An infamous, cautionary figure in the annals of rock-n-roll history, Colonel Tom Parker managed Elvis Presley, one of the genre's most enduring icons, from his humble beginning in 1955 until his untimely death in 1977. Parker had entered the music business through carnivals, which was where he honed his skills at negotiation and, to a lesser extent, flim-flammery; after managing Eddie Arnold and later Hank Snow, he scooped up Presley from obscurity and through a series of lucrative deals with labels and studios, made him the biggest star in the world for nearly 20 years. But in doing so, he neutralized Presley's incredible magnetism, forcing him to record terrible songs for even worse movies while keeping him off the concert stage and away from his fans. Presley became fabulously wealthy thanks to the Colonel, who in turn drew untold sums from his contracts with the singer. Parker's vision for Presley faltered with his physical decline and death in the 1970s, after which he attempted to retain control of the singer's image. He was ousted from his position by the Presley estate in the early 1980s, and lingered for the next decade, the living symbol of the pitfalls of show business, until his death in 1997. Few figures scaled the heights of success with such ruthlessness as Colonel Tom Parker, and fewer still reaped such a terrible legacy from their actions.
Though he claimed for decades to have been born in West Virginia, Colonel Tom Parker was actually a native of Holland. Born Andreas Cornelius van Kuijik in Breda, Holland on June 26, 1909, he was the fifth of nine children by his father, Adam, who owned a livery stable. Fascinated by carnivals, he began working at an early age as a barker and promoter while learning the intricacies of the business behind "show business." At 16, he moved to Rotterdam to work in shipping, and after earning enough money to sustain himself for a short period, he jumped ship and sailed to America. There, he worked with a Chatauqua educational tent show before returning to Holland in 1927 to shower his family with gifts. Two years later, he headed back to America. His family would never see him again, and were unaware of his whereabouts until seeing a picture of him in a magazine with Presley in 1961. Once back in the United States, Parker traveled the country by hitching rides on railroad cars, stopping on occasion to find work in carnivals. In 1930, he joined the U.S. Army, where he adopted the name "Tom Parker" from the officer who administered his entrance exam. After serving two for two years in Hawaii, he re-enlisted for a second stint in Fort Barrancas, Florida. There, he reportedly went AWOL, and was sentenced to solitary confinement. The experience allegedly left Parker mentally unstable for a period, and he was discharged due to his condition.
He returned to carnival work, operating concessions, freak shows and even animal acts for a period of 10 years. During this period, Parker honed his talent for unscrupulous promotion, as evidenced by such unmitigated bunk as his "Amazing Dancing Chickens" act, which featured a pair of hens leaping atop a concealed hot plate. In 1927, he married Marie Francis Mott, who also became his bookkeeper. They endured the Great Depression by working small cons across the country before he met country singer Gene Austin while in Tampa, FL. A successful performer in the 1920s, Austin's career was in decline by the time he encountered Parker in 1938. But Parker's promotional skills, honed by years in the carnival business, boosted Austin's career, which earned Parker an invitation to join the singer in Nashville, TN. But Parker declined, preferring instead to remain in Tampa, where he landed work and a rent-free apartment as a field agent for an animal shelter. He soon began using his vast array of show business contacts to promote the shelter through charity events, where he met such established country performers as Eddie Arnold and Minnie Pearl. In 1945, he became Arnold's manager, which earned him 25 percent of the singer's earnings in exchange for promoting his songs and live performances. Parker also worked on Louisiana governor Jimmie Davis' election campaign, for which he was granted the title of Colonel in the Louisiana State Militia.
