Colonel Tom Parker

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Colonel Tom Parker (1909 – 1997), born Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk, was a Dutch-born American entertainment impresario known best as the manager of Elvis Presley. Parker’s management of Presley defined the role of masterminding talent management, which involved every facet of his life and was seen as central to the success of Presley’s career.

‘The Colonel’ displayed a ruthless devotion to his own financial gain rather than his client’s interests and took more than the traditional 10 to 15 percent of his earnings (reaching up to 50 percent by the end of Presley’s life). Presley said of Parker: ‘I don’t think I’d have ever been very big if it wasn’t for him. He’s a very smart man.’ For many years Parker falsely claimed to have been US-born, but it eventually emerged that he was born in Breda in the Netherlands.

Parker was the seventh of eleven children from a Catholic family. As a boy, he worked as a barker at carnivals in his hometown, a medium sized city in the Netherlands, learning many of the skills that he would require in later life working in the entertainment industry. At the age of 15, Parker moved to Rotterdam, gaining employment on the boats in the port town. At age 17, he first displayed signs of wanting to run away to America to ‘make his fortune,’ and a year later, with enough money to sustain him for a short period, he entered America illegally by jumping ship from his employer’s vessel. During his first visit there, he traveled with a Chautauqua tent show (recreational adult education), before returning briefly to the Netherlands. One of his biographers, Alanna Nash, has indicated that there were questions about a murder in Breda in which Van Kuijk, as he was then still known, might have been a suspect or a person of interest at least. She believes this might have motivated him to avoid seeking a passport, as the Netherlands has an active extradition treaty with the US, and Parker might have wanted to avoid criminal arrest by Dutch authorities in that case.

Parker returned to America two years later, finding work with carnivals due to his previous experience in the Netherlands. He enlisted in the US Army, taking the name ‘Tom Parker’ from the officer who interviewed him, to disguise the fact he was an illegal immigrant. He served two years in the 64th Regiment of the Coast Artillery at Fort Shafter in Hawaii and shortly afterwards re-enlisted at Fort Barrancas, Florida. Although Parker had served honorably before, he went AWOL this time and was charged with desertion. He was punished with solitary confinement, from which he emerged with a psychosis that led to two months in a mental hospital. He was discharged from the Army due to his mental condition. Following his discharge, Parker worked at a number of jobs, including food concessions and gaming carnivals. He began to build up a list of contacts that would prove valuable in later years. In 1935, Parker married 27-year-old Marie Francis Mott. They struggled to survive through the Great Depression, working short cons and traveling the country to seek work. Parker would later claim that at times they had had to live on as little as $1 a week.

Parker first became involved in the music industry as a music promoter in 1938, working with popular singer Gene Austin. Despite having sold over 86 million records since 1924 and earned over $17 million, Austin’s career had hit a rough patch. He had wasted much of his fortune on partying, cars, mansions, and women, and his popularity had been eclipsed by new singers such as Bing Crosby. Parker, charged with the task of promoting the star, found the career transition to be a smooth one, using much of his ‘carny’ experience to sell tickets and pack in the crowds. He was a very good promoter, but he had his sights set on management. Austin offered Parker the opportunity to move to Nashville, Tennessee, where music was becoming big business, but for reasons unknown Parker turned him down. Instead he decided to stay in Temple Terrace, Florida with his family, perhaps to avoid having to fill in paperwork that could expose his illegal status.

Within a year, however, he had the opportunity to become a legal citizen by way of the 1940 Alien Registration Act, which allow illegal aliens the chance to become US citizens in return for their promise to fight for the country during World War II, if required. Parker decided against registering, possibly to prevent his previous Army record from becoming public. Instead, he found employment as a field agent with a local animal shelter, the Hillsborough County Humane Society. The job not only offered him a secure wage, it also offered a rent-free apartment above the Humane Society in a remote part of West Tampa for him and his family. With the Society in need of funds, Parker set about using his promotional experience to raise money and awareness for the shelter. He searched out acts for his charity events in Tennessee, finding musicians such as Minnie Pearl and Eddy Arnold.

Eventually, Parker began getting more involved in music promotion again, this time for himself rather than the Society. In 1945, he became Arnold’s full-time manager, signing a contract for 25% of the star’s earnings. Over the next few years he would help Arnold secure hit songs, television appearances, and live tours. In 1948, Parker received the rank of colonel in the Louisiana State Militia from Jimmie Davis, the governor of Louisiana and a former country singer, in return for work he did on Davis’ election campaign. Parker used the title throughout his life, becoming known simply as ‘the Colonel’ to many acquaintances.

