Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk
June 26, 1909
|Died||January 21, 1997 (aged 87)|
Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S.
|Known for||Manager of Elvis Presley|
|Awards||Honorary Colonel (Louisiana)|
Colonel Thomas Andrew Parker (born Andreas Cornelis (Dries) van Kuijk; June 26, 1909 – January 21, 1997) was a Dutch musical entrepreneur who was the manager of Elvis Presley.
Parker had immigrated illegally to the United States at the age of 20. He resided in the country without legal status for the rest of his life and never left the country's borders. He changed his name and claimed to have been born in the United States, and his Dutch birthplace and immigrant status were not revealed for many years. A carnival worker by background, Parker moved into music promotion in 1938, working with one of the first popular crooners, Gene Austin, and then country music singers Eddy Arnold, Hank Snow, and Tommy Sands in his early career. He also assisted Jimmie Davis's campaign to become Governor of Louisiana. As a reward, Davis gave him the honorary rank of "colonel" in the Louisiana State Militia.
Parker discovered the unknown Elvis Presley in 1955. He maneuvered himself to become Presley's sole representative. Within months, he had won him a recording contract with the RCA Victor record label. This led to Presley having a commercial breakthrough in 1956 with his first single "Heartbreak Hotel" and rising to become one of the most popular and commercially successful entertainers in the world. Parker was able to receive more than half of the income from the enterprise, an unprecedented figure for a music manager. He negotiated Presley's lucrative merchandising deals, TV appearances, and acting roles in film musicals. He turned down offers to allow Presley to tour overseas, probably due to his status as an illegal immigrant, which would have been exposed had he consented for Elvis to go abroad. He also influenced Presley's personal life, including Presley's decisions to accept military service in 1958 and to marry Priscilla Beaulieu in 1967. The film musicals became the focus of Presley's career during his commercial decline in the 1960s, until his 1968 comeback and return to touring. Parker rarely saw him after that, but continued in his management role until Presley's death in 1977.
For the rest of his life, Parker managed the Presley estate, but he had sold the rights to Presley's early recordings, which would have ensured a steady income. In 1980, a judge ordered an investigation into Parker's management practices and found that Parker's management had been unethical. Meanwhile, his gambling habit increasingly eroded the huge fortune he had built up, and he died worth only US$1,000,000.
Parker was born as Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk on June 26, 1909, in Breda, Netherlands, and was the seventh of eleven children. As a boy, he worked as a barker at carnivals in his hometown, learning many of the skills that he would require later while working in the entertainment industry.
At age 15, Van Kuijk moved to Rotterdam, gaining employment on boats in the port town. At age 17, he first displayed signs of wanting to run away to the United States to "make his fortune". A year later, with enough money to sustain him for a short period, he entered America illegally by jumping ship from his employer's vessel. During his first visit there, he traveled with a Chautauqua educational tent show, before returning briefly to the Netherlands.
In The Colonel, her biography of Parker, Alanna Nash wrote that there were questions about a murder in Breda in which Parker may have been a suspect or at least a person of interest. This may have motivated him to avoid seeking a passport, as the Netherlands has an active extradition treaty with the United States, and he may have wanted to avoid criminal arrest by Dutch authorities in that case.
In 1929, Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk returned to the United States at age 20, finding work with carnivals due to his previous experience in the Netherlands. He enlisted in the United States Army a few months later, taking the name "Tom Parker" from the same name of the officer who interviewed him, to disguise the fact he was an illegal immigrant. He served basic training at Fort McPherson in Atlanta, Georgia.
He served two years in the 64th Coast Artillery (United States), at Fort Shafter, in Hawaii, and shortly afterwards re-enlisted at Fort Barrancas, Florida. Although Parker had served honorably before, he went AWOL this time and was charged with desertion. He was punished with solitary confinement, from which he emerged with a psychosis that led to him spending two months in a mental hospital, and he was discharged from the Army because of his mental condition.
