James “Jimmy” Ellis, lead singer of the ‘70s soul group the Trammps, who released the classic hit “Disco Inferno,” is dead. He was 74.
According to the Associated Press, the singer died at a nursing home in Rock Hill, S.C. on March 8. Although a cause of death was not immediately reported, Ellis’ daughter told the New York Times that her father died from complications of Alzheimer’s disease.
Born in Rock Hill in 1937, Ellis grew up singing in the church. Though he later relocated to Philadelphia and joined secular bands, he never forgot his roots, family and friends said.
“Jimmy was straight out of church,” Bobby Eli, the Trammp’s guitarist told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “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.”
Ellis joined numerous doo-wop groups like the Moods and the Exceptions. But his big break came in the early ’70s when he and other musicians from local singing groups formed The Trammps.
Edward Cermanski, the group’s keyboard player and manager, told the Times that the band’s moniker came from the days when they sang on the 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.”
The group’s first hit was a remake of Judy Garland’s “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart,” which climbed to No. 17 on the R&B charts. They later went on to have hits like “Where Do We Go From Here?” and “Hold Back the Night.”
But their signature disco hit was released in 1976. On “Disco Inferno,” Ellis belted out the memorable refrain “Burn, baby burn.” The single climbed to No. 11 on the Billboard pop chart and was featured in the classic John Travolta film “Saturday Night Fever.” The film’s soundtrack went on to be the biggest-selling album of all time until it was surpassed by Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”
The Trammps disbanded in the ’80s and Ellis returned to the south to work on gospel music. But he later toured with the group up until 2008.
Ellis’ funeral was held on March 16 in Charlotte, N.C.