He should have been the richest entertainer of all time. He was, after all, the only performer who had ever generated more than a billion dollars in earnings from his concerts, tours, films, recordings, promotions and franchises. But Elvis Presley’s net worth at his death in August 1977 was put at a relatively paltry $10 million. That is why on December 10 attorney Blanchard E. Tual will charge in a Shelby County probate court that Presley’s longtime manager and friend, Col. Tom Parker, unconscionably drained off more than half of the King’s earnings during his lifetime. A 300-page report prepared for the hearing argues that since Elvis’ death Parker has “violated his duty both to Elvis and to the estate” by charging commissions that were “excessive, imprudent…and beyond all reasonable bounds of industry standards.”
The trouble began last May, when the executors of Elvis’ will—including his ex-wife, Priscilla—asked Memphis Probate Judge Joseph W. Evans to approve an arrangement that would reportedly have guaranteed Parker half of all the estate’s annual income (some $1.2 million last year). They revealed at that time that Parker’s share of Presley’s earnings had been roughly that large while Elvis was alive. Attorney Tual, appointed by the court to protect the interests of Presley’s sole beneficiary, his 12-year-old daughter Lisa Marie, then began an investigation of the deal and concluded that Parker’s cut was indefensible. “A 50 percent fee was exorbitant,” the report states. “It raises the question of whether Parker has been guilty of self-dealing, of a breach of the fiduciary relationship owed to Elvis.” (Most showbiz managers today earn between 10 and 25 percent.)
In Tual’s view, Colonel Parker—whose previous clients included Hank Snow and Eddy Arnold—was a shortsighted negotiator for Elvis and a most determined advocate for himself. As a case in point, the report cites the seven-year contract Parker negotiated with RCA Records for Elvis in 1973. It called for a flat-rate royalty of 50 cents per record sold, which meant that, as record prices rose, Elvis’ royalty percentage would fall. Tual also maintains that the price Parker negotiated with RCA for Elvis’ master recordings ($5.4 million) was a fraction of their worth. Parker’s company, All Star Shows, split the proceeds of both deals with Presley 50-50, but when it came to merchandising Presleyana, the star got an even smaller cut. Parker held 40 percent of the stock in Boxcar Enterprises, the holding company for merchandising rights; Elvis owned 15 percent. Before August 16, 1977 Parker’s share in Boxcar increased to 56 percent, with 22 percent going to the estate. Notes Tual’s report: “It has not been explained why, since Elvis was the star and totally responsible for the merchandising rights, he had such an incredibly small percentage of Boxcar.” The document does, however, suggest one reason: “Elvis was naive, shy and unassertive. Parker was aggressive, shrewd and tough. His strong personality dominated Elvis, his father and all others in Elvis’ entourage.”
Tual contends that Elvis lost millions because of Parker’s lack of business savvy (including his failure to organize Presley’s finances in such a way as to minimize his taxes) and that Parker received lavish gifts from recording and franchising companies with which he struck agreements. Elvis, of course, was free to sign whatever deal he wished with Parker—and Parker was free to take whatever he could get from his client; the rule of law, as of life, is caveat emptor. Tual’s purpose is simply to convince the court that Elvis’ estate and its heir, Lisa Marie, are not served by continuing the deal with Parker—and that Parker should be forced to repay whatever he has earned from the Presley business since Elvis’ death. Parker, 70, who is said by friends to be recovering from an arm fracture, has refused all comment on the Tual report. But those who know him expect that, come his day in Evans’ court, the reclusive colonel will put forth a fiery self-defense.