Elvis Presley is known and loved the world over for ushering in the era of American rock ‘n’ roll. And even to this day, Elvis-mania persists, even though the star himself passed away back in 1977. Yet even devoted fans of the King may not know everything about the man who helped earn him his crown. That controversial figure made millions for himself, too, thanks to the talents of his young charge.
The larger-than-life, cigar-smoking Colonel Tom Parker acted as Elvis’ manager, and he reportedly worked relentlessly and ruthlessly to make the singer a superstar. Indeed, it was Parker who arranged Elvis’ shows, promoted his albums and turned him into a part of mainstream American life. And he’s a near-mythical figure for Elvis researchers, who have cast him both in the role of both deeply flawed hero and nightmarish villain.
Yet the entrepreneur’s true impact on the life and career of the musical icon is still up for debate. So, did Parker help or hinder Elvis through his own unscrupulousness? Well, that’s a question that can perhaps only be answered with an in-depth look at Parker’s story.
Practically any Elvis fan worth their salt knows the details of the King’s background and how he shot to fame. For those who don’t, however, the future star was born to a poor family in Tupelo, Mississippi in 1935. And less than an hour before Elvis came into the world, his twin brother, Jesse, had emerged stillborn. It’s since been claimed that this early loss may have affected Elvis as he grew into adulthood, making him ripe for manipulation.
And even as a child, Elvis loved music, although he was hesitant to show off his own skills in the arena. In Peter Guralnick’s 1994 biography, Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley, the star is quoted as having said, “I took the guitar, and I watched people, and I learned to play a little bit. But I would never sing in public. I was very shy about it.” Nevertheless, he continued to practice, gradually evolving his talents.
Then Elvis finally broke through in the mid-1950s – helped, perhaps, by a sound that drew its influences from black music. Elvis’ voice, too, led some who heard him on the radio to believe that he wasn’t white. And, of course, his on-stage moves – including those seen in his now-famous inaugural performance on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1956 – made him stand out from his peers.
Thanks to that TV and radio exposure, Elvis swiftly achieved fame of a kind that few others matched in his day. And there was sometimes hysteria in the star’s wake. When Elvis performed at the Mississippi–Alabama Fair and Dairy Show mere weeks after that Ed Sullivan Show appearance, dozens of National Guardsmen were sent in to control the swarming crowds.
But behind the scenes, one man was pulling the strings: Colonel Tom Parker. Elvis’ manager was Dutch by extraction and had arrived in the U.S. at 18 under the name Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk. And although Parker had entered the country unlawfully, he nevertheless managed to carve out a life for himself in his new homeland.
It’s been rumored, moreover, that Parker may have fled from his native country after reportedly being connected to a murder there. In addition, it’s said, the future Svengali was reluctant to acquire a U.S. passport through fear of being extradited for the alleged crime. Nevertheless, in Alanna Nash’s 2003 book, The Colonel, Parker’s sister is quoted as firmly denying that any such murder took place.
Still, the more substantiated facts of Parker’s early life paint him as a shrewd character – if not one to always obey the rules. Upon settling in America, he became fluent in English and ultimately joined the U.S. Army. In fact, Parker very possibly took his stage name from a captain whom he had encountered during his service. Yet he hardly covered himself in glory while in the military; in 1932 he even spent some time behind bars for desertion.
Ultimately, Nash’s book claims, Parker was discharged from the army on medical grounds. Specifically, it’s said, he was let go “by reason of psychosis, psychogenic depression, acute, on basis of constitutional psychopathic state.” And while the word “psychopathic” may have changed a little in meaning since then, this description may yet tell us something about Parker’s true character.
According to current medical research, a psychopath feels little or no empathy towards other human beings and animals. They may feel no remorse when they hurt others and may not understand why this is even an issue. And, outwardly, they may seem overconfident and full of ego. So, does this provide any explanation for some of Parker’s behavior?
Well, at the very least, it’s alleged that Parker once resorted to cruelty in order to make his money. During a stint with a traveling carnival, he had found a pair of chickens that he subsequently decided to put on the stage. Yet these “amazing dancing chickens,” as they were touted, only moved around because Parker had put a hidden hot plate under their feet.
