Colonel Tom Parker | Elvis Presley's Manager
Nearly as legendary as his famous client was Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis Presley's manager. He was mysterious and colorful, and, under his guidance, his one and only client -- Elvis -- reached unimaginable heights.
Colonel Tom Parker's involvement in the music industry began as a music promoter in the late 1940s, working with such country music stars as Minnie Pearl, Hank Snow, June Carter and Eddy Arnold, as well as film star Tom Mix. During this time he received the honorary title of 'Colonel' in 1948 from Jimmie Davis, the governor of Louisiana. His involvement with Elvis Presley began when he booked Presley as the opening act for Canadian singer Snow. On August 15, 1955 Elvis Presley was signed by 'Hank Snow Attractions'.
Interview with Colonel Tom Parker (1987) (07:22)
Shortly thereafter, 'Colonel' Parker took full control and recognizing the limitations of Sun Studios, negotiated a deal with RCA Victor Records who acquired Elvis' Sun contract for $35,000 on November 21, 1955.
Parker was a master promoter who wasted no time in furthering Presley's image. Colonel Parker managed Elvis Presley from 1955 until the singer's death in 1977. Prior to managing Presley, Parker helped transform Eddy Arnold into a country superstar with his own radio shows, movie roles, Las Vegas bookings, and an unparalleled resume of #1 records. In steering the careers of both men, Parker revolutionized the artist management role, displaying an unprecedented marketing savvy while exercising near-total control. His energetic, all-encompassing management style created a blueprint that is still followed today.
Parker, a purposeful, perceptive, and mysterious character, was born Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk in Breda, Holland, and entered the United States illegally in 1929. After serving in the Army for three years in Hawaii, he moved to Florida, where he joined the Johnny J. Jones and Royal American carnivals, passing himself off as a native West Virginian under the name of his former commanding officer, Thomas Parker.
After several years of carnival life, Parker settled down and became director of the Tampa Humane Society (he was, among other things, Tampa's chief dog officer) where he developed a remunerative range of pet service-pitches that translated seamlessly into showbiz promotion.
Interview with Colonel Tom Parker (1993) (02:56)
He started off with Gene Austin, Roy Acuff, and Ernest Tubb, focusing at first on Florida tours exclusively but gradually expanding his show-business activities until in 1944 he met Eddy Arnold on a Jamup & Honey tent show. He managed Arnold as his exclusive client from 1945 until 1953, developing a range of unique promotions that helped make the singer one of the most prolific hit-making artists of all time.
By early 1955, Parker had set his sights on the emerging Elvis Presley, whom he placed as an opening act on tours by his new client, Hank Snow. By August, Parker had acquired a controlling interest in Presley's management contract, and two months later set up a deal for RCA to purchase Presley's contract from Sun Records for the unheard-of sum of $35,000. (With $5,000 going to Presley).
Under Parker's exclusive guidance, Presley went on to become one of the most influential cultural figures of the twentieth century - a tribute to a talent and a gift for communication that continues to defy definition. Parker secured for Presley broad national exposure through television at a time when other managers feared that the new medium would undercut the value of personal appearances. Calling the shots in Hollywood, Parker made Presley a #1 box-office star and kept the entertainer's career alive during his two-year stint in the Army.
Did you see it?' the old man asked, shifting his mountainous heap of flesh to the edge of the chair, his eyes open wide and twinkling. 'What a hell of a thing! Unbelievable!'
It was June 18, 1994, the day after O. J. Simpson's infamous Bronco run, and Colonel Tom Parker, with his attentive wife, Loanne, at his side, held court for two visitors at the N'Orleans Restaurant, a meat 'n' two joint in a run-of-the-mill strip mall named Lucky's on the outskirts of the gambling capital of the world.
Priscilla Presley & Jerry Schilling | Colonel Tom Parker (05:40)
Like the rest of the country, Parker had been mesmerized by Simpson's bizarre highway chase. But now his reaction, with his face momentarily frozen in awe, spoke silently of something else - not of a fascination with sports or the subtleties of race relations, but of a sort of perverse pride, perhaps, in an elite and remarkable fraternity of rogues. Or at the very least, in a man who had taken a terrible risk, and managed to beat the odds.
This was my second of three visits with Parker, whose own survivor instincts so defied description that many thought him indestructible. Yet less than three years later, also in Vegas, far from his birthplace of Breda, Holland, where he first learned the art of the hustle as an errand boy in Dutch fairs, circuses, and carnivals, he succumbed to the complications of a stroke at the age of eighty-seven.
A master illusionist in business and in the business of life, Tom Parker made things appear and disappear at will, and created something very great out of nothing - including himself. Out of respect for that, if nothing else, I went back to say good-bye.
The giant marquee outside the Las Vegas Hilton was both sweet and succinct (FAREWELL, COLONEL PARKER), but not everybody knew what it meant.
