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A New Light On Colonel Tom Parker | Part III


By: Michael Werner
Source: Elvis Australia
September 2, 2018
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A New Light On Colonel Tom Parker | Part III

Michael Werner

In 1968, Parker tried to force Elvis into a Christmas TV special

False. A Christmas TV special was pre-contractually agreed on with the sewing machine producer Singer and the television network NBC (where an airing date had already been scheduled for December when Christmas specials are usually broadcast). Elvis was consent to it. Then director Steve Binder convinced Elvis of his own concept of a Rock'n'Roll based retrospective of his career, garnished with a few new songs, preferably without Christmas music.

It should be clear that Parker wasn't too enthusiastic about that, because the pre-contractual agreements stated differently. You can't agree on a Christmas show and deliver a rock show. What would you say if you ordered a washing machine and got a refrigerator delivered instead, because the supplier likes refrigerators better?

Parker must have been in sheer panic of facing a lawsuit with million dollar claims for forfeit and damages against him and Elvis, or at least the whole project being blown which would have meant a sad farewell for Elvis instead of a comeback. It's more than understandable that the Colonel was against Binder's new concept! When he understood that Elvis had really changed his mind und truly wanted to materialize Binder's ideas, he accepted Elvis' decision (as stated above: Elvis was the boss!) and then actually succeeded in talking the Christmas special out of Singer and NBC and make them buy the leather-show instead, at the price of a single Christmas song on the program. This was a true masterpiece in negotiation by the Colonel which has never been acknowledged. Instead, people accuse Parker of trying to restrict Elvis artistically and dictating him everything.

Parker was wrong in advising Elvis against the role in 'A Star Is Born'

If it really were the Colonel who talked Elvis out of accepting Streisand's offer, he would have been absolutely right to do so, in every respect. To list the numerous reasons for that would go beyond the scope and provide enough material for a separate article on that subject only. So, let's cut a long story short: Whoever believes Elvis should have done this movie, may please watch it (it's available on DVD). The role was magnificent for Kris Kristofferson, but for Elvis it would have been a disaster (especially at this time). The male leading role is a former huge rock star whose fans only want to hear his old hits, ignoring his artistic development completely. That drives him into despair; he becomes addicted and staggers on stage in a desolated condition, unenthusiastically muttering his way through his old hits, appearing a shadow of his former self. During the entire movie he doesn't sing through a single good song entirely, while the female leading role (his lover, played by Barbra Streisand) is delivering brilliant performances with a whole lot of great numbers. He falls deeper and deeper, while she keeps on rising, becoming a bigger star than he ever was, and at the end he commits suicide, totally strung-out. A great role for the 1976 Elvis, right? Those who have seen the movie will understand what I'm talking about. Let alone if Elvis would physically have made it through the exhausting shooting at that time. That was not a 'quickie' like the movies in the 1960's that were virtually shot within a few days.

Funny, though, the Colonel had nothing to do with it for it was actually Elvis who didn't want to do the movie. He simply didn't have the guts to tell Streisand himself, so he urged the Colonel to do the dirty job of getting him out of his word that he had given too fast in a thoughtless moment when Streisand took him by surprise with her offer in his dressing room. So, Parker – at the secret request of Elvis – confronted Streisand with some outrageous demands which he was sure she would never agree with, and it worked. Parker took all the blame of having ruined Elvis' desperately desired last chance to ever star in a serious movie, while in truth doing Elvis a favor he had explicitly asked him for. (Sonny West tells the true story in a Q+A, and Parker himself said the same in a Elvis Presley Video 1993 interview.)

Selling Elvis' back catalogue to RCA in 1973 was a bad mistake at the disadvantage of Elvis

The '73 buyout, as it is called among fans, may have turned into a 'mistake' as Elvis died four years later which made his old records enormously rise in value. It's easy for us to judge it with today's knowledge, but in 1973, directly after 'Aloha From Hawaii', not a single soul could have guessed this. Back then it even appeared to be quite a good deal: RCA paid 5.4 million Dollars (an inconceivably high sum back then!) in transfer fees for future licenses for all previous master tapes. If you keep in mind that Elvis earned one Dollar per sold album, RCA had to sell 5.4 million albums of Elvis' old music just to recover the costs – they wouldn't break even before that point. It was quite unlikely by then that Elvis would have sold that many albums of his old material in the near future – if he hadn't died.

