Tampa’s “Colonel” Tom Parker made Elvis Presley the greatest pop star of all time. But did he ruin him as an artist?
By Bob Kealing
All eyes were on Elvis Presley as he strode into a press conference at the International Hotel in Las Vegas on Aug. 1, 1969. Few noticed “Colonel” Tom Parker, the star’s ubiquitous 60-year-old manager, who stood to the side as Presley took a seat at the long table facing a room full of reporters and photographers. Presley, 34, radiated confidence and ambition. Thick, dark sideburns framed his handsome, chiseled face. He was in shape and fired up to perform live once again.
Presley, who had galvanized young Americans and scandalized their parents with his sexy gyrations and genre-bending music in 1956 and 1957, had lost steam after a stint overseas in the Army and a decade-long slog of acting and singing in forgettable, albeit lucrative films. But a few months earlier, on Dec. 3, 1968, he had topped the weekly ratings with NBC’s “Singer Presents … Elvis,” more commonly known as his Comeback Special. Presley’s slick, choreographed performances on the show had reaped rapturous reviews. Riding that momentum, Presley recorded “Suspicious Minds,” which shot to the top of the charts, becoming his 18th No. 1 single in America.
At the Las Vegas press conference, he promised reporters he wasn’t giving up acting. “I’m going after more serious material,” he vowed. “And I would like to perform all over the world.”
Wearing a garish white suit plastered with the words, “Elvis International in Person,” Colonel Parker, the balding, portly yin to Presley’s slim dashing yang, nodded and grinned.
A Colonel? Hardly. The former Tampa carnival worker, dog catcher and promoter was an illegal immigrant and Army deserter who had been jailed in one of the Sunshine State’s darkest corners and discharged with serious psychiatric issues. Since then, he had ascended to the highest heights of the music business, riding the coattails of its biggest star.
But much of his ascent was built on artifice and downright lies. In those days before inescapable internet exposure, Tom Parker was a man of well-kept secrets.
And his biggest secret was about to be threatened with discovery. At the press conference, someone made an unexpected offer: “Mr. Presley, I’ve been sent here by Lord Sutch Enterprises to offer you 1 million pounds to make two appearances at Wembley Stadium in England.”
Pointing to Parker, Presley replied, “You’ll have to ask him about that.”
Parker piped up: “Just put down the deposit!”
But despite his cheery retort, Parker sensed danger in the suggestion. Performing in England might rejuvenate Elvis, but applying for a passport could destroy Parker, revealing his masquerade as a legal United States citizen. He had no intention of taking that risk, nor would he allow the star he had so carefully molded to start exercising his independence and choosing what his next career steps should be.
Presley would never realize his dreams of performing worldwide, acting in more serious films and seeing his career reach new heights. He never performed anywhere outside the United States and turned down a fantastic opportunity to star opposite Barbara Streisand in the 1975 film remake of “A Star is Born.”
Eight years after the Vegas press conference, the hopeful, sculpted icon had devolved into a bloated, reclusive and drug-addled caricature of his former self, suffering a fatal heart attack in the master bathroom of his Graceland mansion.
Dressed in a Hawaiian shirt and baseball hat and chomping on a cigar, Parker attended the funeral, staying long enough to persuade Presley’s father, Vernon, to give him control of his son’s estate and posthumous earnings.
In an interview for this story, Steve Binder, the director of Presley’s legendary 1968 TV special, offered a blunt explanation for why Presley’s life and career came off the rails: “Elvis made a pact with the devil, and he didn’t know how to get out of it.” Binder, who spent weeks dealing with Presley’s bombastic and bullying manager while making the special, reiterated his disdain. “Parker was just a con artist, that’s all he was,” he said.
Yet there’s no denying that Parker’s shrewd dealings and indefatigable work catapulted the shy, unknown young Elvis to worldwide stardom and made them both a fortune.
The complex, confounding and, some would say, poisonous bond between Presley and Parker is still the subject of debate, so much so that in June, Warner Brothers released “Elvis” a major film on the partnership between the two, starring Tom Hanks as Parker.
