Alanna Nash is a respected journalist who is a feature writer for Entertainment Weekly, USA Weekend, and The New York Times. She is also the author of five books, including Elvis Aron Presley: Revelations from the Memphis Mafia, now re-released as Elvis and The Memphis Mafia.
Now on to the interview…
Roger Hall: Alanna, you've written an extremely well- researched and fascinating book about Tom Andrew Parker or -- should we say -- Andreas Cornelius van Kuijk.
Alanna Nash: Thank you, Roger.
You provide many revealing facts about this man, especially his early years in Holland and his carnival and country music road shows in America. Reading your book, Colonel Parker seemed to be even more of a shameless manipulator than I expected. Since this is an Elvis website, I'll ask questions mostly about Colonel Parker and his star attraction.
He has been attacked by fans for holding Elvis back during his movie years and pushing him too hard in his later years in the 1970s. Based on the evidence you've discovered, was Colonel Parker guilty of any of these charges and do you think he contributed in any way to the decline and sad death of Elvis at such a young age?
Well, if you kill the art, you kill the artist, and the Colonel knew nothing about art. He didn't understand Elvis's music, and he made no attempt to understand him as a person, let alone as an artist. One of the things I tried to do was paint a psychological portrait of Parker, and he seems to have had woefully little empathy with anyone in his life. Certainly he had none with Elvis as his client entered his fatal physical and emotional decline in the '70s. And really, only he could have forced Elvis off the road and into some kind of treatment. Now, I think it's very interesting that the Colonel had been the guy in the carnivals who rounded up the alcoholic geek, waving a bottle in front of him to get him back in the pit to bite the head off the live chicken. It's not a big stretch from that to what he did with Elvis.
What is your feeling about why Colonel Parker didn't want Elvis to tour overseas--was it because of his unsavory and suspicious past in Holland or something else?
That's the burning question. The Colonel obviously had a very troubling secret. He never became a U.S. citizen, which meant he couldn't get a passport. Now, he passed up numerous opportunities to become a citizen, which would indicate that he didn't want a background check of any kind. Something terrible must have happened in Holland. His family told me that he left quite abruptly, without taking any identifying papers, any money, or any clothing. And even then he valued money above all else, and he worked extra jobs in order to afford the latest in men's haberdashery. Why would he leave all his possessions behind in a trunk? He also told Byron Raphael, the young William Morris trainee who was assigned to Parker in '56, that he worked his way over in the galley of a ship, but that he didn't go back to pick up his check. Obviously, he was terrified of some kind of discovery. This means he set out in a foreign country literally penniless.
You make a good case for Dries--as he was then known--being the possible murderer of Anna van den Enden in 1929 in Breda, Holland. If he was the murderer, do you think it haunted him later in life, or did he just push it out of his mind? Could it have been just a coincidence that he left for America at the same time?
It could have been a coincidence, yes, of course. I cannot say without reservation that he killed this woman. I offer it only as a theory, a possibility. Even his Dutch family is willing to admit that it is a possibility, though they believe, as I do, that if he killed her, it was an accident. I will say that he had an amazing ability to compartmentalize events and feelings in his mind. If something troubled him too much, he was able to store it in a back corner of his consciousness, though he always had trouble keeping it there. Certainly whatever happened in Holland that made him leave his family, with whom he was very close, and to just cut them off, was of a very grave nature. He missed them, but didn't want to foist his troubles off on them. I know that from a letter he wrote to his nephew in the '60s after his family identified him from a magazine photo and began to write to him.
Did his mental state --for example, his army discharge as a psychopath--have anything to do with his drive for power and total control of the Elvis image?
I think he used Elvis as a kind of human shield against all of his demons. One reason he kept Elvis in such awful movies is that as long as the movies made money, the Colonel kept his power in Hollywood. He had some very powerful allies there. Parker's needs always superceded those of his client. If something was good for Parker, but bad for Elvis, Presley always lost out. And I think the Colonel's army records on the whole--for example, his going AWOL and being marked a deserter--certainly figured into how he handled Elvis's own army career and the concert Presley played in Hawaii to raise money for the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial. It's very interesting that Parker's army file, on the whole, is missing. I wouldn't be surprised if he traded Elvis's services for that file to disappear. But I am speculating now.
Do you think Elvis would have been as big a recording and movie star without Colonel Parker as his manager?
No, not in the slightest. Because the Colonel was the ultimate promoter, if not such a great manager.
Wouldn't Elvis have been better off if there were two different people handling his career –one a promoter and the other a manager, and do you think Colonel Parker would have agreed to such an arrangement if Elvis wanted it that way?
Roger, that's a brilliant question. Yes, definitely! But the Colonel would never have agreed to that.
Back in the 1970s I worked for disc jockey Bill Randle, who introduced Elvis on national TV in 1956. He told me that he was very impressed the first time he saw Elvis performing in Cleveland. Randle then started to promote him. He said Elvis was so pleased with his promotion that he asked him to be his manager. Randle said he turned him down because he didn't want to go out on the road on all those one night stands. Have you heard any of this before? Did you find anything about Randle and the Colonel meeting anywhere?
