Book Excerpt: Elvis and the Colonel

Second of two parts

Editor’s Note: In this second except from the new Alanna Nash book, The Colonel: The Extraordinary Story of Colonel Tom Parker and Elvis Presley, Elvis is making mediocre movies in Hollywood, beginning to question the direction his career is taking and exploring the possibility of marriage to Priscilla Ann Beaulieu, the teenager he had romanced while serving in the U.S. Army in Germany. Drugs tempt Elvis, while the Colonel is seduced by gambling.

Trouble in the Kingdom:

The Colonel Tightens His Grip

It was during the 1964 making of “Roustabout” that Elvis met Larry Geller, who would become one of the most significant members of the Memphis Mafia and perhaps Presley’s purest friend.

A hairdresser in Jay Sebring’s tony salon, Geller first showed up at Presley’s home on Perugia Way in April ’64 at the invitation of entourage member Alan Fortas. Elvis had heard good things about his work, Fortas told him. Affable and expressive, Geller talked at length to Elvis about his dedication to spiritual studies and the metaphysical, which seemed to set the singer’s curiosity on fire.

“What you’re talking about,” Elvis said, hungry for discussion, “is what I secretly think about all the time. You don’t know what this means to me.” They talked of Elvis’s purpose in life, and the singer confessed he felt “chosen” but didn’t know why. “I’ve always felt this unseen hand guiding my life ever since I was a little boy,” he said. “Why was I plucked out of all of the millions of millions of lives to be Elvis?”

The next day, at Elvis’s request, Geller showed up at Paramount with a copy of “The Impersonal Life,” a book he thought would aid Presley in his quest. From then on, Elvis would read such books every day, dedicating himself to the study of Eastern religion and the spiritual path, with Larry as his personal teacher. Almost immediately, the entourage, as well as Parker and Priscilla, viewed Geller with suspicion, seeing him as a disruptive interloper who threatened the status quo.

Toward the end of 1964, however, Parker had much bigger things on his mind than bickering among the Elvis camp. That December, he signed a contract with United Artists for two pictures (“Frankie and Johnny” and “Clambake”) at $650,000 each. But more important, with the help of [talent agent] Abe Lastfogel, who said it couldn’t be done, he succeeded in completing a deal with MGM for the benchmark figure of $1 million.

Lastfogel thought Parker was crazy, bringing [Parker associate] Gabe Tucker in for some light banter to distract the studio lawyers, and insisting he wouldn’t do the deal unless MGM threw in the ashtray that lay on the conference room table. But in the end, he nailed down a deal for three pictures, the first commanding $1 million-$250,000 of which would be paid in $1,000 weekly installments over five years-and the next two drawing $750,000 each. Profit participation was set at 40 percent.

The Colonel couldn’t contain his glee. He’d finally gotten the best of them all-[film producer Hal] Wallis, [attorney Joseph] Hazen, Lastfogel, everyone. By sheer gall and snowmanship, Parker had succeeded in making Elvis the highest-paid actor in Hollywood, and his career total was even more impressive: since the beginning of their relationship, he’d brokered deals that had earned Presley $35 million. But to the Colonel’s great disappointment, Elvis didn’t seem particularly pleased about the new contract. In fact, since the May departure of Joe Esposito, the foreman of the entourage and the Colonel’s chief spy, Parker couldn’t even get his client on the phone.

Elvis had picked this time to show a rare spurt of independence. In early October, when he reported to Allied Artists to begin preproduction on “Tickle Me,” he told the Colonel and everyone on the set that it was important to him to be home in Memphis for Thanksgiving. As filming wore on and delays ensued, Elvis realized that the schedule would be tight, but still he kept quiet. Finally, he got his release on Tuesday, November 24, two days before Thanksgiving, with a caravan of cars and a Dodge mobile home yet to transport cross-country.