Arnold and Parker ended their business relationship in 1953 after the singer alleged that Parker was devoting too much time to another client, Canadian country singer Hank Snow. Parker brokered a $50,000 buyout to end his services with Arnold before forging a successful partnership with Snow, including the promotional company Hank Snow Enterprises and Jamboree Attractions in Nashville. In 1955, Parker became aware of a young, Mississippi-born singer named Elvis Presley, who was generating rave reviews - and controversy - for his unbridled style of blues-inflected hillbilly music. At the time, Presley was being managed by Memphis, TN radio personality Bob Neal, who was overwhelmed by the demand for Presley in concert. Parker stepped in to book Presley on shows with Snow, and soon became an integral part of Presley's management.
By 1955, he had bought Presley's recording contract from Sam Phillips' Sun Records, brokered a deal for the singer with RCA Records and signed a management contract with him. Snow mistakenly believed that since Parker was working for Jamboree Attractions, he would share in revenues generated by Presley. But to his dismay, he discovered that Presley had only signed a contract with Parker. For the next two decades, Parker would exert complete control over Presley's career and image until the singer's death in 1977. In his defense, Parker's efforts made Presley the most recognizable rock-n-roll star in history, and unquestionably one of the richest. He brokered television deals for Presley that boosted him to stardom, and then groomed him for a career in films that lasted until the early 1970s.
At first, Presley's feature films showed a young, raw performer with talent to burn, but after his stint in the U.S. Army - largely encouraged by Parker to ground his client in the eyes of the public while keeping him in line while under contract - the pictures became watered-down musicals with dreadful songs and ridiculous premises. Though Presley complained about the quality of his movies, he was bound by long-term contract to the studios to produce three films a year. By the mid-1960s, he had embodied Parker's vision: a well-oiled entertainment machine, regularly generating music and feature films with little concern for quality or content. Though it drastically reduced his standing as a recording artist, the relentless schedule made Presley an extraordinarily rich man - as did Parker, who had negotiated a contract with Presley that gave him 50 percent of the singer's earnings.
But as the counterculture movement blossomed in the late 1960s, Presley's sanitized career path had made him irrelevant in the face of artists like the Beatles and Bob Dylan. Audiences began to avoid his trite films, and his fortunes took a downward turn. An attempt to keep Presley under control by brokering his marriage to Priscilla Beaulieu did little to reverse the downward trend, so Parker arranged for a television special, not unlike ones hosted by Andy Williams, to solidify his client's standing as wholesome entertainment. For once, Presley balked, and insisted that the 1968 special, titled "Elvis" (NBC) focus on his original image as a wildcat performer with charisma to spare. Presley won the battle, and the special re-launched his career in spectacular fashion. Parker signed a contract with Elvis to return to live performing in Las Vegas. It too proved successful, as did a then-revolutionary satellite broadcast of a performance in Hawaii that aired live around the world. For a brief period, Presley seemed poised for a comeback. But mounting drug and food addictions robbed him of this final victory, leaving behind a 40-year-old trapped in the body of a weary, addled old man. Presley attempted to sever ties to Parker on several occasions in the early '70s, but Parker's terms to end his contract - $2 million - proved too steep. The pair would continue to maintain their faltering business relationship until Presley's death in 1977.
For a period, Parker remained in control of Presley's image in the years that followed the singer's death. But the Colonel's exorbitant managerial fees quickly depleted the Presley estate's coffers, forcing his widow to launch an investigation into Parker's business practices. A vast array of overcharged management fees and poorly considered business transactions were soon uncovered, forcing the Presley estate to launch a suit against Parker. The case was settled out of court in 1983, with Parker finally receiving his $2 million, but losing any earnings from Presley's image or recordings for the next five years. Though he would linger at the fringes of Presley-related events for the next decade, Parker had been vilified by the media and the entertainment industry as the embodiment of managerial greed. He became a ghost of his former self, a shadowy figure at Las Vegas gaming tables whose stature as one of the most powerful figures in music had shrunken to that of a sickly old man. He gambled incessantly and often unwisely, burning away a vast fortune that dwindled from over $100 million to less than $1 million by the time of his death. In 1997, he suffered a massive stroke at his home and died on January 21 of that year.
By Paul Gaita