I do know that Randle suggested to Bob Neal that Elvis audition for 'Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts', but that it was Parker who really made it happen. Bob Neal told me that himself in 1977. I also know that Randle promoted a show for Elvis in Cleveland in '55, just before the Colonel signed the underage Presley to an agreement for sole representation. But whether Elvis asked Randle to represent him, or whether Parker and Randle ever actually met, I don't know.
Randle also told me that he along with Julian Aberbach and Bob Neal had a lot to do with the early promotion of Elvis. He said that Colonel Parker was mainly a 'carnival huckster' who would do anything to get his way and he got his way by getting sole control of Elvis. Randle also said laughingly that it's hard to say what Colonel Parker really was…and not be sued for it! Did you find any others, such as the Memphis Mafia, who found Colonel Parker's total takeover of Elvis to be suspect or destructive?
Well, of course, Gladys Presley was always suspicious of him. The Colonel was lucky that she died in '58, so she could no longer be a thorn in his side. Things might have turned out differently if she had lived. She was a very intuitive person.
I'm especially interested in the early Elvis career, when he recorded some of his best songs. I was surprised to read that Colonel Parker didn't like the Elvis songs much, except for 'Are You Lonesome Tonight?' And that was because his wife liked the song, which had been recorded by Hank Snow. Why did Colonel Parker insist on crediting Elvis as co-writer for songs he didn't write, like 'Love Me Tender' and 'Don't Be Cruel'? Elvis himself said in interviews that he never wrote any songs. How did Colonel Parker cover up this lie? Was there any evidence that Colonel Parker was cashing in on the Elvis song catalog through kickback deals with Hill and Range music publishers?
It was purely financial. And putting an artist's name on a song just to get him to record it was not unusual back then. Unethical, yes, but not unusual, and people did it because they wanted the artist to record their song, and couldn't achieve that any other way. I suppose they figured that they would end up making so much money from the association that it was worth it. I asked the noted songwriter, Diane Warren, about this, and ended up not having room in the book for her remarks. Here's what she said:
'I think it's a really despicable thing to do. But it was a very common practice at that time. It's like Otis Blackwell, who wrote a lot of Elvis's songs. There's a lot of co-written…I mean, you see 'Elvis Presley' out there, but Elvis Presley didn't write a note. It's really horrible to do that to a person. Their life is their songs. Here was somebody making zillions of dollars, Elvis and Colonel Parker. Especially Colonel Parker. Think of that greed. In my career, people haven't asked it that much. It's happened a few times, so there are still people who try. And it's really bad'.
Colonel Parker and Elvis seemed like a marriage where both were mutually caring at first, then it grew more and more tense and ended bitterly. Is that a fair analogy to make and what do you think is the most important contribution made by Colonel Parker in his entire show business career, either with Elvis or other recording stars like Eddy Arnold?
I think it's a very good analogy to make. I also think Elvis suffered a little bit of what we today call 'the battered wife syndrome', where the long-suffering spouse doesn't leave because that's all she knows, and begins to believe she isn't worth anything. Certainly, Parker kept Elvis in the dark about what a huge star he was, and that other managers didn't take such a huge percentage and make side deals for themselves left and right. That's one reason Parker didn't want Elvis around other stars. He didn't want them talking. That's probably part of why he wanted Elvis to marry Priscilla when he did—that romance with Ann-Margret was getting too intense, and her handlers might have lured Elvis away.
As for the Colonel's most important contribution, I think it's three-fold. He certainly brought the carnival techniques of marketing and merchandising first to rock n' roll, and then to the culture as a whole. And he was really brilliant in keeping his star on top, in rolling over the concentration from music to movies to Vegas and then to special events whenever one endeavor began to wane. He was awfully slow to make that transition in the mid-'60s, but he did it nonetheless. And when Elvis died, he put the wheels in motion to protect the rights of all estates of deceased artists, especially in merchandising.
Thank you Alanna for spending some time answering these questions.
Roger, thanks for the interview. I appreciate it.
Alanna nash is the author of the books;
In August 2007, journalist and biographer Alanna Nash interviewed a number of Elvis' female co-stars, family members, and friends for a Ladies Home Journal article titled 'The Women Who Loved Elvis'. Now she's turning the idea into a book for Harper Entertainment, to be published in time for Elvis' 75th birthday in January 2010. Nash reports the book will be the first comprehensive look at Elvis purely from the female prospective.
'For all his maleness, Elvis was a very woman-centered man, because of his closeness with his mother', she says. 'It was women he could really talk with, and from whom he drew much of his strength. The book will look at a number of his relationships, both platonic and romantic. And part of it will consider how his status as one of the greatest sex symbols of the 20th century informed his stage act and his interactions with the opposite sex'. Anyone with information or contacts that could help with this project are invited to contact Alanna.