Few figures in rock history are as controversial as Colonel Tom Parker.
The Dutch-born showman-turned-manager brought Elvis Presley out of the dark and established him as one of history’s biggest stars. But the two had an often fraught relationship, and Parker’s business practices have come under scrutiny and criticism over the years. He was frequently accused of holding back Presley’s career by refusing to let him tour abroad, relegating him to B-movie purgatory for much of the ’60s, and draining him as a Vegas lounge act rather than artistically to let it flourish.
In Baz Luhrmann’s new elvis Biopic out Friday, Tom Hanks portrays Parker as that sort of Machiavellian supervillain. And while Hanks’ bombastic performance is almost hilarious in its absurdity, his actions and motivations throughout the film are pretty much rooted in reality, according to biographers and former members of Parker and Presley’s entourage.
Born Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk in 1909 in Breda, Netherlands, Parker immigrated to the United States illegally at the age of 20, after which he changed his name and adopted a new identity. (A popular but entirely unfounded theory is that Parker fled Breda after killing a greengrocer’s wife.) He started out as a carnival worker before penetrating the music business, taking on clients like crooner Gene Austin and country singers Eddy Arnold, Hank, Assumed Snow and Tommy Sands. Parker also campaigned for Louisiana Governor Jimmie Davis, earning him the honorary title of Colonel for his efforts.
Parker met Presley in 1955 and soon convinced RCA Victor to buy the singer out of his Sun Records contract. In 1956, Presley signed a contract making Parker his sole agent. Together, their success was meteoric, as Presley’s debut single for RCA Victor, “Heartbreak Hotel,” became a #1 hit and propelled him to superstardom. It was the start of a stunning chart-topping streak that would last into the early ’60s.
Hear Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel”
Presley’s fame came at a price, however, with Parker taking up to 50% of the singer’s earnings while most managers took 10-15%. Parker argued that Presley was his only client and therefore the job was well deserved. But money wasn’t the only bone of contention in Presley and Parker’s partnership. After returning from two years of military service in 1960, Presley began starring in a series of Hollywood films that were successful at the box office but panned by critics almost universally. Parker didn’t care; He saw that he could get maximum profits out of Presley by keeping him on a strict film schedule and using the accompanying soundtracks to fulfill his contractual obligations to RCA.
It is up for debate whether Parker ended Presley’s music career in the early ’60s; it’s entirely possible that his career would have languished under the new wave of shaggy, countercultural rockers who wrote their own music, like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Despite this, Presley’s dreams of becoming a serious actor remained unfulfilled and he was stuck recording much of the sub-par musical material in the ’60s.
By 1968, Presley’s musical career was in a sticky state, but he reversed his fortunes with a comeback special of the same name, a televised performance that aired December 3, 1968 and saw him perform to his first live audience in seven years. It was an overwhelming success, with Presley on top form and offers quickly pouring in from around the world for him to perform. However, Parker did not let his client go abroad. An undocumented immigrant, Parker did not have a passport and feared he would not be able to return to the States if he got into trouble abroad. He also wouldn’t let Presley go on the trip with anyone else because he wanted complete control of his “attraction” at all times — to borrow Parker’s old carnival slang.
Watch Elvis Presley perform “Trying to Get to You” on the ’68 Comeback Special
Instead, Parker found a lucrative option in the US for his cash cow. In 1969, Presley went to Las Vegas to perform at the newly opened International Hotel, which became known as the Las Vegas Hilton in 1971. Between 1969 and his death on August 16, 1977, Presley performed over 600 shows at the Hilton. The singer raked in cash from these engagements, but he found them artistically crippling and increasingly resented Las Vegas.
Parker kept Presley performing non-stop in Vegas to pay off his gambling debts, which by 1977 had grown to $30 million at the Hilton alone. Presley’s personal hairstylist Larry Geller said in Alanna Nash’s book The Colonel: The Extraordinary Story of Colonel Tom Parker and Elvis Presley. “Elvis became more and more aware of this over time, knowing that he was Colonel Parker’s bait and ransom, that Parker owned him, and whatever losses Parker suffered, Elvis would eventually repay himself in performances.”
Meanwhile, the Colonel also booked Presley in podunk towns, putting him up in seedy hotels and letting him play in miserable places like high school gyms. He argued that fans who lived off the beaten track also deserved to see the King. In reality, he was drawing on his old showman connections to extort favors and trying to cut costs between larger cities and venues.
While Parker Presley continued to work in rags, the singer’s health deteriorated as he became dependent on prescription drugs to keep him going on stage and to put him to sleep at night. But in 1973, the Colonel committed the ultimate treason, selling Presley’s entire back catalog to RCA for $5.4 million, a gross undervaluation for one of the most comprehensive catalogs in music history. After taxes, Presley only saw about $2 million of that, much of which went toward his divorce settlement with his ex-wife, Priscilla.
Watch Elvis Presley perform “Jailhouse Rock” live in 1977
Parker’s deal meant that Presley’s estate would receive no royalties on his songs recorded before 1973. After Presley’s death, Elvis Presley Enterprises sued Parker for mismanagement, using this deal as evidence. The case was settled out of court in 1983, and in exchange for $2 million, Parker had to give up all video and audio recordings of Presley and give up his earnings from all Presley-related materials for the next five years.
The sale of his catalog was the final nail in the coffin of Presley and Parker’s relationship. From 1973 until his death, the rocker had little direct contact with his manager and lived out the rest of his days as a depressed, drug-addicted shell of his former self. Parker also torpedoed Presley’s last chance at serious movie stardom after he was approached to star opposite Barbra Streisand in the 1976 remake A star Is Born. Warner Bros. and Streisand production company First Artists offered Presley $500,000 plus 10% of the net profits for the role, to which Parker responded with demands for $1 million and 50% of the gross profits, $100,000 in expenses and Presley responded approving all songs and a piece of the soundtrack. Parker never heard from First Artists, and the role went to country singer Kris Kristofferson instead.
Despite Presley’s apparent poor shape, he maintained a grueling schedule of gigs in Vegas and on the road. Parker was certainly not ignorant of Presley’s health problems. As late as May 1977, he saw the singer barely conscious backstage before a performance in Louisville, Kentucky. According to Geller, Parker saw Presley’s doctor dope him and douse his head in ice water to prepare it for the performance. But the colonel had no interest in the king’s health. “You listen to me!” Parker reportedly screamed. “The only thing that matters is that he’s on that stage tonight! Nothing else matters!”
Three months later, Presley was dead.
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