Known for playing good guys like Mister Rogers, Hanks, a two-time Oscar-winner, acknowledged in an interview with Steven Colbert that Parker would be his first role as a villain. But he noted that Parker was more than that. “He was both a genius and a scoundrel,” Hanks said.
Thomas Andrew Parker was born Andreas van Kuijk on June 26, 1909, the seventh child of a Dutch delivery driver and his wife. After working as a carnival barker in his youth, he came to the United States in the 1920s as an undocumented stowaway.
Parker never owned a U.S. passport, never became a citizen and made whatever moves necessary to avoid detection as an illegal immigrant. He gave himself the name Thomas Andrew Parker and claimed his birthplace was Huntington, West Virginia. Parker never traveled abroad. His fear of being exposed explains why he refused to book Presley to perform in places like Europe and Japan, where he was wildly popular and could have made millions.
With so much hidden baggage in tow, Parker still managed to talk his way into the U.S Army. His Florida story begins on Oct. 24, 1931, with an assignment at Fort Barrancas, a scenic encampment built into a bluff overlooking Pensacola Bay.
For the first year, Parker carried out his duties well, earning a promotion to Private First Class. But on Sept. 27, 1932, without leave, Tom Parker left his post for points unknown.
No proof of his destination exists, but the night Parker went AWOL, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, boasting dozens of horses, clowns and elephants, passed through Pensacola. Given Parker’s background in carnival sideshows, this exciting, one-night-only attraction may have proved irresistible. Traveling shows were full of people like Parker, looking for adventure and running from their past. They protected their own and rarely asked questions.
After being absent for five months, Parker returned to Fort Barrancas on Feb. 17, 1933. As punishment for desertion, Parker’s commanding officer ordered him held in solitary confinement for 60 days in the guardhouse jail. Parker emerged from two months incarcerated alone in the dark and foreboding amber-brick hillside fortress in visible distress.
The base doctor suspected he had suffered a psychotic breakdown and was schizophrenic. When his condition had not improved after two months of observation, Parker was shipped to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
In August 1933, the Army gave up on Private Thomas Andrew Parker and issued him an honorable disability discharge based on his, “Psychosis, Psychogenic Depression, acute, on the basis of Constitutional Psychopathic State, Emotional Instability.”
At the age of 24, the man who one day would be known as “Colonel” Tom Parker, one of the most powerful figures in the entertainment world, was clinically diagnosed as a psychopath. With a final Army paycheck in his pocket, Parker was released to rejoin society.
Parker drifted back to Florida and began to rebuild. He made a home in Tampa, where many carnival and circus sideshows encamped for the winter. He joined the carny subculture, working concessions and animal shows and observing the well-dressed, front-office men who managed the shows and the money through any means necessary. In those days, carnivals, with their mix of family fun and lurid sideshows that offered titillating views of “freaks” and half-naked women, were enormously popular, and the frontmen knew how to squeeze every penny out of the fans they called “marks.” Bombastic hyperbole and outright deception were the lifeblood of the shows. Their managers may have been shady characters, but they were also brilliant showmen who understood human nature. From them, Parker learned many of the techniques he would use to promote and manage Presley.
In February 1935, Parker caught the eye of an attractive woman running a cigar stand at the Florida State Fairgrounds. Twenty-seven-year-old Marie Mott was the divorced mother of a young son, 10-year-old Robert.
“She had a coarse, dominant quality about her,” Parker’s longtime associate Byron Raphael told biographer Alanna Miles. “And that apparently attracted him.” From a practical standpoint, being married with a stepson could help Parker, should any entanglements over his immigration status arise.
According to Miles, the two were kindred spirits. Marie, a compulsive shoplifter, wore suggestive outfits to draw customers to Parker’s “gal shows” on the midway. Parker ran confidence games, like the so-called, “Bible scam.” He would scan newspaper obituaries for the names of new widows, show up at their homes in respectable attire with an inscribed Bible that he would say their dearly departed husbands had ordered. Grieving widows often forked over final payment, making Parker a handsome profit.
In the shadowland they occupied, a former associate told Miles that Parker followed the carny ethos: “In the real workaday world, you either conned or got conned. It’s as simple as that.”