A singer by the name of Tommy Sands caught Parker’s eye in 1952, and he immediately set about promoting the youngster. He arranged live appearances and became somewhat of a father figure to the then 15-year-old Sands. Parker had intended to mold Sands into the next Roy Rogers, but Sands had no interest in such a plan. Instead, Parker sent demonstration recordings to Steve Scholes at RCA. Scholes showed little interest in Sands, but promised that he would attempt to find songs he might be able to record. Arnold fired Parker in 1953 over Parker’s growing involvement with the singer Hank Snow. However, Parker remained involved in many of Arnold’s live tours, and demanded a buyout of $50,000 to settle their contract. Parker and Snow eventually formed Hank Snow Enterprises and Jamboree Attractions, a successful promotional outfit for up-and-coming country singers.

In early 1955, Parker became aware of a young singer named Elvis Presley. Presley had a singing style different from the current trend, and Parker was immediately interested in the future of this musical style. Elvis’ first manager was guitarist Scotty Moore, who was encouraged by Sun Records owner Sam Phillips to become his manager to protect Elvis from unscrupulous music promoters. In the beginning, Elvis was part of a trio named Blue Moon Boys, whose other two members were Moore and bassist Bill Black. However, when Elvis signed a recording contract with Phillips, Moore and Black were excluded from the contract. Phillips told them to make a separate deal with Elvis. According to Moore, Elvis agreed to take 50 percent, with Moore and Black splitting the other 50 percent. Moore’s one-year management contract with Elvis provided him with a 10 percent commission, which Moore said he never took. The contract, dated July 12, 1954, eight days after their first recording session, was signed by Elvis and Elvis’ mother and father. When the contract expired, Memphis radio personality Bob Neal stepped in and made a deal with Phillips to become Elvis’ manager. At that point, Moore and Black had no contractual ties to either Phillips or Elvis. Neal was struggling at the time to accommodate his new client’s success, and in February 1955, following a meeting with Parker, Elvis agreed to let Parker take some control of future bookings and promotions.

Parker and Neal worked together to promote Presley, using their own Hank Snow Tour to book him and tour him. Although Neal remained Presley’s official manager, Parker was becoming increasingly involved in the running of his career, and by the summer of 1955 he had become Presley’s ‘Special Advisor.’ As Presley was still a minor at the time, his parents had to sign the contract with Parker on his behalf. Part of Parker’s role was to secure a new recording contract with a bigger label. Presley had been at Sun Records since the beginning of his career, but Sam Phillips, the owner of Presley’s current label, was aware that for Presley to have any kind of a successful future in the business he would need the backing of a much larger label. Despite this, Phillips was not keen to let him go easily, advising Parker that he would require $40,000 to secure the release of Presley’s contract, a completely unheard-of sum at the time.

Parker immediately went to work to find a new label for Presley. Both Mercury Records and Columbia Records showed interest, although their initial offers were nowhere near the $40,000 requirement. RCA Victor, Hank Snow’s current label, was also showing an interest, but they were also put off by the cost of the contract. However, RCA producer Steve Sholes was convinced that Presley’s style of music would be a huge hit with the right label, and he began talks with Parker. RCA made it very clear they were unwilling to go above $25,000 for a practically unknown singer, but Parker persuaded them that Presley was a special case. Around the same time, realizing the deal for Presley might fall through due to the cost of the contract, Parker attempted once again to sell Tommy Sands to RCA. He suggested to Sholes that Sands could record material similar to Presley’s style. Sholes, remembering his previous experience with Sands, dismissed him as a viable replacement for Presley.

In November, Parker and Snow persuaded RCA to buy Presley out from Sun for $40,000. Snow attended the signing, thinking that Elvis had signed a management contract with Jamboree Attractions, which he owned with Parker. However, that was not the case since Elvis was still under contract to Bob Neal. The only document that was signed pertained to the record label transfer. In return for a larger financial part of the deal, Neal agreed not to renew his management contract with Presley after it had run out in March 1956, allowing Parker the opportunity to claim the job for himself. Later, when Hank Snow asked Parker about the status of their contract with Elvis, Parker told him, ‘You don’t have any contract with Elvis Presley. Elvis is signed exclusively to the Colonel.’

