Entertainment

SC singer of 'Disco Inferno', Jimmy Ellis of Rock Hill, dies at 74

James T. "Jimmy" Ellis - who grew up in a shotgun shack on Pond Street in Rock Hill's Crawford Road neighborhood - died Thursday. He was 74.

But his signature song, "Disco Inferno," will live forever.

"Doesn't matter where you go, who they are," said Johnny Ellis, Jimmy's younger brother. "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."

The song took off after it was featured in the movie "Saturday Night Fever" in 1977, and on the subsequent movie soundtrack that sold 15 million copies as it stayed atop the charts for half a year.

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 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."

Ellis formed a band called The Exceptions, then The Trammps in the late 1960s - both 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 at a hospital or in 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."

The Trammps recorded "Disco Inferno" in 1976, and it reached the top of the U.S. dance music charts in 1978. It won a Grammy and was a gold record - selling more than 500,000 copies.

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. He performed with the Trammps regularly through 2008, when the early stages of Alzheimer's started to manifest.

Despite that affliction, Ellis still put on a few unforgettable performances. He sang one last time in Atlantic City in 2010, and live outside the "Today" show on NBC.

And one unforgettable time at Beef O'Brady's in Fort Mill, S.C., after his daughter sang karaoke.

"I still get chill bumps when I hear the song or see it on a video," Erika Stinson said. "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 father's voice, and I am thinking: Wow!"

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