NASHVILLE SKYLINE: The Carny and the King

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

The man who called himself Colonel Tom Parker will go down in history as one of the biggest flim-flam men of all time. The man who made Elvis Presley a household name also transformed himself from an illegal alien with a shadowy, perhaps murderous past into one of the best-known managers and manipulators ever in show business.

Glimpses of his mysterious past and his secretive dealings have emerged in dribs and drabs over the years, but the most thorough story to date about “Colonel Tom” is recounted in the new book The Colonel: The Extraordinary Story of Colonel Tom Parker and Elvis Presley (Simon & Schuster). Author Alanna Nash spent years unearthing details about Parker’s past and his dealings with and on behalf of Presley.

He was born Andreas van Kuijk in Breda, Holland in 1909. He went to work for circuses and carnivals as a child. He disappeared in May of 1929, leaving all his possessions behind. He would soon pop up in America as an illegal alien — a carny worker known as Tom Parker. Another event happened in Breda in May of 1929. A young woman that Andreas van Kuijk knew was murdered. Nash presents an extensive circumstantial case pointing to him as the murderer.

Parker jumped from the carny world into country music by an unlikely liaison with Roy Acuff. Parker’s show business life was waning as World War II loomed and he got a job as dogcatcher in Tampa. He was hosting fundraisers for the Humane Society and had heard that hillbilly singers were a big draw. He booked Roy Acuff and Minnie Pearl into Tampa and — seeing the great audience response — tried to become Acuff’s manager. Acuff refused but allowed Parker to book dates he still had open and to market his new Roy Acuff Flour in Florida. Acuff also gave Parker a word of advice: he should try to sign on as manager for the young, up-and-coming singer Eddy Arnold. Parker meanwhile began traveling more and more to Nashville and was booking Ernest Tubb dates, even doing comedy routines during Tubb’s shows.

He also signed on as advance man for a WSM Radio tour featuring Opry stars Jamup and Honey, Uncle Dave Macon, Minnie Pearl and Arnold. He finally convinced Arnold to name him his manager in 1945. Parker took 25 percent of Arnold’s income and Arnold was expected to cover all expenses. During that time, Parker got an aide to Louisiana Gov. Jimmie Davis to have him made an “official” Louisiana Colonel and began insisting that he be addressed as “Colonel.”

Arnold fired Parker when he learned that Parker — supposed to be representing him exclusively — had been working with country singer Hank Snow on the side. It was later as Snow’s representative that Parker got his hands on Elvis. As an agent for Hank Snow Attractions, Parker went to see Gladys Presley to sign her son to a management deal with Snow’s company. Snow had already persuaded her to do so. But Parker carried two contracts with him and the one he got Gladys to sign bound Elvis over to Parker as “sole and exclusive Advisor, Personal Representative and Manager in any and all fields of public and private entertainment.”

Parker’s early years with Elvis — 1955-58 or so — were a rollercoaster to the top, and there’s little doubt that Parker was pivotal in that leap to superstardom. Then Elvis was drafted and went into the Army. It was the career after Elvis returned from the Army that became a circus of highs and lows. You know the outline: Parker takes 50 percent (plus outside charges and fees and secret deals) of Elvis’ income as manager. Elvis wastes his talent in Vegas shows and mindless movies, finally becoming a drugged-out caricature of himself. He never toured outside the U.S. because Parker knew that without papers he (Parker) could never re-enter the country. That was one reason he convinced Elvis to get the IRS to calculate his tax return every year — as did Parker — to try to evade government scrutiny. “I love to pay taxes,” Parker said. “I know when I’m paying taxes I’m making money.” Even when he could have sought U.S. citizenship — after serving in the U.S. military and forfeiting his Dutch citizenship — Parker did not do so.

Parker had — and still has — his defenders, who claim that Presley likely would never have achieved his massive fame and success without Parker’s unrelenting drive. Parker — perhaps unwittingly — forged some of the hallmarks of celebrity management: no interviews, money up front, total media control, spin, building an audience region by region, clever use of advance forces to build audience interest, and massive concert merchandising.

Parker, who claimed he knew of no drug use by Elvis, flew not to Memphis when he heard about Elvis’ death in 1977, but to New York City. To work on Elvis product deals. He finally showed up at Elvis’ funeral, wearing a Hawaiian shirt and baseball cap, and never once looked at the casket.

Elvis’ father, Vernon Presley, believed that Elvis had been murdered, says Nash, either by Parker or by a member of the entourage. (Parker later produced an agreement, purportedly signed by Vernon, authorizing Parker to continue as manager even in Elvis’ death.) At the time of Elvis’ death, Elvis had been looking to find another manager and felt saddled by Parker’s massive gambling debts. Vernon, who sought a private autopsy and investigation of the death, died in 1979 without ever saying anything publicly, one way or the other, about his suspicions.

Parker continued making his money off Elvis for many years after Elvis’ death. When the threads began to come off his deals and RCA Records sued him in 1982, he finally revealed in court who he was, saying, “… the Court lacks jurisdiction … since I am not a citizen of the United States or any foreign country.”

Nash quotes Parker as telling Variety, “Yes, I am a man without a country.” That’s the way he died, old and sick in 1997. Of the estimated $100 million he had made from Elvis, he left less than $1 million in memorabilia, savings bonds and securities. The rest he had gambled away.