Following his discharge, Parker worked at a number of jobs, including food concessions and gaming carnivals. From about 1931 until 1938, he worked as a "carny" with Royal American Shows. He began to build up a list of contacts that would prove valuable in later years.
In 1935, Parker married 27-year-old Marie Francis Mott. They struggled to survive through the Great Depression, working short cons and traveling across the country in search of work. Parker would later claim that at times they had had to live on as little as $1 a week (US$20 in 2021 dollars).
Parker first became involved in the music industry as a music promoter in 1938, working with popular singer Gene Austin. Despite having sold over 86 million records since 1924 and earning over $17 million, Austin's career was somewhat at a low point. He had spent much of his fortune on partying, cars, mansions, and women, and his popularity had been eclipsed by new singers, such as Bing Crosby. Parker, charged with the task of promoting the star, found the career transition to be a smooth one, using much of his "carny" experience to sell tickets and pack in the crowds. He was a successful promoter, but he had his sights set on management.
Austin offered Parker the opportunity to move to Nashville, Tennessee, where music was becoming a big business, but for reasons unknown Parker turned him down. Instead, Parker decided to stay in Temple Terrace, Florida, with his family, perhaps to avoid having to fill in paperwork that could expose his illegal status. Within a year, he had the opportunity to become a legal citizen of the United States – a new law allowed illegal aliens the chance to become citizens in return for their promise to fight for the country during World War II, if required. He served in the peacetime army as a precondition for taking advantage of that, but he never subsequently applied to become a citizen. Parker decided against registering, possibly to prevent his previous Army record from becoming public.
Instead, he found employment as a field agent with a local animal shelter, the Hillsborough County Humane Society. The job not only offered him a secure wage, it also offered a rent-free apartment above the Humane Society in a remote part of West Tampa for him and his family. With the Society in need of funds, Parker set about using his promotional experience to raise money and awareness for the shelter.
Through the fundraising, Parker found himself heading to Tennessee to find acts to perform at his charity events, among them stars such as Minnie Pearl and Eddy Arnold. Eventually, Parker began getting more involved in music promotion again, this time for himself rather than the Society.
In 1945, Parker became Arnold's full-time manager, signing a contract for 25% of the star's earnings. Over the next few years he would help Arnold secure hit songs, television appearances, and live tours.
In 1948, Parker received the honorary rank of colonel in the Louisiana State Militia from Jimmie Davis, the governor of Louisiana and a former country singer, in return for work Parker did on Davis's election campaign. The rank was honorary, since Louisiana had no organized militia, but Parker used the title throughout his life, becoming known simply as "the Colonel" to many acquaintances.
A young singer, Tommy Sands, caught Parker's eye in 1952, and Parker immediately set about promoting him. He arranged live appearances and became something of a father figure to the then-15-year-old Sands. Parker had intended to mold Sands into the next Roy Rogers, but Sands had no interest in such a plan. Instead, Parker sent demonstration recordings to Steve Sholes at RCA. Sholes showed little interest in Sands, but promised that he would attempt to find songs he might be able to record.
Arnold fired Parker in 1953 over Parker's growing involvement with the singer Hank Snow. However, Parker remained involved in many of Arnold's live tours and demanded a buyout of $50,000 (US$506,405 in 2021 dollars) to settle their contract. Parker and Snow eventually formed Hank Snow Enterprises and Jamboree Attractions, a successful promotional outfit for up-and-coming country singers.
In early 1955, Parker became aware of a young singer named Elvis Presley. Presley had a singing style different from the current trend, and Parker was immediately interested in the future of this musical style. Presley's first manager was Scotty Moore, the guitarist in his band, who was encouraged by Sun Records owner Sam Phillips to become his manager to protect Elvis from unscrupulous music promoters. In the beginning, Presley, Moore, and the bassist Bill Black were a trio, the Blue Moon Boys. However, when Presley signed a recording contract with Phillips, Moore and Black were excluded from the contract. Phillips told them to make a separate deal with Elvis. According to Moore, Presley agreed to take 50 percent, and Moore and Black would split the other 50 percent. Moore's one-year management contract with Presley provided him with a 10-percent commission, which Moore said he never took. The contract, dated July 12, 1954, eight days after their first recording session, was signed by Presley and his parents. When the contract expired, the Memphis radio personality Bob Neal stepped in and made a deal with Phillips to become Presley's manager. At that point, Moore and Black had no contractual ties to either Phillips or Presley. Neal was struggling at the time to accommodate his new client's success, and in February 1955, following a meeting with Parker, Presley agreed to let Parker take some control of future bookings and promotions.