'You here to gamble?' asked my taxi driver, who had shuttled me in from the airport on a late January day in 1997 and who had uttered not a word until tip time.
'No, I'm going to the memorial service for Colonel Parker'.
A beat. 'Dat the fried chicken guy?'
At least one cynical obituary writer, Serene Dominic, seconded that thought in a Phoenix New Times article headed 'Cooked the Colonel's Way - Colonel Tom Parker Has Kicked the Bucket, and the Original Recipe for Rock 'n' Roll Rotisserie Goes with Him'. But the 160 mourners who filtered into Ballroom D saw him as one of the last giants and true iconoclasts of the century - a penniless immigrant who slipped into the country, befriended U.S. presidents and corporate CEOs, created both an icon and a $4-billion business, and never let any of it get in the way of what mattered most - playing the game.
Through it all, he remained as individualistic, as shrewd, rude, crude, and fun-loving as ever. At his death, he still delighted in practicing what he called the art of 'snowing', the exquisitely performed act of separating people from their money, leaving them with a smile on their face and melting away before they realized what had taken place.
While some would argue that Parker's very body was a temple to gluttony, greed, and feeding off the dimmer wits of others, it was the Snowman his friends had come to honor this day, his widow, Loanne, posing an intriguing question.
'I want to leave you with just one thought', she said, addressing the crowd, which had passed a lobby-card-size photo of the couple at the entrance. 'If Thomas A. Parker had never existed, how would each of your lives be different today?'
One person who couldn't answer that question was Elvis Aaron Presley, whose piped-in versions of 'Memories' and 'How Great Thou Art' opened and closed the service with ghostly reverence. The Elvis Presley who had first come to Vegas in 1956 as an acne-faced adolescent left it twenty years later as a pathetic, corseted cartoon, his body blown from years of abuse, his spirit picked hollow.
For all of the twenty years that Parker outlasted his greatest discovery, he would also have to live with the allegations that he had destroyed him, stifling his artistry in third-rate Hollywood formula pictures, suffocating his ambition in 837 Vegas performances from 1969 to 1976, and killing his will to live by refusing to challenge him in meaningful ways - a European tour, a dramatic film role to reclaim his self-respect, a crack at a memorable song.
Whether regarded as a meretricious and evil confidence man, or as a brilliant marketer and strategist, as remarkable as the star he managed, no figure in all of entertainment is more controversial, colorful, or larger than life than Tom Parker. 'He was so immense, so gigantic in his way', remembers writer Robert Kotlowitz, an RCA publicist in the late '50s and early '60s. 'His style was equivalent to a great politician's, with so much flamboyance and wit and, underneath it all, cunning. He had to beat the whole world'.
Yet at his death, Parker was blasted by rock critic Dave Marsh as 'the most overrated person in the history of show business', and assessed by Dutch journalist and filmmaker Constant Meijers as 'a nobody who needed a somebody to be anybody'. To this day, a favorite debate question among pop music journalists is whether Elvis, whom the Colonel often referred to in carnival terms as 'my attraction', would have remained a regional act without Parker's guidance, or if the young performer was such a blazing comet that no one could have stopped his streak across the sky.
The probability is that neither man would have been as big in his field without the other, Parker realizing, like P. T. Barnum, that the promotion of a curiosity was just as important as the curiosity itself. A chameleon who was many things to many people, Parker has his staunch defenders - as a visionary, a businessman, and a friend, even by those who got up from the losing side of the bargaining table. And while Parker probably would have referred to himself as a promoter more than anything else, having marketed the icon most recognizable in all the world after Coca-Cola, Chet Atkins, who dealt with many of the biggest artists during his tenure as an RCA Records executive, pronounced Parker 'the best manager I ever saw.... Whatever he cost Elvis, he was worth it, because Elvis would've ... lost that luster in no time if it hadn't been for the Colonel'.
Mike Crowley, who traveled with Parker in the concert years of the '70s and is now a talent manager himself, speaks, like many, of Parker's loyalty, and also justifies his treatment of Elvis, the addict. 'Nobody killed Elvis except Elvis, and nobody could have helped Elvis but Elvis. The only other thing he could have done was walk away'.
Parker himself never bothered to address his critics, nor did he try to carve out much middle ground in the debate of whether he was the devil or angel in Elvis's own private hell. When pressed about his handling or mishandling of Elvis, he'd merely bristle, stamp his cane into the ground, and repeat his stock answer: 'I sleep good at night'.
Beyond that, the old Dutchman who understood America far better than most Americans simply threw out the line he'd used for decades to keep himself out of headlines ('Elvis is my only client and my life, so I never give out stories about myself'), allegedly because he was writing a memoir to be called How Much Does It Cost If It's Free? But it was an excuse he had concocted to keep others from looking too closely at the hocus-pocus of his life, and from having to explain himself, especially in light of a 1980 lawsuit in which the state of Tennessee accused him of 'overreaching' in his fiduciary responsibilities to Presley.