Researchers have found no record of when or where where Parker and Marie were married. Nor was there a marriage license, perhaps because of Parker’s paranoia about what it took to obtain such legal documents. After all, what did it matter to a couple living among carnies, con men and drifters?
Parker’s trajectory towards respectability began in the fall of 1940. He heard about an opening for a field agent at the Hillsborough County Humane Society. Parker, who operated pony rides and felt at home among animals, got the job. Inside Humane Society headquarters at 3607 North Armenia Avenue in West Tampa, Parker, Marie and young Robert lived rent-free in a furnished, second-floor apartment, a major perk of his new job.
Parker plied his carny acumen to separate people from their money by establishing the first pet cemetery on humane society grounds. He would pay $15 for Fido’s tombstone, then charge the bereaved family $50. A deluxe funeral package could reach $100.
Now 31, Parker was about to embark on a side gig that would lead him down the road to riches.
In 1941, Parker used his promotional skills to stage a hillbilly music concert. He rented out the cavernous Homer Hesterly National Guard Armory on Howard Avenue for a show featuring Grand Ole Opry star Roy Acuff and an up-and-coming comedian, Minnie Pearl, known for her cornpone straw hat and signature greeting, “Howdee!” With the promise of a portion of proceeds going to the Humane Society, a small portion to be sure, Parker convinced a grocery-store chain to sell tickets at a discount. The store paid for a newspaper ad, and cashiers sold discounted show tickets at multiple Tampa-area locations.
“Every cashier in a three-county area was working what amounted to a box office,” Pearl says in Miles’ book. “The man was thinking even then.” The Hesterly show was a rousing success. Parker took on partners and started promoting more shows.
He decided to visit Nashville and approached a young crooner named Eddy Arnold about becoming his manager. “Seemed like he knew what he was talking about,” Arnold remembered. “And I was a hungry boy.” Arnold agreed to Parker becoming his manager and taking 25 percent commission for his services.
In the fall of 1944, Parker booked Arnold for two weeks of Florida theater dates. According to Miles, the young singer was impressed with Parker’s indefatigable zeal: “He was a ball of fire, he worked hard, he got up early, and he was a non-drinker.” He also booked Arnold in package shows across the South featuring other artists, including Ernest Tubb, who distrusted Parker and kept him at a distance.
In 1948, Parker reached another milestone in his reinvention. With a penchant for exaggerating his credentials, he had sometimes called himself “Doctor.” Now, as a reward for helping a former carny buddy get Jimmie Davis elected Governor of Louisiana, Parker was awarded the honorary title of “Colonel” in the Louisiana State Militia. From that point, the former army deserter insisted on being addressed as “Colonel” Tom Parker.
Parker’s deal to represent only Eddie Arnold flourished until 1953 when Arnold found out Parker had been booking other acts, like Hank Snow, on the side and fired him. The “Colonel” was humiliated and for a time, looked outside the music business for new opportunities.
By the summer of 1955, Parker was back in the music game and booked Snow on a Grand Ole Opry package tour of Florida with Faron Young and Slim Whitman. He hired a Jacksonville schoolteacher and aspiring songwriter named Mae Axton to help promote the concerts. Parker got wind of a buzz developing about one of the new performers touring Florida, a young singer from Memphis named Elvis Presley. Presley had a terrific voice and evoked a raw sexuality heretofore unseen in conservative country package shows. Parker was at the baseball stadium in Jacksonville on May 13, 1955, when Presley announced to his screaming audience: “Girls, I’ll see you backstage.” Female fans chased Presley down to his dugout dressing room, mobbed the young singer and tore off his shirt. Parker witnessed it all. From that point, Axton recounted, she could see the “dollar marks” in Parker’s eyes.
Since Presley was not yet 21, Parker made getting in his parents’ good graces top priority. Elvis was devoted to his parents, particularly his mother, Gladys, and Parker paid to bring them to a show in Daytona Beach and made sure they knew he had bought their son a fancy new suit in which to perform. When Parker found out Gladys was a big fan of Hank Snow, he arranged a personal meet-and-greet. Although Vernon Presley was impressed with Parker and believed he had his son’s best interests at heart, Elvis told friends that Gladys never fully trusted the promoter.