With his first RCA Victor single, ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ in 1956, Presley graduated from rumor to bona-fide recording star. Parker began 1956 with intentions of bringing his new star to the national stage. He arranged for Presley to appear on popular television shows such as ‘The Milton Berle Show’ and ‘The Ed Sullivan Show,’ securing fees that would make him the highest-paid star on television. By the summer Presley had become one of the most famous new faces of the year, causing excitement among the new teenage audience and outrage among some older audiences and religious groups in equal measure.

Parker signed a merchandising deal with Beverly Hills film merchandiser Hank Saperstein for nearly $40,000 to turn Presley into a brand name. With over 78 different ranges, from charm bracelets to record players, Presley merchandise had brought in $22,000,000 by the end of 1956. Parker, with his 25% share of profits, was finding many new ways to make money from his artist that managers before him could only have dreamed about. He had even come up with the idea to market ‘I Hate Elvis’ badges to make money from those who otherwise wouldn’t have parted with their cash.

In April, Parker made his first mistake with Presley’s career. He had booked him into a four-week Las Vegas engagement, misjudging the reaction of the slightly older, more reserved audiences that Las Vegas attracted at the time. While Presley was a hit among the youth of America, the middle-aged audiences found him to be something of an oddity. Some viewed him as a clown-like figure, wiggling his hips for screams like a monkey for peanuts, while others found his manner of performance vulgar and more suitable for late-night gentleman’s clubs. After a very cool reception during his first few shows, Parker cut Presley’s appearance to two weeks. Presley would later remember the event as one of the worst moments of his career.

Presley had expressed interest in making films when he first met Parker. The Colonel arranged for a screen test with Paramount Pictures, and after impressing them with his acting ability, Presley was signed to a seven-picture contract. Parker made sure that the contract allowed Presley the freedom to make at least one film a year with another studio, and also managed to set up an office, with staff, at Paramount. Presley’s acting career was originally intended to be a serious one, but after seeing a chance to cross-promote singles and albums with the films, Parker persuaded him to sing in his films. This proved very lucrative, especially when the single for Presley’s first film, ‘Love Me Tender,’ sold over one million copies in advance sales. With 1956 coming to a close, Parker had made Presley one of the most well-known, well-paid entertainers in the world.

In 1957, Parker finally managed to give Tommy Sands his big break by arranging for him to audition for and star in ‘The Singin’ Idol,’ a drama for NBC that was loosely based on the life and career of Presley. NBC had originally wanted Presley for the role, but Parker had turned them down. In the drama the role of Parker was portrayed as a ‘twisted psychopath.’ Critics were very positive in their reviews of both the show and Sands, leading to Capitol Records signing Sands within a week. Soon after, Sands’ song ‘Teenage Crush’ reached number three on the pop charts, eventually selling 800,000 copies.

Despite the success that Presley had achieved, Parker was still struggling to believe that Elvis’ career would last longer than a year or two. He had seen many acts come and go during his earlier years in management, and to think that Presley, despite being Parker’s most successful act to date, would be any different was foolish. In January 1958 Presley received his draft notice from the United States Army. He was upset about the possibility of it affecting his career, but Parker was secretly overjoyed. Presley had been showing signs of rebellion against him recently, and Parker believed that a stint in the Army would cure him of this.

Parker was looking ahead to the future when he persuaded Presley to sign up as a regular soldier. Presley had wanted to join Special Services, allowing him the opportunity to continue to perform while at the same time getting an easier ride than other soldiers. Parker, on the other hand, was fully aware that any special treatment given to Presley would instantly be used against him in the media and by those who disliked his style of music. If Presley could show the world that he was just the same as any other young man, Parker told him, then more people would be likely to accept him and his music. Parker was also afraid that any attempt to block Presley from being drafted would result in a more detailed look into his own service record. He also realized that it would be a great opportunity to promote Presley by having the media witness his induction day, including the Army haircut that would see the most famous hair style in the world destroyed.

While Presley was serving in Germany, Parker was hard at work keeping his name known to the public. He realized that by keeping RCA, and more importantly the public, hungry for more Presley material, he would be able to negotiate a better contract for him when he returned from active service. He had arranged for Presley to record five singles before his induction, guaranteeing RCA enough material to release over a two-year period. RCA was eager for Presley to record in Germany, but Parker insisted that it would ruin his reputation as a regular soldier if he was able to go into a recording studio and sing. Stories appeared in the press regularly about Presley, including that he would do a live CCTV broadcast when he returned and that he had signed a deal for a series of annual television spectaculars to be broadcast across the country. All of these stories were fabrications, but it kept his name in view of the public.