Parker and Neal worked together to promote Presley, using their own Hank Snow Tour to book him and tour him. Although Neal remained Presley's official manager, Parker was becoming increasingly involved in the running of his career, and by the summer of 1955 he had become Presley's "special advisor". As Presley was still a minor, his parents had to sign the contract with Parker on his behalf. Part of Parker's role was to secure a new recording contract with a bigger label. Presley had been at Sun Records since the beginning of his career, but Sam Phillips, the owner of Presley's current label, was aware that for Presley to have any kind of a successful future in the business he would need the backing of a much larger label. Despite this, Phillips was not keen to let him go easily, advising Parker that he would require $40,000 (US$404,621 in 2021 dollars) to secure the release of Presley's contract, a completely unheard-of sum at the time.
Parker immediately went to work to find a new label for Presley. Both Mercury Records and Columbia Records showed interest, although their initial offers were nowhere near the $40,000 requirement. RCA Victor, Hank Snow's current label, was also showing an interest, but they were also put off by the cost of the contract. However, RCA Victor producer Steve Sholes was convinced that Presley's style of music would be a huge hit with the right label, and he began talks with Parker. RCA made it very clear they were unwilling to go above $25,000 for a practically unknown singer, but Parker persuaded them that Presley was no ordinary unknown singer. Around the same time, realizing the deal for Presley might fall through due to the cost of the contract, Parker attempted once again to sell Tommy Sands to RCA. He suggested to Sholes that Sands could record material similar to Presley's style. Sholes, remembering his previous experience with Sands, dismissed him as a viable replacement for Presley.
In November, Parker and Snow persuaded RCA to buy Presley out from Sun for $40,000, and on November 21, Presley's contract was officially transferred from Sun Records to RCA Victor. Snow attended the signing, thinking that Elvis had signed a management contract with Jamboree Attractions, which he owned with Parker. However, that was not the case since Elvis was still under contract to Bob Neal. The only document that was signed on November 21 pertained to the record label transfer. In return for a larger financial part of the deal, Neal agreed not to renew his management contract with Presley after it expired in March 1956, allowing Parker the opportunity to claim the job for himself.
On March 26, 1956, after Presley's management contract with Neal had expired, the singer signed a contract with Parker that made him his exclusive representative. Later, when Hank Snow asked Parker about the status of their contract with Presley, Parker told him: "You don't have any contract with Elvis Presley. Elvis is signed exclusively to the Colonel."
With his first RCA Victor single, "Heartbreak Hotel", in 1956, Presley became a recording star. Parker began 1956 with intentions of bringing his new star to the national stage. He arranged for Presley to appear on popular television shows, such as The Milton Berle Show and The Ed Sullivan Show, securing fees that made him the highest-paid star on television. By the summer Presley had become one of the most famous new faces of the year, causing excitement among the new teenage audience and outrage among some older audiences and religious groups. Presley said of Parker: "I don't think I'd have ever been very big if it wasn't for him. He's a very smart man."
Parker signed a merchandising deal with Beverly Hills film merchandiser Hank Saperstein for nearly $40,000 to turn Presley into a brand name. With over 78 different ranges, from charm bracelets to record players, Presley merchandise had brought in $22 million by the end of 1956. Parker, with his 25% share of profits, was finding many new ways to make money from his artist that other managers before him never thought of. He had even come up with the idea to market "I Hate Elvis" badges.