If Elvis was unknowable by his manager's design, the Colonel was beyond knowing, even to his own family. In 1980, Parker's brother-in-law, Bitsy Mott, who spent many years on the road in the Colonel's employ, was asked to explain the man he'd known for nearly half a century. 'That man's a mystery', he said, and little more, for not even he knew that Parker had a secret to protect, a secret that colored nearly everything he did.
On the surface, it would appear only that Parker had entered the country illegally and had never become a naturalized U.S. citizen. But if something darker had happened in the distant Netherlands, it must have been deep, shameful, and nearly unforgivable, at least to Parker himself. Certainly he never talked about it, or about his Dutch upbringing, to either Presley or any of his previous clients. And when the Colonel's stepson, Bobby Ross, died in 1978, it was without benefit of the knowledge that the man who had reared him from the age of ten had not been born as Thomas Andrew Parker in Huntington, West Virginia, as he always claimed, but as Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk - known as Andre to his Dutch biological family.
I first met Colonel Parker in December 1992, and I wondered then how the secret of his origins - revealed to the world at large in 1981 - impacted the all-dominating decisions he made in shaping nearly every event in the life and career of Elvis Presley.
At first glance, Presley and Parker appeared to have little in common except the raging fire of ambition, shaped by a shameless ferocity both struggled to keep hidden. Yet I discovered as I began to research this book that in the strange choreography of chance and coincidence, the fates of Elvis Aaron Presley and Thomas Andrew Parker were bound by two still surging events, and the pull each incident had on both of them.
Despite the hundreds of books profiling Presley and his career, the story of the relationship between these men, I saw, had yet to be uncovered. Parker was a man of not just one, but many secrets, and the keeper of several fantastic tales he fought to preserve, with Elvis almost always paying too much of the price.
On each of my three visits with Colonel Parker, I sat across the table from him and looked into his eyes - hypnotic pools of unearthly blue - and wondered, Just who are you?
And so I decided to research the story chronologically, trying to find the boy who became the man. That mission took me to Holland, where I met with the kindest and most cooperative sources on this book: Parker's Dutch family, who were as mystified by his behavior and as dedicated to finding the truth as I was.
Over a period of three years, I interviewed and corresponded with several members of the van Kuijk clan, including the Colonel's ninety-two-year-old sister, Marie. And with the help of American journalist Bill Burk, I established an ongoing and treasured friendship with Parker's niece, Mieke Dons-Maas, who worked so hard in the 1990s to try to reunite her mother, Engelina, with her brother in America. Along with her husband, Ted, and friends Angelo Somers and Hanneke Neutkens, who spent years gathering materials for a proposed Parker foundation, we united as a team, chasing the apparition of a lad who had walked the Breda streets so long ago on the first leg of his remarkable journey.
In the end, my research led me to realize that the tale of Colonel Thomas Andrew Parker, né Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk, is, beneath the veil of secrecy, a tragedy, and very nearly the stuff of Shakespeare.
The following is my attempt to resolve the conundrum of his life.
- Alanna Nash
Excerpted from The Colonel by Alanna Nash.Interview with Kenny Wynn : Colonel Tom Parker's assistant
Colonel Tom Parker and Elvis Presley.
Colonel Parker hard at work managing and looking after Elvis' Career :-).
Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis Presley's Manager
As Presley's fame grew, people became interested in Parker as well. For a while he lied about his early years, claiming to have been born in Huntington, West Virginia and that he had run away at an early age to join a circus run by an uncle. The truth about his early years was revealed when his family in the Netherlands recognized him in photographs of him standing next to Elvis; it was confirmed when Parker tried to avert a lawsuit in 1982 by asserting that he was a Netherlands citizen.
He was actually born in Breda, Netherlands on June 26, 1909. Still carrying his baptism name, Andreas Cornelius van Kuijk fled his native land at about the age of 18, joined the United States Army, then changed his name to Tom Parker and became part of the circus world some time after leaving the Army. He also worked as a dogcatcher and a pet cemetery proprietor in Tampa, Florida, in the 1940s.
Colonel Parker died of a stroke on January 22, 1997, aged 87.
Interview with Loanne Parker (About Elvis Presley and 'The Colonel')
Interview with Loanne Parker, Colonel Tom Parkers Widow
Andreas van Kuijk
I Met The Colonel
Parker's shadowy past news to Memphis Mafia
Priscilla Presley & Jerry Schilling | Colonel Tom Parker
Colonel Tom (Parker's Death Dark Shadow)
Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis Presley's Manager, Dead at 87
Interview with Alanna Nash (Author of the book, The Colonel)
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