Parker appeared to be in complete control during Presley’s time away, but he was worried about outside influences in Germany interfering with his arrangement. Parker had declined to travel to Europe, denying that he spoke the languages. He sent Presley’s friends to keep him company, arranged for business associates to watch over him while they were working in Europe, and kept in regular contact with him via telephone and letter. He was afraid that Presley would realize that there were other managers available, contracts that did not require as much as 25% for his manager. Parker was still worried that Presley would return to nothing, that the public would have found a new star to fawn over by then, and that his golden goose would be reduced to nothing more than a ‘has-been.’

For Presley’s return in March 1960, Parker had arranged for a train to take him from Washington D.C. to Memphis, with stops along the way for fans to see their idol in person. If Parker had had any doubts about his return, they were soon gone when he witnessed the turnout along the route. Frank Sinatra, who had declared Presley and rock-‘n’-roll a disgrace in the ’50s, was keen to have him appear on his show. Parker, not one to forget harsh criticism, stated that the fee would be $125,000 for two songs, a total of eight minutes on screen; Sinatra himself was receiving a lower sum for the whole show. Sinatra agreed and it was Presley’s first national television appearance since ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ in January 1957, and titled ‘Welcome Home, Elvis.’

After the Sinatra special, Parker decided that Presley’s future lay in Hollywood. He envisioned him as an entertainment machine, pumping out three films and soundtracks a year, until the end of the decade. He allowed him to perform three live shows in 1961, all charity events, two in Memphis and one in Hawaii. After that, until 1968, Presley gave no live performances, and had very little contact with his fans. Parker signed long-term contracts with the film studios, possibly to guarantee work and income for both him and Presley. This was, with hindsight, a mistake on his part; if he had negotiated each deal separately based on the profits of the previous film, he could have received more money. Throughout the 1960s Parker would continually renegotiate Presley’s film contracts, often paying little attention to the scripts or the thoughts of his client. These deals were sometimes so harsh on the studios that it led producer Hal Wallis to state, ‘I’d rather try and close a deal with the Devil.’

Presley had to do no more than provide RCA with three albums a year, and his film soundtracks did that for him. With no touring or public appearances to be made, Parker was able to keep costs to a minimum. For the first few years Presley’s films were somewhat successful, his albums topped the charts, and any singles that were released were mostly hits. But as time went on, and the worldwide phenomenon known as Beatlemania began, Presley became less and less successful as the Beatles began their dominance of the music charts. His films still made money and his albums still sold well, but the profits were falling. This led Parker to insist that films be made cheaply, on a strict schedule, and with as little hassle as possible.

For the remainder of the 1960s, Presley made films that relied heavily on exotic locations and mundane songs, and he was tied into contracts that he could not escape. Parker did not care if the films were good or bad but only about the profits. When Presley complained to him that he wanted better scripts, Parker reminded him of his lavish lifestyle and that risking $1 million a year for doing practically no work was dangerous. Elvis’s career stagnated while artists like the Beatles, the Supremes, the Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan dominated the charts. Parker admitted, in 1983, that after 1966 the income from Presley films and soundtracks was dramatically reduced.

To make up for lack of earnings, Parker arranged for Presley’s gold Cadillac to go on tour. Selling it to RCA for $24,000, it was used to promote Presley’s latest film, ‘Frankie & Johnny.’ The Cadillac tour proved to be somewhat more successful than the film itself. In Houston alone in one afternoon, forty thousand people paid to see it, with one woman offering to have sex with the tour manager if he would allow her to sit in it. In 1967, Parker renegotiated his managerial/agent contract with Presley. Under the new terms Parker received a full half of all proceeds from Elvis. When critics questioned this arrangement, Presley quipped ‘I could have signed with East Coast Entertainment where they take 70 percent!’ Parker used the argument that Presley was his only client and he was thus earning only one fee.

After Presley showed signs of rebellion again in 1966 and because of his flagging career, Parker decided that it was time for a new approach: marriage. Frank Sinatra had married Mia Farrow in 1966, and it had produced enough publicity for Parker to sit up and take notice. Presley had been living with Priscilla Beaulieu, ten years his junior, for the past four years, but it had not been public knowledge. Jerry Lee Lewis’s career had been almost destroyed when it came out that he had married his 13-year-old cousin – and Parker was not going to let a similar scandal happen to Presley.

Parker hoped that marriage would not only boost Presley’s career but also possibly tame him. With Priscilla’s father dropping heavy hints, and fear that their relationship might become public beforehand, Parker persuaded Presley that he should make an honest woman of her in the very near future. However, it would not be a quiet wedding. Parker decided that Las Vegas was the perfect place to do it, and on May 1, 1967, the couple were married in a ceremony that lasted only eight minutes and had a handful of guests. A breakfast reception was arranged, taking place after the media got their photographs of the couple. It was, to some, nothing more than a circus.