It is often criticized that only few monies were left for Elvis, as he first had to give half of it to Parker and the rest had to be taxed so that he 'only' gained 1.34 million Dollars for himself. That certainly doesn't sound like much but Elvis would have had to give his shares (if less) to Parker as well as to the tax office anyway if the earnings out of record-licenses would have continued normally. So, it was like six of one and half a dozen of the other.

Above all, it was Elvis who absolutely wanted this deal, probably because he needed quick assets for divorcing Priscilla. Parker first tried to talk him out of it but didn't succeed; so, all there was left for him to do was make RCA pay the highest possible price.

Furthermore, it is not correct that from then on Elvis didn't earn anything from his old songs. In fact, due to the publishing and copyright shares that Parker had negotiated for him with composers and songwriters (see above), Elvis still earned a lot: Besides record sales, he collected money every time a song was played on the radio or on TV or when it was performed by another artist. The earnings out of this were far more important than those out of pure record sales that were compensated for through the '73 buyout. After all, it is sufficiently known that in the music business more money is earned out of copyrights and publishing than simply singing on a record.

It was a mistake to have Elvis shoot the TV special for CBS in his miserable condition in June 1977

Yes, without a doubt that was a mistake. The Colonel shouldn't have let this happen. Nobody knows if he tried or not, or if he simply couldn't do anything about it. Elvis wanted to accept CBS' offer for whatever reason (most probably the money), so it was done. Elvis was the boss.

It wasn't a wise move to let Elvis perform in Las Vegas as early as 1956

From a superficial view this may be the case. But this – at first glance – wrong decision (though it wasn't very drastic or disadvantageous) at least had two very positive aspects: During his stay in Las Vegas Elvis became aware of the song 'Hound Dog' and decided to record it himself – nobody can imagine Elvis without this signature song today. Plus, due to the Las Vegas engagement today we have the only existing complete recording of a 50s performance in good sound quality.

Parker was a bad manager

This is definitely the greatest nonsense ever, which is disproven by Elvis' success. Considering his achievements there is not much he can be reproached for.

Above all, even at the supposed lowest points of his career, Elvis still was one of the top earners in his business, being a multiple income millionaire. There never really was a dead season during the entire 22 years. Which other star can say that about himself?

The Colonel's most notable masterpiece may have been keeping Elvis' career alive through an 18 months long total absence from the music scene caused by the army, after he had just reached his first peak. Which other artist might have survived a break as long as this in such a short-lived business? Here, the Colonel proved to be a genius.

Just as Elvis was the first real worldwide megastar of popular music, Parker also was a pioneer in his field, being the first in the business to manage an unprecedented career like this. Both didn't have any role models they could have orientated themselves towards. Just as Elvis revolutionized and sustainably influenced the music of his time (and far beyond), Parker turned the music business upside down; he virtually reinvented it and set new standards. The business models and marketing tricks Parker developed are being copied ever since and still serve as standards in this business today. If this man supposedly has done everything wrong, then why is it still being done in almost the same way today?

After Elvis' death, other stars asked Parker to manage them, among them, e.g. Tony Orlando and Garth Brooks. Even the Beatles contacted Parker after Brian Epstein passed away in August 1967, hoping the Colonel would take over Epstein's job. Notably, they must have had a lot of faith in Parker's managing skills, approaching him during a period when Elvis was widely considered a has-been.

As is generally known, Parker rejected all these offers as he didn't want to manage anyone besides and after Elvis. He merely helped out artists such as Michael Jackson, Céline Dion, Ricky Nelson, as well as the musical production 'Starlight Express' with some good advice. If Parker really had the reputation of being a bad manager in this business, then why were his ideas in such a great demand among other artists?

Elvis often wanted to get rid of Parker, they had many fights

Yes, they argued now and then, and, on rare occasions, they actually fought each other. But isn't that normal? Just for the record: They worked together day by day for 22 years, virtually the whole notable part of Elvis' career until his death. Has anyone ever heard of a more than two-decade relationship between two persons (no matter if it's a friendship, a business partnership, or a marriage) without any severe fights? It's quite usual that there are times when each one wishes the other one to hell. No doubt, they had times like that. What really matters, though, is that they never separated. In the big picture, the fights between Elvis and Parker were very few. Instead of overrating a few occasional arguments and controversies, you better judge a 22-year partnership by the long time it all went well.

The Colonel was a compulsive gambler

Some members of Elvis' entourage describe Parker's legendary gambling excesses in detail. If you analyze these descriptions precisely, you will come to the result that Parker did not show any of the typical symptoms of pathological gambling.

