Parker's shadowy past news to Memphis Mafia

By: Michael Lollar
Source: The Commercial Appeal
March 18, 2005

The Colonel: The Extraordinary Story of Colonel Tom Parker and Elvis Presley.
The Colonel: The Extraordinary Story of Colonel Tom Parker and Elvis Presley.
'We never even knew he was from another country. Elvis never knew it. We just thought he was this guy from Tennessee. His name was Colonel - like Colonel Sanders'.

Jerry Schilling, like other members of Elvis Presley's Memphis Mafia, says the mysterious Colonel Tom Parker, an illegal immigrant from the Netherlands, concealed his past so well that he was still a riddle when he died at 87.

Parker, who sometimes seemed as flamboyant as Presley, was a tireless promoter of the rock star he sometimes referred to as 'my act'. He was also his own act, a Dutchman named Andreas Cornelis van Kujik who reinvented himself as Thomas Andrew Parker, the P. T. Barnum of rock and roll.

Biographer Alanna Nash, who spent six years researching Parker for a newly released biography, says she ended with mixed feelings about the roly-poly man whose accent sometimes made him seem to lisp. Parker died in 1997, two decades after Elvis, leaving supporters and detractors who still seem to ask themselves: "Who was that masked man?"

'I go from finding him extremely distasteful to having some sympathy for him', Nash said this week. 'I don't think anyone could have made (Elvis) the star that Colonel Parker did. I think he genuinely thought they were a team, and that he saw Elvis as a young, far more handsome alter ego'.

Her book, The Colonel: The Extraordinary Story of Colonel Tom Parker and Elvis Presley, speculates Parker might have fled Holland after bludgeoning a woman to death with a crowbar. 'I don't know whether he murdered that woman, but something horrible happened', Nash said of her exhaustive study of Parker.

(Nash, who lives in Louisville, Ky., will sign her book at 7 tonight at Davis-Kidd Booksellers, 387 Perkins Ext. in Laurelwood.)

Parker hid his past from the rest of the world, and cut ties to his family except for occasional, odd notes in which he sometimes referred to himself in the third person.

In America, Parker decided to call himself 'Colonel' after a long search for a suitable title (he had first called himself 'Gov'). Eventually he would be named an honorary Tennessee colonel. It was a fitting title for a man who began as a carnival animal trainer, concessionaire, barker and promoter, and came to manage the world's biggest act.

Parker meant different things to the different people closest to Elvis. Schilling says he often disagreed with the colonel, but describes Parker as somewhat likeable. 'I don't think the colonel was a truly bad guy. I think he was intimidating. I think he was old school. I don't think the colonel ever understood rock-and-roll music. Elvis outgrew the colonel. He wanted to experiment, but the colonel wouldn't let him'.

Schilling says Elvis felt 'indebted for all the things the colonel did for him', and kept a soft spot for his mentor, despite growing resentment in his final years. 'There was a respect between these two guys and a certain love'.

Parker exacted 50 percent or more of the proceeds from Presley's career, which has led to the harshest criticism of his role as the entertainer's manager. But Memphis Mafia member Joe Esposito, now in Sacramento, Calif., says Parker did far more for Elvis than a normal manager. 'Sure he took more than 25 percent, but there aren't many managers who devote themselves to one artist. The colonel never wanted a stable (of artists)'. Major stars, including actress Natalie Wood, had tried to get Parker to manage them, he says.

In the book, Parker is quoted as coyly denying that he took 50 percent of Elvis' earnings. 'He takes 50 percent of everything I earn', Parker said.

Esposito considers the speculation about a murder in Nash's book reckless. 'To say somebody is a murderer and have no proof of it, I have no respect for her. Any man who loves animals and kids the way he did can't be a bad person'.

Esposito says Parker also is unfairly blamed for 'forcing' Elvis to star in a string of embarrassing B-movies. He says Elvis' contracts were seven-picture deals. 'When you have a commitment, you have to do it', he says of the movies that played a pivotal role in Elvis' fame, including as cross-pollination for his musical career. Unfortunately, says Esposito of those movies: 'There are only so many animals and little kids you can sing to'.

As for accusations that the colonel seemed unwilling to intercede against his client's drug use, Esposito says Elvis began taking amphetamines in the Army to stay awake during maneuvers. Toward the end, he says, Parker encouraged Elvis to take a break, but Elvis refused. 'You can't make a 42-year-old man do what he doesn't want to do', Esposito said.

Marty Lacker, a member of the Memphis Mafia, says Elvis had no business savvy or skills and that he relied on Parker for anything to do with contracts and deals. Lacker says he thought of Parker as a "hustler and scam artist" who abused Elvis' reliance on him. 'If Parker ever thought Elvis was going to be around somebody who would (influence) him, Parker did his utmost to end that relationship'.

At Graceland, chief executive officer Jack Soden says he had become a friend of the colonel before he died in spite of a legal battle in which Parker lost his grasp on the Elvis estate. 'The thing you can't argue with is that he had to be one of the most colorful individuals who ever came into the entertainment arena in the United States'.

Whether Elvis would have become the legend he did without Parker, is a matter of debate. Parker kept almost as grueling a schedule as Elvis, booking, promoting and managing Elvis and acting as his public relations firm. 'He worked his tail off his whole life', Soden says.

'Sometimes he was very shrewd and creative, sometimes very heavy handed and sometimes a bully. . . . Some say he was the greatest showman of all. Some say he was the devil incarnate. I don't think there will ever be a verdict'.

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By Michael Lollar, August 13, 2003

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