It took the energetic 1968 television special ‘Elvis,’ which the Singer Company sponsored, and a subsequent series of acclaimed recording sessions in Memphis, Tennessee that included songs such as ‘Suspicious Minds’ and ‘In The Ghetto,’ to restore Elvis Presley’s musical reputation. However, the music scene and the culture in the latter part of the decade had radically changed. The ‘Singer Special’ TV show was not intended to turn out the way it did. Parker was adamant that Presley would wear a Santa suit and other holiday garb and sing Christmas songs, as the show was to be broadcast in December 1968 (several Presley historians have noted the original title for the special was to be ‘Elvis and the Wonderful World of Christmas’). It was the producer of the show, Steve Binder, who put forward the idea of Presley singing his old hits and even the staged section with his old band, Scotty Moore and DJ Fontana, the latter inspired by a post-rehearsal informal jam in Presley’s dressing room. Presley was never one to stand up against Parker, but he knew that this TV show was his one chance at a true comeback, and with Binder backing him, Presley told Parker he was doing it ‘Binder’s way.’ This was the first time in the partnership where Presley fully rebelled against Parker.

Presley and Binder’s instincts were proven right; the TV special was an enormous hit, and an album that was released featuring performances from the show became a bestseller. Presley historians have also said the appearance whetted Elvis’s appetite to perform live again after nearly a decade away from the stage. After the special, Parker managed Presley’s return to live performance, including a set of brief US tours and many engagements in Las Vegas. Following the success of Presley’s comeback tour, Parker signed a contract with the International Hotel to guarantee Presley would play a month-long engagement for $125,000 a week, a record sum at the time. During this part of Presley’s career, Parker took a controlling interest in merchandising and other non-music related items, ceding music sales to Elvis, which resulted in him earning more than his client.

After the success of Presley’s return to live performing in Las Vegas, Parker decided it was time to take him back out on a large-scale tour for the first time in 13 years. The tours were so popular and financially successful that they determined Presley’s workload for the remainder of his life. Parker’s main role during these tours was to plan the logistics and make sure tickets were sold. He would usually fly ahead to the venues and prepare the way for Presley’s entourage to follow. Due to this, Presley and Parker would very rarely see each other, and as time progressed it became even more difficult for Parker to get in contact with Presley. These live performances also allowed Parker to fulfill Presley’s recording contract with RCA. Between 1969 and 1972 alone, RCA released three albums of live material.

By 1972, Parker had managed to increase Presley’s weekly wage in Las Vegas to $150,000, and secured $50,000 a year for himself as a ‘consultant to the hotel chain.’ Parker had also decided that it was time for Presley to return to New York, and had arranged for him to perform at Madison Square Garden that summer. Originally planned as three performances, demand was so high that Parker decided to add a fourth performance, making Presley the first performer to sell out the venue four consecutive times.

Later that summer, inspired by a recent visit made by President Richard Nixon to China a few months earlier, Parker announced that a worldwide satellite broadcast from Hawaii with all proceeds going to charity to allow the whole world the chance to see a Presley concert ‘since it is impossible for us to play in every major city.’ (During Presley’s career, except for a few concerts in Canada in 1957, he never performed outside the United States). The press were told that an audience of one billion was expected to tune in to see ‘Aloha From Hawaii,’ the ‘first entertainment special to be broadcast live around the world.’ Parker subsequently received a letter from ‘Honolulu Advertiser’ columnist Eddie Sherman suggesting that, as Presley had recorded and was still performing the song ‘I’ll Remember You’ written by Kui Lee, the donations could go to the Kui Lee Cancer Fund that had been set up following the death of the songwriter in 1966. Seeing the chance to publicize Presley’s charitable nature once again, Parker eagerly agreed. The album was released simultaneously around the world, and went to No. 1 in the US charts; the first Presley album to do so since 1964’s ‘Roustabout’ soundtrack.

