Elvis and the Colonel: An Insider's Look at the Most Legendary Partnership in Show Business
By Greg McDonald and Marshall Terrill
St. Martin's Press; hardcover, 384 pages; $32.00; available today, Tuesday, November 28th
Greg McDonald is an entertainment producer who got his start in show business with Colonel Tom Parker, and they knew each other for almost four decades. As a teenager, McDonald drove the Colonel around Los Angeles when his top client, Elvis Presley, was making movies in Hollywood, spent time with him when Elvis began his residency in Las Vegas, traveled with him when Elvis hit the road when he started touring again, and worked with Parker at his home office in Palm Springs, California.
McDonald went on to manage Ricky Nelson for seventeen years, ran Sonny Bono's mayoral and congressional campaigns, and was president of Transcontinental Records, which had the Backstreet Boys, NSYNC, and O'Town. To this day, McDonald manages Colonel Tom Parker's show business assets, including his name, likeness, and image.
The new book, Elvis and the Colonel: An Insider's Look at the Most Legendary Partnership in Show Business, is McDonald's attempt to set the record straight on Colonel Parker, a largely misunderstood figure in Elvis' life. This is a contrarian and corrective view on a man who was truly a trailblazer who had a long, strong, warm and complex relationship with Elvis.
The imagined lore is that Parker took advantage of "poor country boy" Elvis to sign the singer who became "The King." A lot of this, McDonald contends, comes from a lack of knowledge of their business and personal relationship. These are never-before-hears stories of Parker's collaboration with Elvis that reveal the man behind the legend and the strategies that made Elvis a commercial groundbreaker. Parker had such a lasting impact on the music industry that many of the practices he established are still used today.
A lot of this book is devoted to the real life story of Colonel Tom Parker, which gets lost in the image of a balding, rotund man with steely eyes and a knowing grin, who was always outfitted in a blazer, buttoned-down shirt, and porkpie hat.
Andreas Cornelius van Kuijk was born on June 26, 1909, in Breda, Holland, a small, bustling seaport village near the North Sea, in the southern region, and his parents were hardworking people who struggled to make a living and feed their nine children.
From an early age, Andreas was captivated by the circus, as he liked clowns and acrobats, but what won him over was the animals, especially elephants. Eventually, he would go by himself and volunteer, lending a hand with chores with the animals. More than anything, he discovered a love of show business, and he soon began creating tents out of newspapers and charging neighborhood children the equivalent of a penny to witness his "backyard circus." There were songs, acrobatics, and a special show with trained beetles, a goat, and a crow named Blackie.
When Andreas found his way to the United States, he jumped a train in Huntington, West Virginia, and he was looking for work and came across a small carnival. He was fascinated by American horses because they were much smaller than what he was used to back in Holland. He introduced himself to the owners of Parker Pony Rides and told them about his experiences handling animals, and he was hired on the spot.
Eventually, he was traveling the country with the Parkers, traveling from city to city in the South, setting up small concessions in any location they could find, including self-service grocery stores, which were ideal locations since parents took their children with them while they shopped.
The Parkers took a liking to the hardworking and personable Andreas and decided to adopt him. When they went to a courthouse in the small Georgia town where they were working, they filled out the necessary paperwork.
Thomas Andrew Parker was his new name, which he thought fitting since this was his new life in a new country. He chose his first name after his distant cousin, the clown, and his middle name is the Amrricanized version of his given first name, plus the surname of his new parents.
When the United States was involved in World War II in the early 1940s, Americans were stuck home listening to war news on the radio and trying to figure out how to survive with little gasoline, meat, coal for heat, and other necessities.
There was virtually no entertainment, which is where Tom Parker entered the picture. In 1943, he left the Hillsborough County Humane Society and became the road manager for Pee Wee King, a songwriter, bandleader, and country recording artist. Parker also managed Gene Austin and Eddy Arnold, and booked personal appearances for Ernest Tubb. While he liked working with famous people, he realized he did promotion really well. The marketing concept he developed in his carnival days translated very well to promoting country stars. As he did with circuses, he would travel ahead of the show, arranging publicity, hanging posters, and setting up ticket sales.
