Genius or scoundrel? The truth about Elvis mastermind Colonel Tom Parker

The villain in Elvis's story has been accused of exploiting his star to death. But the music industry owes him a great debt

Elvis Presley with his manager, Colonel Tom Parker Credit: Redferns

Baz Luhrmann’s new Elvis Presley biopic shines a light on the musician’s relationship with his ruthless manager Colonel Tom Parker. The history of popular music is strewn with examples of complex partnerships between managers and their charges, from Peter Grant and Led Zeppelin, to Allen Klein and The Rolling Stones, to Simon Fuller and the Spice Girls. But Presley and the Colonel’s relationship is perhaps the most fascinating of all.

At best Machiavellian and at worst exploitative of his client’s vast talents, Parker may have made Presley a star but he also enriched himself. Clever, sly, persuasive, crafty, divisive and devious, Parker stopped at nothing to build the Presley brand

Tom Hanks, who plays the Svengali in Luhrmann’s Elvis, has described Parker as “both a genius and a scoundrel”. Speaking to Stephen Colbert on The Late Show, Hanks said: “He was a very disciplined man, but also a guy who might [make you] want to check your wallet to make sure you still have all those fives and tens.”

Robert Kotlowitz, a publicist at Presley’s label RCA, has described Parker’s style as being “equivalent to a great politician’s, with so much flamboyance and wit and, underneath it all, cunning.” His comments are contained in a book on Parker by author Alanna Nash. Yet on the same page Nash quotes music critic Dave Marsh, who called Parker “the most overrated person in the history of show business” on his death in 1997.

Presley himself doubted that he would ever have been very big if it wasn’t for Parker. “He’s a very smart man,” the musician once said. Smart, maybe. But his methods were neither pretty nor conventional. And there’s an argument that Presley would have been bigger still if it weren’t for his manager. Here, we take a look at Parker’s evil genius at work in some key areas of Presley’s life.

Tom Hanks as Colonel Tom Parker in Baz Luhrmann’s new Elvis biopic Credit: Warner Bros

The most lucrative tour of duty in history

In March 1958 – two years after Heartbreak Hotel had yielded Presley his first US number one hit – he was drafted into the US Army and, after training, sent to Germany. Parker had argued that joining the army would make Presley seem normal to fans, a vital piece of currency. But there was said to be an ulterior motive: Parker wanted to quell a growing rebelliousness in his only client, a rebelliousness that he feared could see him ditched as manager.

Parker’s management of Presley during his two years in Europe provides the perfect snapshot of his cunning at work. While Presley was in Germany, Parker did everything to keep him in the headlines while simultaneously refusing to allow him to perform or record. 

He declined the army’s request to make Presley an ambassador-entertainer to be deployed to keep morale high, and he refused RCA’s demands for new songs. By keeping the Presley brand afloat while making new product scarce, Parker was creating pent-up demand. At the same time he used the shortage of product to improve his bargaining position with the label and the studios, according to Peter Guralnick’s authoritative Presley biography Careless Love.

Parker’s strategy worked. The singer’s release from the army was accompanied by a TV special with Frank Sinatra, a raft of films, and a hyped studio session with RCA. When first back on home soil, a uniformed Presley received a hero’s welcome in front of thousands of fans on a specially-arranged train journey from New Jersey to Tennessee. Eagle-eyed observers noted an extra line on Presley’s shoulder, denoting a higher rank than he was entitled to (staff sergeant rather than sergeant). A tailor’s mistake, Presley argued. Parker’s sly genius at work, others said.

Parker with Presley after his discharge from the US Army Credit: AP

Hollywood’s ‘Elvis exploitation office’

Presley starred in over thirty feature films, from Jailhouse Rock to Viva Las Vegas. Parker was a notoriously difficult negotiator with the studios. Producer Hal Wallis, the man behind Casablanca, famously said that he’d “rather try and close a deal with the devil” than deal with Parker. “He’s an obnoxious, terrible man,” he declared.

You can see his point. Parker set out his stall when negotiating Presley’s first film, 1956’s Love Me Tender. The entertainer was initially offered $25,000 to be in the film but Parker said he wanted an unprecedented one million dollars. Buddy Adler, head of production at 20th Century Fox, replied that even proven stars such as Jack Lemmon didn’t get as much. “Well, maybe he needs a new manager,” Parker replied. Presley ended up getting $100,000 for Love Me Tender, which was Parker’s secret aim all along, according to Nash. With Parker taking a whopping 25 per cent cut of all the money that Presley made, his tough negotiating skills had earned him the singer’s initial fee in commission. The studio also took out an option on two further films for $350,000.

There was more. As part of the Love Me Tender negotiations, Parker received an office on the Fox lot, staff, and a car and a chauffeur. “Such accommodations were unprecedented for the manager of a star,” Nash writes. Parker even called his office the “Elvis exploitation office”, the writer says. The eccentric manager would summon different members of staff to his office with different numbers of “woofs” from a toy puppy dog.

For 1965’s Harum Scarum, Presley was able to command his watershed fee of $1 million. As Parker in the film, Hanks boasts that he’d made Presley the highest paid actor in Hollywood. The film flopped and Presley never received such a high fee again. He could have had a second wind: a decade later, Presley was Barbra Streisand’s first choice for the role in her remake of A Star Is Born. But Parker got greedy in his negotiations and the role went to Kris Kristofferson instead. He won a Golden Globe for his performance.