‘Aloha from Hawaii’ proved to be the last great moment in the life of Presley and Parker. In 1973, in an attempt to deal with Presley’s growing dependence on prescription drugs, Presley’s father, Vernon, and Parker attempted to cut off his supply. They hired private detectives to find out where the drugs were coming from and were successful in stopping any more from reaching Presley. However, it wasn’t long before Presley was able to find other doctors to meet his demands. In later years, several of Presley’s inner-circle would tell of how difficult it was to persuade Presley to quit the drugs. As well as being their employer and paying their wages, he was also their main source of access to drugs for themselves. Presley’s main doctor, George C. Nichopoulos, would often replace Presley’s medication with placebos in an attempt to wean him off the drugs. This would be successful for a short time, but when Presley discovered the trick he simply found himself other doctors. Alanna Nash suggests that one of the reasons Parker didn’t do more is because he may have just not known how to handle the situation. In her book, ‘The Colonel,’ she writes ‘in the days before the Betty Ford Clinic, the Colonel didn’t know where to take him for discreet, effective help and loathed risking the loss of work if the truth got out.’

After the Aloha special, Parker made a deal that would later be used in court to prove that he had not acted in the best interests of Presley. He offered RCA the opportunity to buy Presley’s entire back catalog for a mere $5.4 million. At the time, Presley’s back catalog was not considered that important and RCA initially calculated it at being worth much less, but in later years it would become one of the most valuable catalogs in the music business. The sale of the catalog to RCA meant that after his death Presley’s estate would not receive any royalties for his songs prior to 1973. Parker, however, was partially motivated to sell by Presley, who had asked him to raise funds to pay for his upcoming divorce settlement. Presley, who was never one to know the full ins and outs of the music business, would have probably had no idea how important his back catalogue was, and therefore would have trusted Parker’s judgment on the matter. Parker, too, could have never known how valuable the catalog would become.

From 1974 onwards, Presley’s weight gain and prescription drug abuse became too much to be controlled. In Las Vegas he was starting to appear drugged on stage, slurring his words and forgetting song lyrics. During one performance, following news that one of the Hilton’s staff that Presley was fond of had been fired, he attacked Barron Hilton in a verbal rage on stage. Parker was furious, and stormed into Presley’s dressing room after the show to confront him. After a heated argument between the two, Presley told Parker he was fired. Angered by this outburst, Parker declared, ‘You can’t fire me. I quit!’ Parker accepted that their working relationship was over, and demanded that Presley pay $2 million to end their contract; money Parker claimed he was owed. But Presley’s father, Vernon, upon reading the bill Parker sent itemizing each cost individually, declared that they could not afford to buy out their contract. After nearly two weeks of trading insults back and forth, Parker and Presley decided to bury the hatchet and put the whole situation behind them.

Although many around Presley were worried about his worsening drug dependency, Parker appeared to ignore the problem. Several members of Presley’s band later stated that Parker had no idea just how bad the situation was, although others have stood by the suggestion that Parker just didn’t want to admit there was such a problem because he didn’t know how to deal with it and was worried about any negative publicity it would create. According to Parker himself, he did attempt to talk to his client about the matter, but Presley simply told him to stay out of his personal life.

In 1975, during his engagement in Las Vegas, Presley met with Barbra Streisand and film producer Jon Peters. They discussed the possibility of Presley’s co-starring with Streisand in a remake of the film ‘A Star is Born.’ Seeing it as a chance to finally be taken seriously as an actor, Presley agreed to take the role if the contracts could be worked out. According to Presley’s friend, Jerry Schilling, Elvis was excited about the opportunity to take on a new challenge. Streisand’s production company, First Artists, offered Presley $500,000 and 10% of the profits. Parker, who had always dealt with Presley’s film contracts and viewed the offer as a starting bid, asked for $1 million, 50% of the profits, $100,000 for expenses, and spoke of needing to arrange details of a soundtrack deal. First Artists, unused to such huge demands, didn’t put forward a counteroffer and decided instead to offer the role to Kris Kristofferson. Parker later claimed that Presley had asked him to make the contract so demanding so that they would not offer him the part, although many of Presley’s friends have said he was furious at losing the role.

Later ithat year, Saudi Arabia offered Parker $5 million for Presley to perform there. Parker turned the offer down, and Presley was overjoyed when they replied with an offer of $10 million. Yet, despite Presley’s eagerness to do the shows, Parker again turned them down. Promoters in South America also made offers, as much as $2.5 million, again turned down by Parker. Presley was beginning to consider new management, with Concerts West co-founder Tom Hulett being the clear favorite for the job. Hulett’s company had managed tours for Presley, and he had worked with artists such as Led Zeppelin. According to several people who knew Presley at the time, the talks with Hulett got so far along that it seemed almost inevitable the deal would be done. The talks had included details about European tours, and buying out Presley’s contract would not have been a problem for Hulett. Despite this, the deal never materialized. According to Presley biographer Peter Guralnick, Presley and Parker ‘were really like, in a sense, a married couple, who started out with great love, loyalty, respect that lasted for a considerable period of time, and went through a number of stages until, towards the end of Presley’s life, they should have walked away. None of the rules of the relationship were operative any longer, yet neither had the courage to walk away, for a variety of reasons.’ In any case, Parker remained Presley’s manager without break until Presley’s death in 1977.