Parker convinced Presley he would never be a national star given the limited distribution of his singles. He made an audacious move by challenging Memphis-based Sun Records impresario Sam Phillips, who owned Elvis’s contract, to “name his price” to sell the contract to a major recording studio. Phillips, the man who discovered Presley, Howlin’ Wolf, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis, shot him a number he thought Parker could never meet: $35,000, an astronomical amount for a relatively unknown singer’s contract.
With an evangelist’s zeal, Parker convinced executives at RCA records to sign on. On Nov. 21, 1955, Parker strong-armed Elvis Presley’s contract away from Phillips and Sun Records.
By January, Parker had arranged for Presley to appear on the Dorsey Brothers’ “Stage Show,” televised nationally on CBS. That same month, Presley recorded his first LP for RCA. One of the songs, “Heartbreak Hotel,” written by Mae Axton and Tommy Durden in Axton’s Jacksonville home, became a huge hit.
While “Heartbreak Hotel” was rocketing to No. 1, Parker finally grabbed the brass ring. On March 26, 1956, 21-year-old Elvis Presley signed a contract with Parker to be his, “sole and exclusive Advisor, Personal Representative, and Manager.” On May 5, 1956, Presley’s debut LP reached No. 1 on the Billboard charts. Parker had ensured he would get a big piece of the action.
Most contracts gave managers 10 to 15 percent. Parker took 25 percent. He told Presley’s first manager, guitarist Scotty Moore, and bassist Bill Black, that they would earn weekly salaries, nothing more. The two had been with Presley from the beginning. When they wanted to fatten their sound with drummer D.J. Fontana, Parker made the two pay Fontana out of their own cut. Although they would soon make nationally televised appearances with Presley on the Milton Berle, Steve Allen and Ed Sullivan shows, the two musicians struggled financially. At a low point, Moore had to hock his guitar to pay a divorce settlement.
In September 1957, Moore and Black resigned. Parker had succeeded in isolating the star from his band and gaining more control. By then, Presley had already made his first foray into acting in the film, “Love Me Tender.”
On Aug. 14, 1958, Presley’s beloved mother Gladys died. Soon after, Presley left the States for Germany, accompanied by his father Vernon, for a two-year stint in the Army. Parker stayed behind, tending to business, releasing singles and making sure young fans wouldn’t forget Elvis.
The following year, Vernon started dating Delores Stanley, a divorced mother of three. The two were married in 1960. Elvis took it as a betrayal and was never close to his father afterwards. With Gladys gone and Vernon out of the picture, Parker became the dominant adult figure in Presley’s life as well as the overlord of his career. He dictated all the financial deals, what Elvis would wear, how he would enter a town, where and when he would perform and the songs he would sing. Parker poured endless work into promoting Presley’s performances and films.
Parker also embraced something new for recording artists: merchandising deals that brought in millions from 80 different branded items, from charm bracelets to record players. He even figured out how to pry cash from people who disapproved of Elvis, selling buttons that proclaimed “Elvis is a Jerk” and “I Hate Elvis” along with the popular “I Love Elvis” pins.
In 1979, after Vernon died, a probate judge discovered Parker was receiving a staggering 50 percent of Presley’s posthumous earnings. An attorney appointed by the judge estimated that Parker had defrauded the estate of more than $7 million in just the three previous years. The investigation also uncovered a 1973 agreement giving RCA all rights to 700 Elvis songs. Parker received $7.2 million. Presley got $4.6 million. (Parker was sued by the estate in 1982, and an out-of-court settlement was reached.)
In fact, although the initial contract had given him 25 percent, Parker had renegotiated his contract to receive half even before Presley died. In 1968, when a reporter asked if it were true that he got 50 percent of everything Elvis earned, Parker blustered, “That’s not true at all. He takes 50 percent of everything I earn.”
From Parker’s standpoint, that made sense. After all, he had devoted himself to the career of his client—his only client, as he liked to point out. And the more Elvis retreated into drug addiction, the less attention he paid to his career and the more work fell on Parker’s shoulders.
Comedian Nipsey Russell acknowledged Parker’s success in making Elvis the King of Rock and Roll when he quipped, “Every entertainer should go to bed at night and pray he finds a Colonel Tom Parker under his bed when he wakes up in the morning.”
