They’re usually men of considerable girth, with loud mouths and bad hair. They smoke cigars. Sometimes they wear questionable accessories. A long silk scarf. An oversized LBJ-style cowboy hat. And behind their bluster, they have minds like steel traps, with which they snag every dollar and percentage point. These aren’t your garden variety rock managers. They are the bigger than life, Svengali-meets-Al Capone figures. The ones who can turn a great band into world-conquering icons, or conversely, ruin them. Step inside the bilking parlor and meet Colonel Tom Parker, and in the full article, Allen Klein, Peter Grant and Don Arden.
Strange but true: Elvis Presley never performed a concert outside the United States. He was one of the top three most successful artists of all-time, the king of rock ’n’ roll, a cultural icon. He even owned his own jet. But the farthest he got in it was Honolulu.
The reason? Colonel Tom Parker. Though he harumphed about the security issues and production details involved in an overseas tour, the real obstacle was that Parker, nee Andreas Cornelius van Kuijk, was an illegal alien. To fly out of the country would be to risk not only being exposed but barred re-entry into the US.
He was born in either 1909 or 1910 in Breda, Netherlands (another theory says he was born in Russia to Jewish parents, and later adopted by a Dutch family). Little is known of his early days except that he left the Netherlands when he was 19, boarding a boat for parts unknown (in The Colonel, biographer Alanna Nash makes a strong case that he fled the country after murdering a woman). He turned up in Tampa, Fla. in the early 1930s, where he told people that his name was Tom Parker and he was from Huntington, W. Va.
His first job was as a traveling carny for Royal Amusement Shows. It was on the fairgrounds that Parker learned the guiding principles of his professional life: One, always have a gimmick. And two, when it comes to entertainment, the formula for success is in the lowest common denominator.
With the military drafting soldiers for WWII, Parker quickly found a wife (though there is no official license of the marriage), hoping to avoid service. He managed to slip through the cracks of the draft board, ending up with a 4-H for a hernia. In the mid-’40s, he took a job with the Humane Society, as a dogcatcher and the manager of a pet cemetery (a combination that poetically captures the essence of Parker). At fundraisers for the Society, Parker saw that hillbilly singers were the biggest draw. That was enough for him to head to Nashville.
He worked first as a tour manager for Grand Ole Opry stars Roy Acuff and Minnie Pearl. It was during this time that his friend, Louisiana governor Jimmie Davis, made him an honorary “Colonel.” From then on, Parker insisted he be addressed with the title. He managed Hank Snow and Eddy Arnold (who became the first country star to cross over to the pop charts), but they were mere stepping stones to his biggest quarry. In 1955, he got Gladys and Vernon Presley to sign a contract for their 20-year-old son Elvis, appointing the Colonel as “sole and exclusive advisor, personal representative and manager.” He might well have added “owner.”
Parker was pivotal in Elvis’ quick rise. First, he got RCA to buy out Presley’s contract from Sun for an unprecedented $35,000. Then, using the sense of timing and showmanship he’d learned as a carny, he set about making Elvis a sensation. Along the way, he invented some of the hallmarks of celebrity management: no interviews, money up front, total media control, spin, building an audience region by region, clever use of advance forces to build audience interest, and massive concert merchandising.
When Elvis was drafted, it’s said that Parker struck a deal with the U.S. military to give his boy a cushy appointment in Germany. In 1960, when Elvis returned stateside, the Colonel convinced him to trade touring and making albums for a career in the movies. Against his better judgment, Elvis relented. Many books have been written about the effects of this decision—suffice to say that Parker sacrificed Elvis’ credibility to a parade of increasingly inane films (Clambake, anyone? How about Kissin’ Cousins?).
In return for his efforts as manager, the Colonel took 25 percent of everything Elvis earned. But that number is deceptive. As Peter Guralnick explains in his definitive Elvis biography Careless Love: “If Elvis were contracted to MGM for a picture for which he was to receive $750,000 plus 50 percent of the profits, Colonel would take his normal 25-percent management fee on that portion of the deal that represented salary. But on the profits there would be a 50-50 split, since, in essence, with all the work Colonel put into publicity and promotion on the picture, its success represented, really, a joint venture.” The math worked the same way for Elvis’ record deal.
Early on, Parker learned that the real money in the music business was in publishing. Knowing how coveted a cover version by Elvis was for songwriters, he insisted that his boy get half the publishing on any first-time song that he recorded. Many songwriters refused to cooperate, though Elvis did land his name as a co-writer on many album tracks, and a few hits, including “Heartbreak Hotel” and “All Shook Up.”
Perhaps the Colonel’s proudest moment came in 1970, when he turned Elvis into a Vegas perennial. The previous year, Elvis’ return engagement to performing had broken all Glitter Gulch records, with gross receipts over $1.5 million. The Colonel signed a contract with the International Hotel, guaranteeing Elvis $1 million a year for just eight weeks’ work annually, lasting through 1974.
This deal was the beginning of Elvis’ long slide into drug addiction and paranoia (Vegas was also the Colonel’s undoing, as he became addicted to gambling and lost his fortune). When Presley died in 1977, the Colonel flew not to Memphis, but New York City, to work on Elvis memorial product deals. He showed up at the funeral wearing a Hawaiian shirt and a ball cap, never once looking at the casket. At the time of his death, Elvis had been searching for another manager.
The Colonel continued to make money off Elvis for the next 20 years. When RCA sued him in 1982, he finally revealed his identity in court, saying, “… the court lacks jurisdiction, since I am not a citizen of the United States or any foreign country.”
He died in 1997. Of the estimated $100 million he had made from Elvis, he left less than $1 million behind. The rest he had gambled away.
Photo by Glenn A. Baker/Redferns/Retna