis got up and danced.
After Ellis died, one lady from the church looked on the Internet to see the condolences to Ellis’ family.
“They were from Afghanistan, Pakistan, China,” said Alice Fewox.
“From Alaska to Florida, the whole world loved him and that song that he gave the world.”
Even the pastor at the church for more than 30 years, the Rev. Loran Livingston, who had hugged Ellis so many times, didn’t know Ellis was a star known as “the man with the golden voice.”
There was not a single music superstar at the small service. No TV cameras, no Grammy award that Ellis won for his song, or his gold record for the song – just love from people who were touched by this father, husband, family member and friend.
Jimmy Ellis had brothers and sisters, two kids, grandkids, great-grands, and a wife of 45 years named Beverly.
His brother, John “Bird” Ellis, a singer of great standing himself, sang Jimmy Ellis’ favorite Gospel tune – “Center of My Joy.”
“If you heard Jimmy Ellis sing that song, man, it would make the devil himself turn to Jesus,” said Willie “Bluesman” Roach, a legendary Rock Hill musician and family friend sitting in the service.
“The man’s voice lives forever.”
There will be another service later in Philadelphia, where the Trammps were based. It was Philly and New Jersey where Ellis went, after finishing high school in 1958, to escape the few opportunities for black singers in the segregated South.
It was Philadelphia where a policeman saw the group sitting outside on a corner as men did in those days, singing, and called them “a bunch of tramps.”
The group took the name, adding the second “m” to make them better than any tramps, for sure.
“Disco Inferno,” to this day, is played somewhere on the radio, in a discotheque, in a movie or commercial. The words “burn, baby, burn” blare out of arena speakers and computers, at people who know no English in the farthest reaches of the globe.
The song and Ellis rise above strife and race, religion and crisis.
People in a place of rocks and desert and war – Afghanistan – wrote online of how many cried when they heard that the man had died who sang the words “burn, baby, burn.”
In Philadelphia, family said, the surviving Trammps and big shots from the music world will gather. All will talk of a kid who grew up in a three-room house, then became a part of American and world culture forever with a single song and three words.
The three words, and Ellis’ voice, are just plain eternal.
Burn, baby, burn.
Want to see more?