A compulsive gambler is gambling to win, and he tends to believe that he will be successful with the next move, not least because he needs the money.

In contrast, Parker didn't care if he won or lost; he just squandered his money (of which he had more than enough) at the gambling table and had great fun doing so. For a compulsive gambler, though, gambling is all but fun; in fact, it is pure stress. His addiction determines his whole life and makes him lose house and farm. Everything is about the game; typically, he can hardly pursue a regular job.

All of that was not the case with Colonel Parker. He liked to gamble with high stakes once he was in Las Vegas but he definitely wasn't a compulsive gambler. After being done with work, he would sit at the gambling table totally relaxed; he welcomed business partners and friends there to have a talk with them, he concocted new ideas while gambling, and was constantly in a great mood. For him, it was all about having fun. His whole behavior and attitude towards the game were absolutely not those of a compulsive gambler.

In Las Vegas, Parker gambled Elvis' fees away

Parker only squandered his own money in Las Vegas. For this reason, it was his own private affair; everybody can do with his money as he wishes. One person throws his money down the drain for cars, clothes, women, and drugs; and the other gambles it away at the casino table.

Moreover: Was Elvis stupid enough to be on stage twice a night for a month in Las Vegas without wondering why he didn't get a penny for it in the end? Most probably not!

Parker was uncaring about Elvis' death and did business as usual

When Elvis passed away, Parker continued doing his job, which was the best thing he could do: On behalf of Vernon he took matters in his own hands to protect Elvis' works, image, name, and rights. Doing so, he prevented a kind of vacuum caused by Elvis' death which may have led to his beloved ones losing money. People tend to do foolish things when they're mourning; a whole industry makes profit out of that. It is smarter to keep cool and manage everything first. There is still time enough for mourning after everything is settled.

Parker's coworkers as well as his widow Loanne confirm that the Colonel was deeply dismayed about Elvis' death. Loanne even said that her husband had seen the ultimate catastrophe coming in advance and was suffering from not being able to do anything about it.

Parker was an old soldier; when it came to his job he always put aside his personal feelings. Showing his grief in public – which would have made him vulnerable – or openly showing any weakness in general would not have matched his character. But that doesn't mean that Elvis' death didn't affect him.

Parker wore a brightly colored Aloha shirt at Elvis' funeral

If anybody has a photo to proof this, I'd love to have a look at it, for I have never seen one. I only heard the Colonel sat apathetically on the seat of one of the police motorcycles for almost the entire funeral and couldn't believe Elvis was gone.

Another version of this story, namely that Parker wore an Aloha shirt when he arrived at Graceland after learning of Elvis' passing, may be true. Nevertheless, he didn't do so out of disrespect; he rushed from Portland (Maine), where Elvis was set to perform the following day, to Memphis as fast as he could, so he didn't have time to change clothes in order to get dressed properly. In addition to this, over the period of the first few hours after hearing the terrible news he must have been in a state of shock. In such a mental condition people usually don't think and act the way they normally do, so the question of what shirt to wear may well have been the last thing on Parker's mind.

After Elvis' death, Parker was convicted of fraud, disloyalty, mismanagement, and business conducts to Elvis' disadvantage

False. Parker was only sued by EPE for these accusations and then sued EPE back simultaneously to still obtain his shares as Elvis' manager.

A verdict was never rendered as both parties withdrew their lawsuits in July 1983 and settled out of court. As a result, Parker received regular payments (altogether 2 million Dollars) until 1987 (ten years after Elvis' death) as well as all the shares that were due to him. Plus,

EPE officially announced how important Parker's role was in Elvis' career; so they found their peace with each other. Starting with the lawsuits, they simply hauled out the big guns for tactical reasons – as is usual at court, especially in the USA. If EPE had really been able to evidence delicts like fraud or disloyalty, they would have followed through with the trial instead of settling out of court. Above all, they certainly wouldn't have paid out Parker's shares for years.

Résumé:

Most Elvis fans hate Parker, or at least dislike him. Too often they do so wrongly, as I think, either without a good reason or for false reasons.

I don't want to talk you into loving Colonel Parker. All I ask of you is to give all your reasons why you disliked that man ever since you became an Elvis fan a second thought, considering the facts and explanations I delivered above. If you still can't bring yourself to like Parker, please at least give some kudos to him, for he really deserves it. Not just because he did a brilliant job but because he had the harder part to play, being the bad guy in favor of Elvis being the good guy, and he never complained.

