COL. TOM PARKER LIKED TO BRAG about his old carny days when he’d hide a $2 hot plate in a chicken cage, stick in the plug and charge customers to see his incredible dancing birds. “If he wanted them to dance faster,” says an old pal, actor George Hamilton, “he would turn up the heat.”
During the 22 years that Parker served as shot caller and dealmaker for Elvis Presley, he also liked to keep the heat on those with whom he bargained. On Jan. 21, when he died at 87 in Las Vegas of complications from a stroke he had suffered the day before, Presley’s lifelong manager seemed, in some ways, to have become a show business legend himself. “He was a shaman and promoter right up there with P.T. Barnum,” says D. Beecher Smith II, one of Presley’s Memphis lawyers who helped handle his estate. “When he was working for Elvis, he could negotiate the gold out of people’s teeth.”
Famous for his flamboyantly bad taste (evident in the Hawaiian shirt he wore to Presley’s 1977 funeral and the cheesy Elvis trinkets he sold by the truckload), Parker was “also a real genius, a true American original,” says Peter Guralnick, author of the acclaimed 1994 biography Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley. While Parker tried to shroud his past in myth, it is believed he was born Andreas van Kuijk in Holland in 1909, that he entered the U.S. illegally around 1930, joined a traveling carnival called the Great Parker Pony Circus and eventually settled in Tampa. Turning his barker’s skills to promoting country music acts on tour in Florida, the Colonel—the title was an honorarium given him in 1948 by Louisiana Gov. Jimmie Davis, an ex-country singer he knew from his carny days—managed singers Eddy Arnold and Hank Snow before meeting Elvis in 1955. Then 20, acned and unknown, Presley signed up after extolling the Colonel’s virtues to his parents. Parker promptly moved the sideburned Memphis rocker from Sun Records, which had pressed his first singles, to RCA, engineered three star-making TV appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show and, before long, began mapping his way to Hollywood. “Early on,” Guralnick says, “the Colonel had a vision of success on a national scale that was shared by virtually no one else.”
Yet while he brokered deals that would earn Presley $35 million by 1964, Parker’s contracts steered up to 50 percent of his star’s income into his own pockets. And for all his business savvy, he made some colossal blunders, especially in 1973, when he bargained off the rights to Presley’s priceless music catalog for a paltry $5 million. He also encouraged Elvis to appear in a string of mindless, pretty-boy rock movies, such as It Happened at the World’s Fair and Paradise, Hawaiian Style, that both enriched and embarrassed the star. At the same time he toned down Presley’s rebellious image and rocking sound, encouraging him to record only made-for-the-movies music.
In 1981, Parker, a notorious big-chips gambler (who reportedly lost millions at the Las Vegas gaming tables over the years), was accused by the court-appointed guardian of Presley’s daughter Lisa Marie of enriching himself at the singer’s expense. Although a Memphis court stripped him of any legal rights to the Presley estate, Parker subsequently patched up his differences with Lisa Marie and her mother, Priscilla Presley, who attended his 85th-birth-day bash in 1994. Left a widower by the 1980 death of his first wife, Marie, Parker married a former RCA secretary, Loanne, now 61, and retired to the elegant, gated Spanish Oaks area of Las Vegas. “It’s very sad to me,” George Hamilton said after the man who engineered Elvis’s rise was laid to rest last week. “It’s the end of an amazing era.”
MARIA SPEIDEL in New York City and TOM CUNNEFF in Los Angeles