In late February, Presley went to Nashville to record the soundtrack for “Harum Scarum,” the first of the three MGM pictures, a Sam Katzman quickie with a plot that called for Elvis to wear a turban, be kidnapped by a gang of assassins, and perform with a Middle Eastern dancing troupe-a scenario that seemed to combine Rudolph Valentino’s “The Sheik” with the Hawaiian and gypsy stories Parker had suggested to Hal Wallis years before. The session, Presley’s first time in a recording studio in eight months, went poorly as the former rocker balked at singing such lyrics as “Come hear my desert serenade.” Parker, who had kept tabs on Elvis’s mounting dissatisfaction, began sending letters to Marty Lacker, the new Memphis Mafia foreman, stressing the importance of the “caravan superintendent,” as he called him, getting Elvis and company to the coast on time to begin filming.

Elvis, however, was in no hurry to report to California, preferring to spend time with Larry Geller in meditation and study. Weeks went by, and Parker’s continuous calls went unheeded. “Elvis is not ready to come back,” Marty reported, and it did no good for Parker to scream. He was beside himself with anxiety, the studio telephoning night and day and talking breach of contract. To duck their calls, he finally staged an elaborate ruse, having Marie phone Harry Jenkins, who in late 1963 replaced Bill Bullock at RCA in New York.

“My husband is deathly ill,” Marie whispered into the phone. “It’s a bad situation.” She’d just ordered a hospital bed for him, in fact, and she needed Jenkins to get the word to MGM and to Gabe Tucker, relaxing in Houston after months out on the road touring Elvis’s cars. Jenkins dutifully reported the grave news: “Gabe, Colonel is bad sick. Marie wants you to come out and take care of him.” Tucker, afraid that Parker had suffered another heart attack, caught the first plane, only to find the Colonel himself waiting to pick him up.

“G****** Colonel, you scared the hell out of me. Mr. Jenkins said you was in bad shape.”

“Well, I didn’t feel good yesterday.”

They went home, and Tucker knew there was something wrong after all. “He said, ‘Let’s sit out by the pool,’” and Parker told him the whole story. Secretly, the Colonel’s employee rooted for Elvis. “I thought, well, by God, Elvis showed him this time. For a change he stood up.” But Parker was somehow sympathetic, too-craving a kind word and a compliment. No manager had ever accomplished what he had, or taken a star to such heights. Now he’d made a once-in-a-lifetime deal for a client who didn’t even care, a client who was surely slipping out of his grasp.

“He asked me, ‘Gabe, would you get my bed turned?’ And I said, ‘Sure.’” Afterward, Tucker rolled it out beside the pool for him, helped him into it, and made him as comfortable as he could. He wondered if Parker wasn’t sick after all. Then he plugged in the outside phone.

The two old friends sat there for a minute reminiscing about how far they’d come in twenty-five years. Soon, the phone started ringing nonstop-Elvis still hadn’t reported to the studio. “They was on him somethin’ awful. I never heard such cussin’ and carryin’ on, and he didn’t usually do that. Finally, I said, ‘Colonel, why don’t you tell ‘em to kiss your ass? You got all the money you need. You can just tell everybody that you managed the highest-paid truck driver in the world.’ And he laughed, but he said, ‘G*****n, Gabe, that ain’t funny.’”

It was March before Elvis gave in. The caravan left Memphis so late in the day that they needed to drive straight through, without the usual night’s rest in Amarillo or Albuquerque. But during a brief stop at a motel for a shower and a change of clothes, Elvis took Larry aside. Intellectually, he understood all the books Larry gave him, but he’d never had the kind of profound spiritual experience they described.

“I explained to him that it had nothing to do with an intellectual perception,” Geller says, “that it was more of an emotion, a surrendering of the ego to God.” They continued their discussion on the drive, Elvis steering the mobile home and Larry riding shotgun, the other entourage members in the back and following in separate cars.

They drove the rest of the night, and it was well into the next day before Elvis realized he’d gotten separated from the rest of the group. Elvis told Larry he was glad they were lost-”I need to be away from everyone, because I’m really into something important within myself.”

By that time, they were in Arizona, near Flagstaff, approaching the famous San Francisco Peaks, in the land of the Hopi Indians. It was coming on dusk when Elvis peered into the electric-blue sky and suddenly said, “Look, man! Do you see what I see? What the hell is Joseph Stalin doing in that cloud?” Larry said he saw it, too, and then the image dissolved back into a fluffy cloud again.