And Parker’s further exploits painted him as quite the cunning showman. He bumped up the price of entry to the carnival by four times the usual rate, for example. Disdain for the customers was also exhibited in another scam in which Parker apparently took part. According to Sean O’Neal’s 1998 biography, My Boy Elvis, the Dutch native would mostly fill up hot dogs with sauerkraut in order to save money.
Nevertheless, O’Neal has claimed, Parker often did these things for the love of the game rather than his own enrichment. “It wasn’t so much about saving a few cents; it was being able to pull one over, being able to get away with it,” he said in his book.
Eventually, though, Parker turned his attention to the music biz. In 1938 he started off by promoting singer Gene Austin, who had fallen on hard times. Austin even offered to move Parker to Nashville, but the former carnival man instead stayed put in Florida with his wife, Marie.
And Elvis’ future manager would put his powers of persuasion into action after becoming a dog catcher in Tampa in 1940. You see, as the animal center for whom he worked, the Hillsborough County Humane Society, was in need of money, Parker decided to use his show business experience to raise the cash required.
So, Parker traveled to Tennessee and recruited some acts who could perform charity concerts for the Humane Society. One of these musicians turned out to be Eddy Arnold, with Parker later becoming the country star’s manager. In the process, though, the entrepreneur netted himself a not-inconsiderable chunk of Arnold’s future earnings: 25 percent, to be exact.
And it was while working in the music industry that Parker was given the name “Colonel” – although it wasn’t owing to his time in the military. Instead, Louisiana governor Jimmie Davis bestowed him with the rank in 1948 as a reward for assistance with his election campaign. From then on, Parker was known by that title to his friends.
After that, the man now calling himself Colonel continued to mold young musicians. In 1952, for instance, he began working with a teenage singer, Tommy Sands, and attempted to make him into a star. Nevertheless, Sands fired Parker just a year later over a dispute about another singer whom he was managing.
Yet in time Parker would ultimately find the singer who would make him rich. And when he first encountered Elvis in 1955, he knew practically right away that the fledgling performer was something special. Parker therefore took Elvis out to dinner, flattered him and booked him on a couple of tours that saw the star greeted by hordes of screaming teens.
And after Elvis signed a management contract with Parker in August 1955, the elder man worked to make his charge as popular as he could possibly be. Parker asked for a high reward in return, however. Reportedly, in the early years of Elvis’ career, his manager arranged to receive 25 percent of the singer’s earnings – a move that ended up netting him millions.
Parker had some wild money-making ideas to boot. You see, while Elvis merchandise was practically guaranteed to sell, Parker realized that there was still an untapped market who disliked his client and his music. And he chose to profit off them, too, by arranging for “I Hate Elvis” badges to be made.
So, whether people loved or loathed the King, Parker reaped rewards. Nor did the canny manager stop there, as he also marketed buttons that read “Elvis is a jerk” and “Elvis the joik” – although the meaning of “joik” in this context appears to have been lost to history.
Parker even saw Elvis’ 1958 army draft as a magnificent opportunity for publicity, with the man inviting the media to see the star receiving his military-mandated haircut. Prior to that moment, he had also dissuaded Elvis from becoming part of the Special Services in fear that the easier alternative may dent his client’s popularity.
Yet biographers have considered whether Parker had an ulterior motive for making Elvis accept his draft notice. If he hadn’t, it’s been speculated, the press may have investigated Parker’s own army records and not liked what they found. But in the end, the Colonel’s plan worked out perfectly. When Elvis came back to America, he was an even bigger name than before.
And upon the King’s return to civilian life in 1960, Parker began pushing Elvis as an actor. Throughout the decade, then, he ceased booking tours for the musician and instead got him into the film business. Here, however, Parker made an uncharacteristic financial mistake: he negotiated long-term contacts with film studios rather than movie-by-movie deals.