In show business the artist is the admired star while the manager's job is to say and do all the unpleasant things necessary to keep the star shining and the money rolling in.

If you have a profound interest in understanding the career of Elvis Presley in deep, please start by abandoning the scheme that the credits for everything that went well solely go to Elvis while all the things that went rather bad were Parker's fault. It's not that simple, just as nothing in life is either black or white.

When reviewing Elvis Presley's career on a serious base, you come to realize that Elvis and Parker weren't two faces of the same coin. They were fighting on the same side, not against each other. The interests of one always matched the interests of the other; the success of one also meant success for the other. Parker could only earn money if Elvis did so – vice versa. In fact, the two of them were a team and thus should be considered and evaluated as a team.

Particularly, you should not lose sight of the fact that it was Elvis' explicit desire to be managed by Colonel Tom Parker. He stuck with his decision until his dying day. If you claim this decision to be wrong, you deny Elvis the power of judgment, responsibility, and intelligence. As a result, you virtually declare him incompetent. Is that what you really think of him?

Maybe you taunt me now of putting a halo on Colonel Parker and grant him general absolution, even declare him to be without fail, because everything I have written so far doesn't fit to what you normally hear and read. You're right, it doesn't fit! But this is what a relationship between manager and artist really looks like behind the scenes. Of course, Parker made mistakes. We all make mistakes; thus, Elvis made mistakes, and Parker made mistakes, too. I just wanted to take a close look at the most popular 'mistakes' Parker supposedly made, to question them and to check the facts, and in the end find out if they really were mistakes or if things turn out differently when reviewing them closely.

I'm not hiding the fact that I highly admire Parker's lifetime achievement. Success always is the sum of right decisions. Looking at Elvis' unsurpassed success, consequently there couldn't have been too many mistakes being made – on both sides – neither in an artistic nor in a business way. If Parker had actually made all the mistakes he is so often accused of, Elvis would never have gotten beyond the status of a local hero singing in beer tents or small-town assembly halls. And even if he would have made it big by chance, he never would have been able to persist at the top that long. The entertainment industry would never allow such a huge and lasting career to be a result of pure coincidences. The often-postulated belief that Elvis made it to the top and was even able to stay there despite of an inapt manager is utterly nonsense. This is absolutely impossible in a branch that doesn't forgive mistakes, with thousands of contenders waiting at the starting line to get their piece of the action.

As already mentioned, you don't have to love Colonel Parker; you don't even have to like him. You are welcome to criticize him – but please do so based on knowledge about show business, on facts, and on common sense – and not on assumptions, lack of knowledge, and ignorance of simple coherencies. Especially, you should be fair enough not to deny Parker's enormous credits for the career of Elvis Presley. An artist is only as successful as his manager is capable. Properly speaking, the manager even plays a more important role, as in show business many rather mediocre artists have made big it due to a skillful manager. Yet, no highly gifted artist has ever made it with a bad manager. That's why you can always identify a very good manager behind a very successful artist. In his domain, Elvis was the most successful artist of all time. The logic conclusion is that Parker was the best manager of all time.

At least until now. But since their story abruptly ended on August 16, 1977, nobody was able to make a showbiz career that big again, let alone bigger. That is why I want to end with a quote from legendary Hilton manager Henri Lewin: 'If we should ever find another Elvis (which I don't think is possible), then there would have to be another Colonel Tom Parker as well, because this combination was the recipe for their story of success'.

Articles about Elvis Presley A New Light On Colonel Tom Parker Part I
Articles about Elvis Presley A New Light On Colonel Tom Parker Part II

Additional reading about this topic:

Esposito, Joe – Good Rockin' Tonight
Guralnick, Peter – Last Train To Memphis / Careless Love
Nash, Alanna – The Colonel
Stone, Charles – My Years With Elvis And The Colonel

Many thanks to Bianca Weber for supportive research.

Articles about Elvis Presley Aloha From Hawaii Via Satellite | Fact & Fancy

Elvis Presley Video Interview with Colonel Tom Parker : Elvis Presley's Manager : 1987
Elvis Presley Video Interview with Colonel Tom Parker : Elvis Presley's Manager
Elvis Presley Video Peter Guralnick, Talks About Colonel Tom Parker

Elvis Presley Photos Photos: Colonel Tom Parker's Birthday on the Set of the '68 Special
Elvis Presley Photos Photos : Elvis Presley and Colonel Tom Parker

Interviews with or about Elvis Presley Interview with Kenny Wynn : Colonel Tom Parker's assistant

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