For the remainder of Presley’s life, Parker would see very little of him. The two had become almost strangers to each other, and false reports in the media suggested that Presley’s contract was up for sale. Although Parker publicly denied these claims, he had been in talks with Peter Grant, manager of Led Zeppelin, about the possibility of him overseeing a European tour for Presley. As with all the talk about Presley touring overseas, Parker never followed through with the deal.

Parker was aware that Presley needed a break from touring and the chance to deal with his addictions. He phoned Presley’s father to suggest the break, but Vernon told him they couldn’t afford to stop touring. Vernon also threatened to find a new manager if Parker wouldn’t continue to tour Presley. In 1976, three of Presley’s bodyguards were fired and decided to write a tell-all book about their life in his inner circle. Worried about the impact such details might have on his career, Presley, through his father, asked Parker to stop the publication. Parker made attempts to quash the project, but failed to do so. According to Presley’s friend, Larry Geller, Parker secretly wanted the book to be published, hoping that it would open Presley’s eyes to how bad he had got and persuade him to do something about it. The book would eventually be published in August 1977, two weeks before Presley’s death.

Presley fans have speculated that the reason Presley only once performed abroad, which would probably have been a highly lucrative proposition, may have been that Parker was worried that he would not have been able to acquire a US passport and might even have been deported upon filing his application. In addition, applying for the citizenship required for a US passport would probably have exposed his carefully concealed foreign birth. Although Parker was a US Army veteran and spouse of an American citizen, one of the basic tenets of US immigration law is that absent some sort of amnesty program, there is no path to citizenship or even legal residency for those who entered the country illegally. As Parker had not availed himself of the 1940 Alien Registration Act, and there was no amnesty program available to him afterwards, he was not eligible for US citizenship through any means. Rumors that he would play overseas for the first time were fueled in 1974 by a million-dollar bid for an Australian tour. Parker was uncharacteristically reluctant, prompting those close to Presley to speculate about the manager’s past and the reasons for his apparent unwillingness to apply for a passport. Parker ultimately squelched any notions Presley had of working abroad, although it must also be noted that Presley did not push the issue, either.

When Presley died in August 1977, one day before he was due to go out on tour, some accounts suggest Parker acted as if nothing had happened. Other accounts suggest he slumped in his chair, muttered, ‘Oh dear God,’ immediately contacted Vernon Presley, and advised Presley’s father that his son’s image needed to be protected. Asked by a journalist what he would do now, Parker responded, ‘Why, I’ll just go right on managing him!’ Almost immediately, before even visiting Graceland, he made his way to New York to meet with merchandising associates and RCA executives, instructing them to prepare for a huge demand in Presley products. Shortly afterward, he traveled to Memphis for Presley’s funeral. Mourners recall being surprised at his wearing a Hawaiian shirt and baseball cap, smoking his trademark cigar, and purposely avoiding the casket. At the funeral, he persuaded Presley’s father to sign over control of Presley’s career in death to him.

Following Presley’s death, Parker set up a licensing operation with Factors Etc. Inc, to control Presley merchandise and keep a steady income supporting his estate. It was later revealed that Presley owned 22% of the company, Parker owned 56%, and the final 22% was made up of various business associates. Due to an ill-advised agreement between Parker and Presley that gave RCA sole ownership of all his recording royalties prior to 1973, the estate was relying heavily on the income from Factors Etc. Inc. However, because Parker was still entitled to 50% of all Presley’s income, and after taxes were taken off, the overall amount going towards the upkeep of the estate was less than $1 million a year. In 1979, it was discovered that Presley had lost out on royalties for songs on which he had been listed as an author and/or composer because Parker had unwisely advised him not to sign up to ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) or its younger competitor, BMI (Broadcast Music, Inc), performance rights organizations that collect and distribute royalties in the music industry. Experts in the field at the time estimated that it had potentially cost Presley millions of dollars.