The quality of film scripts wasn’t important to Parker, either, nor was there much consideration for Elvis’ feelings in the process. While the star wished to be taken seriously as an actor, his manager demanded that he perform in a multitude of cheap, quick movies in order to keep him in the public eye.
And when Parker renegotiated his contract with Elvis in 1967, he upped his price. Whereas before he had been getting 25 percent of his client’s cash, the latest deal saw the manager take half of all Elvis’ earnings in certain situations. By the beginning of the 1970s, then, Parker was making more money out of Elvis than Elvis himself was acquiring.
Then, as part of an Elvis “comeback,” Parker arranged for the man he reportedly called his “attraction” to go back on tour. And while the shows proved popular and provided Elvis with a workload until the end of his life, the star was suffering behind the scenes. From the mid-’70s, the musician was abusing drugs and putting on weight – both of which had real ramifications for his health. Opinion is divided, though, as to whether Parker could have prevented what happened next.
As many know, Elvis died in August 1977, aged just 42. The official cause was a heart attack, although this may have been precipitated by the amount of prescription drugs that the star had in his system. And while Parker knew about the drug abuse, some say that he did little to intervene in the fear that bringing attention to the matter would create negative publicity. Others have claimed, however, that Parker simply didn’t realize how out of hand Elvis had gotten.
Then there’s the assertion that Elvis always told Parker to mind his own business when the manager broached the subject of his addictions to food and prescription medication. That’s the story Parker himself always told, at least. But whatever the truth of the matter, Elvis was gone – and Parker apparently behaved in an unusual manner following the loss of his most famous client.
Accounts of what Parker did after he learned that Elvis was dead differ. One version claims that it was business as usual, with the Colonel never remarking upon the situation, while another asserts that he instantly got on the phone to Elvis’ father, Vernon. Allegedly, he also announced, “Nothing has changed. This won’t change anything.”
Parker’s behavior was reportedly odd in the aftermath of Elvis’ passing, too. Before making any other moves – including going to Graceland – he reportedly headed to New York to meet with marketing managers. There, he allegedly told the businesspeople to prepare for an upturn in sales, as he knew that Elvis’ value had only increased with his death.
And when Parker arrived in Memphis for his late client’s funeral, he was clad in a baseball cap and Hawaiian shirt – hardly appropriate attire for the occasion. Nevertheless, the Colonel apparently didn’t let mourning get in the way of business, as he allegedly had Elvis’ father cede control of his son’s name to him while at the service.
Yet that final unscrupulous act failed to pay Parker dividends. Ultimately, you see, he was made to drop all claims he had to the Elvis estate. And in a court document quoted by People in 1980, there were some damning words for the former carnival worker. The report read, “Elvis was naive, shy and unassertive. Parker was aggressive, shrewd and tough. His strong personality dominated Elvis, his father and all others in Elvis’ entourage.”
Eventually, though, Parker’s second wife, Loanne, told her husband’s side of the story to the Australian Elvis fan club. Nine years after Parker’s passing in 1997, she said, “The newspapers all came out saying: the estate says Colonel cheated Elvis. And the facts were very much distorted by the press. It was a very sad time for the Colonel.”
Loanne further claimed that Parker had never taken more money from Elvis than Elvis was willing to give. She added, too, that in times of crisis – such as when Elvis was divorcing his wife, Priscilla – Parker only received a third of the star’s earnings. And when it came to projects to which Elvis only had to lend his image, Loanne asserted, “Elvis was quite willing to have [the] Colonel take 50 percent.”
Plus, it seemed that there was an explanation for the strange outfit that Parker had worn to Elvis’ funeral. According to Loanne, her late husband had said on the day, “These clothes were good enough for us to work for Elvis, [and] they’re good enough for us to wear at his funeral. He would understand. And if he saw me in a suit, he wouldn’t recognize me.”
Yet while Loanne painted a picture of someone who genuinely looked out for his client, others in Elvis’ inner circle claimed that this is far from the truth. So, maybe the question that really needs answering is: did Parker really have the King’s best interests at heart, or was the megastar just another of his dancing chickens?