Suddenly, Elvis pulled the mobile home over and, jumping out, yelled, “Follow me, man!” Then he took off into the desert. When Larry caught up with him, Presley had tears rolling down his cheeks. “It happened!” Elvis said, hugging his friend. “I thought God was trying to tell me something about myself, and I remember you saying, ‘It’s not a thing in your head. It has to do with your heart.’ I said, ‘God, I surrender my ego. I surrender my whole life to You.’ And it happened!” The face of Stalin had turned into the face of Christ.

“It was like a lightning bolt went right through him,” Geller recounts. “He said, ‘Larry, I know the truth now. I don’t believe in God anymore. Now I know that God is a living reality. He’s everywhere. He’s within us. He’s in everyone’s heart.”

When they returned to California, Elvis took his friend into the den of the rental home on Perugia Way and told him he’d made a decision. After such an intense experience, he couldn’t go back to making “teenybopper movies” again. He wanted to quit show business and do something important with his life. “In fact, Larry,” he said, “I want you to find me a monastery. I’m not making a move until you tell me what to do.”

Geller froze and then, thinking fast, told Elvis he could use his vision to make a difference in his films and in his records. “You’ve got the greatest career in the history of show business!” Geller told him. “You are the legend of them all! You are Elvis!”

Geller’s words found their target. “He got that gorgeous grin on his face, and he said, ‘Yeah, well, to tell you the truth, I can’t imagine Priscilla next to me in some monastery, raking leaves.’” But Larry knew the conversation meant trouble. At the word monastery, collective groans rose from the other side of the louvered doors. Says Geller, “I realized that five minutes later, Colonel Parker would know everything, and the little wheels in his head would start to turn.” Soon, Parker would also learn about Elvis’s involvement with an ecumenical movement called the Self-Realization Fellowship, based in Pasadena and run by a disciple of Paramahansa Yogananda named Sri Daya Mata. And the Colonel certainly wouldn’t like that.

The fallout started several weeks afterward on the soundstage of “Harum Scarum.” To keep their relationship strictly business, the Colonel made few appearances on the movie sets, and when he did, he held court, saying, “Where’s a chair for the Colonel?” and expecting the Memphis Mafia to snap to attention, bringing him water and lighting his German cigars with the yellow tips. Geller was always uncomfortable when he added, “And bring a chair for Larry . . . You sit with me, Larry.”

“He knew that I had Elvis’s ear, and that Elvis was changing, and he couldn’t figure me out.” Sometimes, Parker even asked Geller to give him a haircut or invited him to share the whirlpool bath at the Spa in Palm Springs. It was always tense between them, but this day, Geller knew the Colonel had a different tack, and he wasted no time in getting to it.
“Larry,” he began, “I think you’ve missed your calling. You’re tall, and have such a commanding presence. I can see you dressed up in a tuxedo, standing on the stage. You have the quality to hypnotize people.”

By now, the Colonel had reinstalled his pipeline, Joe Esposito, who shared co-foreman duties with Marty Lacker. Elvis seemed resigned to the arrangement, telling Geller he knew the Colonel had been taking care of Joe all of those years, and that he didn’t care. Several days later, with the picture completed, Esposito reported that Parker had called and wanted his client to come over to MGM right away. Geller was blow-drying Elvis’s hair in the bathroom, and they stopped and gathered the rest of the guys and piled into two cars.

“We went over to the lot,” Geller says, “and about ten minutes later, Elvis walked out. We knew he was ticked. He got in the car and he said, ‘That m**********r, man. He accused me of being on a religious kick. My life is not a religious kick. I’ll show that fat bastard what a kick is.’ He fumed for days.”

It was as if his resentment about everything had finally boiled over-his embarrassment about the scripts, his frustration at seeing his music reduced to pabulum, and Parker’s constant interference. “The Colonel really cares about me? He’s supposed to take care of the business end and that’s it. He’s not a personal friend, he’s my manager, and he’d better stay that way!”

Parker never criticized Elvis to any of his acquaintances, but now he drew a radical plan of action. While the Colonel had always directed almost every facet of Elvis’s existence, he rationalized that he had involved himself only in Presley’s professional affairs. With both his client and their partnership disintegrating, he would rule with an iron fist.