Presley as Vince Everett in the 1957 film Jailhouse Rock Credit: Getty

‘I hate Elvis’

Parker grew up working in carnivals. And as Hanks says in the film, Elvis was “the greatest carnival attraction I’d ever seen – he was my destiny.” His grand plan for the human carnival attraction included launching merchandise ranges like never before.

After Presley’s career took off in the mid-Fifties, Parker struck a deal with a Los Angeles-based movie merchandiser called Hank Saperstein, who paid a $40,000 advance to create a range of 78 different Elvis-themed lines. These included plastic guitars, Elvis lipstick in “Hound Dog” orange, bracelets, scarves and dolls. The venture made $22 million on short order ($236 million in today’s money). “At a time when most managers did little more for their artists than book concert dates, Parker perpetually figures out new ways to exploit his star,” Nash writes. Parker came up with the idea of printing I Hate Elvis badges to fuel moral outrage at those liquid hips and give the teens an outsider idol to worship.

Parker was quick to exploit opportunities too. When he found out that a young man called Joe Shane was flogging 1,500 unlicensed ‘Aloha from Hawaii’ T-shirts a day to members of the public via magazine ads (and was about to close a deal with department store JC Penney to further increase sales), he contacted Shane and demanded a 25 per cent cut of the retail price. The men met and an impressed Parker gave Shane the exclusive worldwide merchandise rights to the Presley name. He brought him into the machine.

On Presley’s death in 1977, Parker reportedly went straight to New York to meet with merchandise companies and RCS representatives to prepare for the tsunami of demand that would surely follow. At Presley’s funeral, he persuaded his father to sign over his career in death to him. The deal gave Parker a majority shareholding in a new company, with the singer himself owning less than a quarter of what was effectively his own legacy.

The Elvis merchandise industry is alive and well today, as anyone who has been to Graceland will attest. On the website, you can buy an Elvis-themed ukulele for $127.99 and a jumpsuit costume for £1,500. The Colonel’s legacy lives on.

A novelty credit card launched by the Bank of Scotland in 1998 Credit: PA

The Jerry Lee Lewis lesson

Parker’s control over Presley extended to his personal relationships. The singer had met Priscilla Ann Beaulieu whilst stationed in Germany. The 16-year-old daughter of an American air force captain, she had left the entertainer smitten. In 1963 Beaulieu moved to Memphis to be closer to her boyfriend, who was 12 years her senior. Presley kept her presence a secret from the outside world.

Parker had seen the negative impact on Jerry Lee Lewis’s career when it was discovered that he’d married his first cousin once removed aged 22 when she was just 13. He was determined such scandal wouldn’t engulf Presley, not least because his movie contracts with studios contained morality clauses. So he urged his charge to marry Priscilla. Parker was also aware that Presley had a wandering eye, and he thought that getting him to settle down would lead to a steadier life. The couple married on 1 May 1967 in Las Vegas. According to Nash, Parker arranged every detail as if it was his own wedding. They divorced in October 1973 having had a daughter, Lisa Marie.

Parker also held sway over Presley’s touring schedule, affectively preventing him from ever playing concerts outside the US. With a global profile as big as Presley’s, he could have swept up on the overseas touring circuit. The reason he didn’t shows just how nefarious Parker’s motives could be: he was an illegal Dutch immigrant who feared that he’d never be able to re-enter the US if he left. 

Parker – whose real name was Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk – used every excuse in the book. He claimed that foreign security was weak and his star wouldn’t be adequately protected. He also argued that international venues weren’t suited to a performer of Presley’s magnitude. But the truth was more self-serving.

Just prior to Presley’s 1977 death it seemed as though things might change. Parker held talks with Led Zeppelin’s bulldog manager Peter Grant to ask him if he could put together a European tour for Presley. Knowing Grant’s track record of securing megabucks touring deals for Zeppelin, it would have been a vast and lucrative tour. But it never happened.

Presley with his wife Priscilla on their wedding day in 1967 Credit: Getty

Taking care of business – even in death

Parker saw it as his mission to make as much money as he could from Presley. As well as his 25 per cent management fee from all the formal contracts that the singer signed, Parker had a separate “special partnership arrangement” with Presley, giving him a share of any bonus payments that came his way. He also made sure he sweated every possible asset of Presley’s.

When Presley’s career dipped in 1966 and 1967, he arranged for the singer’s gold Cadillac to go on tour. It was also at around this time that Parker negotiated for his management fee to rise from 25 per cent to 50 per cent in some instances. Parker constantly argued that Presley was his only client and he therefore had to take such a high cut. A deal signed by Parker with the International Hotel in Vegas guaranteed that Presley would play for four weeks at £125,000 a week. When merchandise sales were added to Parker’s 50-50 cut of this nice little earner, the manager was earning more than his artist.

Following Presley’s death – and with his estate requiring huge amounts of money to keep functioning – a judge ordered an attorney to investigate Parker’s oversight of Presley’s business affairs since the beginning. It was found that Parker’s 1973 sale of Presley’s royalties to RCA was “unethical”. In 1981, the judge who’d ordered the probe ordered Elvis Presley Enterprises, the company that managed his estate, to sue Parker. He countersued and the case was settled out of court. It was an undignified ending to an extraordinary relationship.

“Without me, there would be no Elvis Presley,” says Hanks in the film. “And yet there are some who’d make me out to be the villain [and] a liar.” Colonel Tom Parker. Maverick or mercenary? Clever, or a crook? You decide.