By 1980, the cost of running the estate was estimated to be as much as $500,000 a year. Priscilla and the Trust were prepared to let Parker continue to handle Presley’s business affairs, and petitioned the court to that end. However, Judge Joseph Evans, aware that Elvis’ daughter Lisa Marie was still a minor, appointed attorney Blanchard E. Tual to investigate Parker’s management. Tual, once appointed as Lisa Marie’s guardian ad litem, chose to investigate the entire period of Parker’s management of Presley; his preliminary finding was that Parker’s management deal of 50% was extortionate compared to the industry average of 15–20%. He also noted that Parker’s handling of Presley’s business affairs during his lifetime, including the decision to sell off past royalties to RCA for $5.4 million in 1973, was ‘unethical’ and poorly handled. During a second, more detailed investigation, Tual discovered that all earnings were paid directly to the Trust instead of Parker. By this time, with the IRS demanding almost $15 million in taxes, the estate was facing bankruptcy.

In 1981, Judge Evans ordered EPE to sue Parker for mismanagement. Parker countersued and the case was settled out of court in 1983, with the estate paying him $2 million in exchange for the termination of his involvement in any Presley related earnings for five years. He was also ordered to hand over any Presley audio recordings or visual images that he owned. Parker had worked as a ‘consultant’ for Hilton Hotels since Presley’s death, with some believing he was working to pay off debts owed to the casino from his gambling during Presley’s performances there. Part of this role resulted in Parker keeping the same fourth-floor suite he occupied when Presley was alive, but by 1984, with his gambling debts reportedly rising again, he was evicted. On the surface, however, relations between the two were as good as ever, with Parker helping the Hilton to commemorate the tenth anniversary of Presley’s death.

Many Parker biographers, including Dirk Vellenga and Alanna Nash, have stated that Parker’s gambling really began to get out of hand in the mid-1960s. With his wife’s health deteriorating, and Presley’s career struggling, Parker found an escape at the Las Vegas casinos. Fans and biographers alike believe that one of the main reasons Parker signed Presley to a Las Vegas hotel in 1969 for his live comeback was to help cover the losses he had experienced in their casino. He would often spend 12–14 hours at a time gambling, betting large sums of money. At the time of Presley’s death it was suspected that Parker owed the Las Vegas Hilton $30 million. In a lifetime that saw him earn in excess of $100 million, Parker’s estate was barely worth $1 million when he died.

The disputes with the Presley estate did not terminate his association with his most high-profile client. Parker appeared at posthumous events honoring Presley, such as the 1993 issuing of the US Postal Service stamp honoring the King of Rock and Roll. He also became friendly with the estate again, attending special ceremonies and events in Memphis, invited by Priscilla. However, he did occasionally step on their toes by commenting negatively on some of their decisions. In 1994, following the marriage of Lisa Marie and Michael Jackson, Parker stated that Presley would not have approved, and in 1993, interest in Presley’s enduring legend, interest that is sometimes notable for its obsessiveness, provoked Parker to remark, ‘I don’t think I exploited Elvis as much as he’s being exploited today.’

In the early years, as Presley’s fame grew, people became interested in Parker as well. For a time, he lied about his childhood, claiming to have been born in Huntington, West Virginia and to have run away at an early age to join a circus run by an uncle. The truth about his origins was revealed when his family in the Netherlands recognized him in photographs standing next to Presley. Parker’s brother Adam van Kuijk visited him in Los Angeles in 1961. Parker acknowledged his brother and introduced him to Presley. Parker was informed that his mother died in 1958, never knowing what happened with her son after he left in 1929. The claim of Parker’s Dutch heritage was confirmed publically when he tried to avert a lawsuit in 1982 by asserting that he was a Dutch citizen. In 1993, Dutch TV director Jorrit van der Kooi talked to him in Dutch about the Netherlands. Parker was not aware that his sister Adriana had died a few years before.

Parker made his last public appearances in 1994. By this point, he was a sick man who could barely even leave his own house. On January 20, 1997, Parker’s wife heard a crashing sound from the living room, and when she heard no response to her calls, she went in to find him slumped over in his chair. He had suffered a stroke. He died the following morning in Las Vegas, Nevada at the age of 87. His death certificate listed his country of birth as the Netherlands and his citizenship as American. His funeral was held at the Hilton Hotel and was attended by friends and former associates, including Eddy Arnold and Sam Phillips. Priscilla attended to represent the Elvis Presley Estate and gave a eulogy that, to many in the room, summed up Parker perfectly: ‘Elvis and the Colonel made history together, and the world is richer, better and far more interesting because of their collaboration. And now I need to locate my wallet, because I noticed there was no ticket booth on the way in here, but I’m sure that the Colonel must have arranged for some toll on the way out.’

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