This was the right thing to do, he told himself, since Elvis was incapable of taking care of himself. Besides, they had wrung almost every dollar out of Hollywood; Wallis and Hazen strongly believed the next movie, “Paradise, Hawaiian Style,” would be, as Hazen termed it, “Elvis’s last good picture” and would go for only one more, “Easy Come, Easy Go,” once their deal ran out. Charles Boasberg, president of Paramount’s distributing company, had sounded the final knell, writing Wallis that “Frankie and Johnny,” a United Artists film, “is dying all over the country, and this is his second poor picture in a row. If it weren’t for you lifting him up with some good production in your pictures, Presley would be really dead by now.”

Parker fought Joe Hazen on virtually every clause of the new contract, and while Wallis defended him (“I think the Colonel has kept his word with you and has shown fine spirit characteristic of him,” he wrote to his partner), Hazen at one point called Parker’s changes in the agreement “the height of duplicity . . . he is trying to get his and we have ours.”

But the Colonel also saw it as a triumph.

“One day,” remembers Marty Lacker, “Elvis came up to me and said, ‘The Colonel wants you to take him to Palm Springs.’ I had never done that before, and I thought it was a very strange request, considering our relationship.

“I went over to his office, and I remember I had on a black pullover sweater. The Colonel looked at me and said, ‘You’re not dressed right. Let me give you a shirt.’ He opened up a closet and pulled out this ugly, old man’s yellow-and-white-striped shirt. And it had a cigar burn on the front. I said, ‘Colonel, I don’t want your shirt.’ He said, ‘You sure?’ And he put it back in the closet.

“We started driving, and we got about a half hour out of Palm Springs, and we hadn’t said a word to each other. He was sitting next to me in the front seat. All of a sudden, he started chuckling, and he said, ‘Boy, I showed those g*****n Jews, didn’t I?’ Just out of the blue. Then he chuckled again. Now, I’m saying to myself, You no-good bastard. You’ve got to know I’m Jewish. I wanted to take that car and head it into a pole, figure out how to kill him without hurting myself.”

In 1966, Parker would persist in wooing the producers for another film, issuing a “Snowmen’s League Annual Report,” a tongue-in-cheek document listing bogus expenses, grosses, and profits. At the end, Parker inserted a photo of Elvis and Wallis shaking hands, onto which he had pasted a bizarre likeness of himself standing behind them and wielding a machete. “If you don’t sign a contract,” it seemed to say, further suggesting that only he had the power to sever ties, “I’ll cut off your arm.”

By now, though, the producers were immune to the Colonel’s ploys. “Easy Come, Easy Go” would almost not be released, Paramount believing it was doubtful the picture could recoup its cost. After Paramount backed off its advertising campaign and Parker relentlessly complained that he had spent too much of his own money to promote it, Wallis sent him a check for $3,500. But the veteran filmmaker would never do business with him again.

Things were nearly as dismal at MGM. The prefab method by which “the Elvis movie” was assembled had become painfully obvious, with its tiny production budgets and lack of location shots for the films supposedly set in Europe and the Middle East. The grosses were also way down, and the plots had deteriorated to cartoonlike absurdity. “Harum Scarum,” released in late ’65, had been so ridiculous, the Colonel suggested, that only a talking camel could save it by making the picture an intentional farce. Parker had always told Elvis never to admit he’d made a mistake, but the manager doubted his own judgment in going along with Sam Katzman’s eighteen-day shooting schedule. It would take “a fifty-fifth cousin to P.T. Barnum to sell it,” the Colonel said, and the best thing to do was “book it fast, get the money, then try again.”

Before long, rumors swirled in Tennessee that Elvis was retiring, or that he was looking to hire another manager, or that the Colonel himself was ready to quit managing his star. In February 1966, the Colonel got on the phone to the Memphis Commercial Appeal and explained that there wasn’t a word of truth to the rumor, diffusing the situation with bravado, saying, “Heck yes, I would retire and so would my boy-if we received enough money to retire . . . We have contracts for fourteen additional motion pictures to be made over a period of several years.”

