By DANIEL E. SLOTNIK
Published 3/8/2012 NY TIMES.COM
Jimmy Ellis, the soulful lead singer of the Trammps, whose 1970s hit “Disco Inferno” was immortalized in the film “Saturday Night Fever,” died on Thursday in Rock Hill, S.C. He was 74.
The cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease, Erika Stinson, his daughter, said.
Mr. Ellis’s melodious voice overlaid the funky guitar riffs and driving bass and drums of the Trammps’s dance music. He sang lead on most of the group’s songs, backed by the bass singer Earl Young, and later harmonized with Robert Upchurch, who joined the band in the mid-1970s.
The Trammps were formed in the early ’70s, according to their keyboard player and manager, Edward Cermanski. Mr. Cermanski said the second “m” in the group’s name came from the days when Mr. Ellis and his friends sang on street corners.
“The police called them tramps,” he said. “So they said they wanted to be high-class tramps, with two ‘m’s in the name.”
Their first recording was a remake of one of Judy Garland’s signature songs, “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart,” which reached No. 17 on the R&B charts. They went on to have hits like “Hold Back the Night,” and in 1975 were signed by Atlantic Records, which released seminal disco records by the group like “Where the Happy People Go.”
The Trammps peaked with the album “Disco Inferno,” whose title track climbed to No. 11 on the Billboard pop chart in 1977. It became emblematic of the disco era when it was used as background music in an extended John Travolta dance sequence in the 1977 movie “Saturday Night Fever.”
The movie’s soundtrack rocketed to No. 1 on the pop chart and became the highest-selling album of all time until Michael Jackson surpassed it with “Thriller.” The soundtrack won a Grammy for album of the year in 1979. The Trammps, along with every performer featured on the album, received Grammys.
James Thomas Ellis II was born on Nov. 15, 1937, in Rock Hill, S.C. He sang gospel as a teenager in St. Mary’s Church, graduated from Emmett Scott High School and left for Philadelphia to sing with R&B groups like the Volcanoes and the Exceptions, who had a popular single called “Down by the Ocean.”
In addition to his daughter, Mr. Ellis, who lived in Rock Hill, is survived by his wife, Beverly; three brothers, Johnny, George Robert and Charles; a sister, Alice Ruth; a son, James III; eight grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
Except for a hiatus of several years, Mr. Ellis toured with the Trammps until 2010.
This last song presentation has got to be my favorite Trammps cut. Makes me wanna dance, dance dance!
Thank you Mr.Ellis. R.I.P.