Yet there’s another side to the story. Parker helped make Presley rich and famous, but he never understood his protegee’s tremendous talent. The young Elvis was a true original, and not only because of his sexy, bad-boy charisma. His extraordinary voice, with a range so wide it’s been called “many voices in one person,” and his explosive performances fused a groundbreaking blend of musical influences—African American blues singers, R&B artists, the gospel choirs of his youth—into a new kind of music that was coming to be known as rock and roll.
At a time when Black artists languished outside the mainstream, he embraced their music and was outspoken about his admiration, telling a reporter, “They played it like that in their shanties and in their juke joints, and nobody paid it no mind’ til I goosed it up. I used to hear old [blues singer and guitarist] Arthur Crudup bang his box the way I do now, and I said if I ever got to a place I could feel all old Arthur felt, I’d be a music man like nobody ever saw.”
Parker had a tin ear and no interest in Presley’s artistic aspirations. A true carny, he saw his act as a product designed to separate the marks from their money. Indeed, he often referred to Elvis as “my attraction.”
And in his zeal for making lucrative side deals, he sometimes sacrificed his client’s long-term interests. For example, he would not allow Presley to record a song without getting publishing rights, nor would he permit songwriters to meet and work with Presley. Those missed creative opportunities and collaborations could have boosted Elvis to new artistic levels—and earned him and Parker even more.
On March 26, 1960, Presley was out of the Army and back in Florida to tape a Frank Sinatra TV special at the Fontainebleau Hotel on Miami Beach. To reach beyond a youthful audience, Parker had decided to tone down Presley’s image from a leather-clad jailhouse rocker to a middle-of-the-road, movie-star crooner. Parker directed Presley to wear a tuxedo and perform bland numbers like “Witchcraft” and “Stuck on You.” The performance foreshadowed much of the coming decade, when Parker’s film deals reaped a fortune but turned Elvis into a culturally irrelevant has-been and parody of his former self.
In 1968, director Steve Binder managed to get Presley’s career off life support with the comeback special. But that was the last flash of Elvis as an exciting artist. Binder never saw or spoke with Presley again. “I was an outcast,” he said. “The Colonel circled the wagons.”
Artists—even the greatest artists—grow and improve when they work with people who understand and nurture their gifts. The right mentor can help an artist find his or her unique voice. Legendary artist-mentor partnerships abound—novelist Thomas Wolfe and editor Max Perkins, The Beatles and manager Brian Epstein, Ray Charles and Atlantic Records producer Ahmet Ertegun. If the young Elvis Presley had a manager who appreciated and encouraged his powerful talent, he might have blazed a deeper and more lasting musical trail—and his life might have had a happier ending.
It was not in Parker’s nature to consider how his decisions damaged Presley artistically. As Presley muddled through the same-old, same-old tours in big cities and backwater towns, his prescription drug abuse spiraled out of control, but Parker never addressed that, either. His sole concern was keeping the money train rolling.
On Aug. 16, 1977, 42-year-old Elvis Presley died at Graceland, and the money train derailed. Thanks to recent poor business decisions by Parker, Presley’s estate was valued at only $7 million. Parker moved to Las Vegas, buying a mid-century modern pool home, where he lived with his former secretary, Loanne, whom he had married in 1990, four years after Marie died.
Parker died Jan. 26, 1997, at age 87. Until the end, money remained his obsession. He had a voracious appetite for games of chance, perhaps born among the rigged booths of dice and Kewpie dolls in the carnival sideshows, and he spent as many as 12 to 14 hours at a time placing large bets in the casinos, hobbling in with a cane in his final years. He had made an estimated $100 million from Presley’s career, surely the richest haul made by any carny in history, but the audacious imposter who gained worldwide renown as “Colonel” Tom Parker gambled most of it away.
Bob Kealing is the author of four books on Florida history and culture, including “Elvis ignited, The Rise of an Icon in Florida.” He is a six-time regional Emmy Award-winning journalist and two-time recipient of the Edward R. Murrow Award. In 2022-23, University Press of Florida will release his latest book, about the Beatles and 1964 Florida.
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