Still, Parker’s judgment remained cloudy. His code of loyalty made him stick with inappropriate directors, including Norman Taurog, a quasi-hack best known for directing “Boys Town” with Spencer Tracy in 1938 and Elvis’s own “Blue Hawaii.” Taurog had made a string of Elvis’s films, and Parker requested him more often than his talent-or his health-warranted. In meeting with Irwin Winkler, who came aboard as the producer of “Double Trouble,” the nearly seventy-year-old Hollywood veteran admitted he was blind in one eye and couldn’t see well enough to drive. Taurog would be completely sightless within two years of finishing “Double Trouble,” during which time he would direct two more Presley pictures, “Speedway” and “Live a Little, Love a Little,” which would rank among Elvis’s most disappointing efforts.

Even the die-hard fans grumbled that the films weren’t opening at the choice suburban movie houses, but at drive-ins. Worse, they relied on the same old formula-Elvis as a virile stock car racer, nightclub singer, or crop duster, saddled with a philandering, bumbling sidekick, and searching for true love through implausible dialogue and hackneyed songs. The president of the Hampshire, England, Elvis Presley Club wrote that the movies were “an insult to Elvis and fans.” Another pleaded to Wallis that someone must help Elvis now “when his career is beginning to falter,” while an even more prescient voice opined, “I realize that there is not much you can do if Elvis doesn’t care, and sometimes I doubt that he does.” Despite the fact that exhibitors would soon claim that something must be “radically wrong” with Elvis, judging from his appearance, a lucrative movie offer came from Japan. But Parker turned it down, saying Elvis was booked through 1969.

[Parker assistant] Byron Raphael used to ask the Colonel how he could be so strong, refusing certain offers and holding out for unprecedented money elsewhere. Parker explained it was because he had a three-tiered client-the real reason he hadn’t taken on anyone else to manage. “Byron,” he said, “we don’t need the movie business. If we couldn’t do movies, we could do personal appearances for $50,000 a night. And if we couldn’t do personal appearances, we could do records. We have gigantic record sales. I wouldn’t do it otherwise.”

But in 1966, RCA again refused the Colonel’s request to sponsor a big tour of personal appearances. He’d asked for $500,000 this time, and as RCA’s Norman Racusin puts it, “I did not know who the $500,000 was going to.” The company had also become concerned about slipping sales-as musical tastes changed, an album that might have had a standing order for 2 million copies was down by half-and RCA would soon reduce Elvis’s guaranteed advance. But Parker had other plans for Elvis. If he could hold him together.

The first order was to get him focused. For that, the Colonel sent a stronger message to Larry Geller.

One Sunday, he invited Geller and his wife and children to come to Palm Springs and spend the day at the house. After a swim, Parker asked Larry inside, where he began to probe him about his spiritual beliefs. The telephone rang, and Geller got the strange feeling from the Colonel’s opaque mumbles that the conversation might have been about him.

“He looked at me and he glanced away, and he said ‘Yes, yes, right now. Well, yeah, right.’ But I dismissed it, because I had no reason to be suspicious.”

Parker hung up and suggested they gather the kids and go to Will Wright’s Ice Cream Parlor. Afterward, the Gellers made their good-byes and returned to Los Angeles. “The minute I drove into the driveway, I saw the back door open,” Larry remembers. “It was a precision strike.”

The intruders had not taken items of monetary value, but Geller’s files on metaphysical topics-parapsychology, astrology, palmistry, and numerology-along with tapes of music from the Self-Realization church. His clothes, too, were gone. Garbage was dumped upside down in the living room.

Devastated, Geller piled his frightened family in the car and drove to see Elvis. “He shook his head back and forth a few times and said, ‘All right, we know who did this.’” Though Presley set the Gellers up in a hotel until they were ready to return home, Elvis downplayed the incident, saying that at least no one was hurt. But it scared them both. Says Larry, “We just tried to repress it.”

With Geller seemingly defused, Parker now attacked the second order of business: getting Elvis married.

The strange press release that Parker had written for 1961′s “Wild in the Country” shows that the Colonel had been thinking of this for a long time. “During the making of [the film],” Parker wrote, “Elvis was asked if the Colonel would object if Elvis married.”
“‘The Colonel would have nothing to say about it,’ Elvis replied with more than usual emphasis. ‘I probably would talk it over with him as a friend and as a man I respect, but never in the sense of asking his permission.’