It would be a decade before he would see Elvis Presley perform for the first time in concert, on November 24, 1954, at the Municipal Auditorium in Texarkana, Texas. Elvis was nineteen years old, and was becoming a sensation in the Deep South after Sun Records released "That's All Right," "Good Rockin' Tonight," and "Milkcow Blues Boogie."
Parker saw that Elvis was a singular performer, as his music was being played on Memphis stations that catered to rhythm and blues and rock 'n' roll, basically music meant for them, not their parents. He knew that Elvis, who was managed at that time by Memphis disc jockey Rob Neal, was about to break out of his Deep South base and could be an international phenomenon with the right push and a little time. Neal saw that Parker could be the one to take Elvis to the top, and Elvis saw a businessman who knew what he was doing.
McDonald writes in this excerpt, "What history and countless other books on Elvis Presley don't tell you is that Colonel Parker was the first mega-manager who made forays into today's multimedia world of music, film, television, publishing, and Las Vegas-style entertainment. Parker, along with his once-in-a-millennium star, Elvis Presley, blazed many paths in the span of two decades. Elvis (the artist) and Parker (the enigmatic manager that made it happen behind the scenes) were the greatest pairing in entertainment history.
Though the Colonel may have appeared to many to be shrewd, flamboyant, crass, and brash, in actuality, he was fair-minded, loyal, funny, a twenty-four seven workhorse, a man whose word was his bond, and even philanthropic in private. Many of Presley's artistic endeavors had a charitable aspect to them thanks to Colonel Parker's prompting. The two men provided major support - through financial contributions and raising awareness - for several charities throughout their two decades of success, including the USS Arizona Memorial in Hawaii, March of Dimes, the Salvation Army, St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, and the Kui Lee Cancer Fund. Colonel Parker was also a lifelong animal lover and even once worked for the Humane Society in Tampa, Florida.
Colonel Parker was sure to give fans, concert promoters, and business clients their full value while at the same time leaving them wanting more. Conversely, he got his client the best possible deals for the maximum amount of money. He was getting Elvis nearly $1 million a movie and 50 percent of the box office net when the biggest stars in Hollywood might have gotten 10 percent at most. Colonel Parker got those extraordinary deals because of his savvy and smarts. He was also strategic and Zen-like in his feats: getting his client the maximum deal while saving enough gravy for those who sat across the bargaining table from him.
Others wanted his services too: the Beatles. Frank Sinatra. George Hamilton. Ann-Margret. Tony Orlando. Tanya Tucker. They all wanted Colonel Parker to manage them. I remember when one of the Beatles (I believe it was Paul McCartney) called the Colonel at his Palm Springs home shortly after the death of Beatles manager Brian Epstein in late August 1967. He took the call, excusing himself to another room. After he got off the phone, he said he couldn't take them on because of his loyalty to Elvis. It was a testament to his greatness as a manager that the Beatles wanted him. The fact that he turned them down was a testament to his belief in his client.
All business dealings were done with military-like precision and secrecy. Parker kept his mouth shut for several reasons. What he concealed was far more astounding and complex than has ever been revealed. Although an uneducated Dutch farm boy who grew up in a modest apartment above horse stables, he had an innate knack for creating a spectacle and weaving the public's heart and soul into it. The Nashville music scene, Hollywood, and Las Vegas were not going to be a match for him.
Before he got to the top, Colonel Parker rode the rails as a hobo, sailed around the world in the merchant marine, served four years in the United States Army, and spent a decade as a traveling carny perfecting his act. He understood human behavior and learned how to squeeze a nickel out of all of it, making him the perfect power behind the entertainment throne."