“‘When the boy wants to marry, I hope he’ll ask me to help him do it,’” Parker said.
“Like a wise father,” the press release went on, “Colonel Parker takes an interest in the girls Elvis escorts, but doesn’t interfere. He probably would step in if he thought Elvis were making some dreadful mistake, but it would be as a counselor, not as a commanding officer.”

In 1966, however, there was another commanding officer to consider. Priscilla was almost twenty-one now, and her stepfather, the newly promoted Lieutenant Colonel Beaulieu, was sounding off about Elvis’s promise to make her his wife. He’d called in recent months and uttered what Elvis took to be some mild threats, and Parker didn’t know how long he could hold him off. If Elvis reneged, and Priscilla went to the papers, it could look very bad-the headlines would scream how he’d harbored an underage girl and broken her heart.

Priscilla was beginning to think he was never going to marry her, especially as he was dating Ann-Margret, who told reporters she was in love with Presley but didn’t know if they would marry. A scared Priscilla had flown out to Hollywood to try to break up the romance, but the Colonel had sent her home to Memphis so no one would ask questions about their relationship, too.

Suddenly, everyone was thinking seriously about marriage. The Colonel figured it would end Elvis’s obsession with religion, keep him away from Ann-Margret and her smart young team of managers, and stem Elvis’s growing fixation with guns and law enforcement. Priscilla hoped it would make him grow up-why did he need all those guys around for slot car races and water balloon fights, anyway? And Vernon, who still pretended to take care of Elvis’s personal business (“My daddy doesn’t do anything,” Elvis had once accurately answered when asked Vernon’s profession), would be happy if it quelled his son’s incessant spending. At the end of 1966, Elvis would negotiate to buy a $300,000 ranch in Mississippi and blow a fortune on trucks, horses, and trailers for his friends. Parker liked to see Elvis burn through his money-it kept him working-but it made Vernon’s head spin.

Yes, they agreed, Elvis must get married. Furthermore, Elvis shouldn’t be so remote; he needed to stay in closer touch with the ol’ Colonel. And so in September ’66, Elvis leased a home in Palm Springs, where he spent Thanksgiving with his manager. But the stress was taking its toll. On the way home to Memphis, Elvis heard “The Green, Green Grass of Home” on the radio and broke down when he arrived at Graceland, telling Marty Lacker, “I walked in the door, and I saw my mama standing there. I saw her, man.”

Just before Christmas, Elvis proposed to Priscilla. A vague date was set for the following year. Elvis couldn’t find it in him to tell Ann-Margret and simply stopped taking her calls.

With his skewed moral center, Parker believed that forcing Elvis to marry was an honorable move, even if Elvis himself was not emotionally committed. “When I fall deeply in love it will happen,” he’d told Hedda Hopper five years earlier. “I’ll decide on the spur of the moment, but it won’t be an elopement . . . but a church wedding.”

When Elvis reported for wardrobe fittings for “Clambake,” his twenty-fifth film, in March of ’67, the studio was shocked to discover that he had ballooned to 200 pounds, up 30 from his usual 170. “He ate out of depression,” says entourage member Jerry Schilling. “The movies were boring to him, and when he didn’t have a challenge, he always got depressed.” Parker was furious. Elvis began trying to melt the weight off with diet pills, but on top of the sleeping tablets and his usual arsenal of mood-altering drugs, the medications made him dizzy.

One night at his new rental house on Rocca Place, Elvis got up to use the toilet and tripped over a television cord in the bathroom and hit his head on the sunken tub. By morning, he had a golfball-size lump, and he was woozy when he staggered out of the bedroom and asked the guys to take a look. Esposito phoned the Colonel, thus setting in motion the events that led to Parker’s most egregious attachment of Elvis’s earnings.

By the time the Colonel arrived at the house, along with several white-uniformed nurses and a doctor carrying portable X-ray equipment, Elvis could barely hold his head up. The diagnosis was a mild concussion, but the start of the movie would have to be delayed by several weeks.

“The Colonel took us out in the hall,” Marty Lacker remembers, “and he said, ‘G*****n you guys, why do you let him get this way? He’s going to mess up everything! They’ll tear up the contract!’”

Then he turned to Larry Geller. “Get those books out of here right now!” he bellowed. “Do you understand me? Right now!”

Afterward, says Lacker, “the Colonel went back in and talked to Elvis, and he said, ‘Here’s the way it is. From now on, you’re going to listen to everything I say. Otherwise, I’m going to leave you, and that will ruin your career, and you’ll lose Graceland and you’ll lose your fans. And because I’m going to do all this extra work for you, I want fifty percent of your contract.’”

Parker prepared a new agreement, backdating it to January 1. In setting down terms for a joint venture, the Colonel wrote that he would continue to collect a 25 percent commission on Elvis’s standard movie salaries and record company advances, but All Star Shows would now receive 50 percent of profits or royalties beyond basic payments from both the film and the record contracts, including “special,” or side, deals. The commission would be deducted before any division of royalties and profits. Their merchandising split would remain the same.

Lacker was surprised at how quickly Elvis had okayed such an arrangement, but the foreman didn’t know about the clinical depths of Elvis’s depression, nor about a conversation that had taken place between Parker and Presley sometime the year before.
They were talking about Sam Cooke, the great soul singer who died in a shooting outside a hooker’s seedy motel room in 1964. Cooke had also recorded for RCA-in fact, his live “At the Copa” album was released the month of his death. But it wasn’t the manager of L.A.’s Hacienda Motel who killed him, as the press reported, Parker told Elvis. The Mafia got him. Cooke was stepping out of line, the Colonel said, getting involved in civil rights, spouting off about things he shouldn’t. He was warned, but he wouldn’t shut up. Word came down and the hit was made.

The mob wasn’t gangsters in the streets anymore, Parker explained. It was heads of corporations like RCA, the East Coast, Sicilian families-men whose last names ended in vowels, men with uncles called Jimmy “the Thumb.”

“Colonel told Elvis, ‘You’ve got to behave yourself. You can only go so far,’” says Larry Geller. “And Elvis knew the Colonel was a dangerous enemy.”

A week or so after the fall, when Presley regained his strength, Parker called a meeting at Rocca Place. Priscilla and Vernon had flown out from Memphis, and along with Elvis and the guys, they sat around the living room as Parker rolled out a list of changes: one, Joe Esposito was to be the lone foreman. Two, no one was to talk about religion to Elvis, and Geller could no longer be alone with him. And three, there was too much money going out. Everyone’s salary would be cut back, and several people had better start looking for jobs.

In the end, no one was fired, and only one person left voluntarily, when Larry Geller quit the following month. But the guys had never seen Elvis so docile. He never took his eyes off the floor, and he never spoke up.

At 9:41 on the morning of May 1, 1967, Elvis and Priscilla were married by Nevada Supreme Court Judge David Zenoff in a small, surprise ceremony in Milton Prell’s suite at the new Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas. “She was absolutely petrified, and Elvis was so nervous he was almost bawling,” the justice remembers. Afterward, owner Prell laid out a $10,000 champagne breakfast with suckling pig and poached salmon, and then the couple flew to Palm Springs on Frank Sinatra’s Learjet to begin their honeymoon.

As if it were the Colonel’s own wedding, Parker arranged every detail. “It was the Colonel who got the rings, the room, the judge,” Priscilla later said. “We didn’t do any of that. It was all through his connections. We wanted it to be fast, effortless.” Which meant she and Elvis also allowed the Colonel to pick the attendants and the guests, who numbered fewer than twenty. Most of the Memphis Mafia were excluded from the ceremony-a painful slight that would leave bruised feelings for years-but invited to the breakfast, where they mingled with Parker’s gambling buddy, the comedian Redd Foxx.

Larry Geller, whom Elvis had once asked to be best man, read about the wedding in the newspaper. Stunned, he thought back to the events of the past month. Parker had taken charge of everything in Elvis’s life except the one aspect he should have addressed: Presley’s drug use.

Grelun Landon, who worked with the Colonel from 1955 on, first as a vice presid