In April 1956, Parker made his first mistake with Presley's career. He had booked him into a four-week Las Vegas engagement, misjudging the reaction of the slightly older, more reserved audiences that Las Vegas attracted. While Presley was a hit among the youth of America, the middle-aged audiences found him to be something of an oddity. Some viewed him as a clown-like figure, wiggling his hips for scream, while others found his manner of performance vulgar and more suitable for late-night gentleman's clubs. After a very cold reception during his first few shows, Parker cut Presley's appearance to two weeks. Presley would later remember the event as one of the worst moments of his career.
Despite this hiccup in his career, Presley was still going from strength to strength. He had expressed interest in making films when he first met Parker, and now Parker was working to make that happen. He arranged for a screen test with Paramount Pictures, and after impressing them with his acting ability, Presley was signed to a seven-picture contract. Parker made sure that the contract allowed Presley the freedom to make at least one film a year with another studio, and also managed to set up an office, with staff, at Paramount. Presley's acting career was originally intended to be a serious one, but after seeing a chance to cross-promote singles and albums with the films, Parker persuaded him to sing in his films. This proved very lucrative, especially when the single for Presley's first film, Love Me Tender, sold over one million copies in advance sales. With 1956 coming to a close, Parker had made Presley one of the most well-known, well-paid entertainers in the world.
In 1957, Parker finally managed to give Tommy Sands his big break by arranging for him to audition for and star in The Singin' Idol, a drama for NBC that was loosely based on the life and career of Presley. NBC had originally wanted Presley for the role, but Parker had turned them down. In the drama the role of Parker was portrayed as a "twisted psychopath". Critics were very positive in their reviews of both the drama and Sands, leading to Capitol Records signing Sands within a week. Soon after, Sands' song "Teen-Age Crush" reached number 2 on the pop charts, eventually selling 800,000 copies.
Regardless of the success that Parker and Presley had achieved, Parker was still struggling to believe that Presley's career would last longer than a year or two. He had seen many acts come and go during his earlier years in management, and felt that to think that Presley, despite being Parker's most successful act to date, would be any different, was foolish. In January 1958 Presley received his draft notice from the United States Army. He was upset about the possibility of it affecting his career, but Parker was secretly overjoyed.
Presley had been showing signs of rebellion against him recently, and Parker believed that a stint in the Army would cure him of this. Parker was looking ahead to the future when he persuaded Presley to sign up as a regular soldier. Presley had wanted to join Special Services, allowing him the opportunity to continue to perform while at the same time getting an easier ride than other soldiers. Parker, on the other hand, was fully aware that any special treatment given to Presley would instantly be used against him in the media and by those who disliked his style of music. If Presley could show the world that he was just the same as any other young man, Parker told him, then more people would be likely to accept him and his music. Parker was also afraid that any attempt to block Presley from being drafted would result in a more detailed look into his own service record. He also realized that it would be a great opportunity to promote Presley by having the media witness his induction day, including the Army haircut that would see the most famous hair style in the world destroyed.
While Presley was serving in West Germany, Parker was hard at work keeping his name known to the public. He realized that by keeping RCA, and more importantly the public, hungry for more Presley material, he would be able to negotiate a better contract for him when he returned from active service. He had arranged for Presley to record five singles before his induction, guaranteeing RCA enough material to release over a two-year period. RCA was eager for Presley to record in West Germany, but Parker insisted that it would ruin his reputation as a regular soldier if he was able to go into a recording studio and sing. Stories appeared in the press regularly about Presley, including that he would do a live CCTV broadcast when he returned and that he had signed a deal for a series of annual television spectaculars to be broadcast across the country. All of these stories were fabrications, but it kept his name in view of the public.
Parker appeared to be in complete control during Presley's time away, but he was worried about the outside influence that Presley might come across in West Germany. Parker had declined to travel to Europe, denying that he spoke any language other than English. He sent Presley's friends to keep him company, arranged for business associates to watch over him while they were working in Europe, and kept in regular contact with him via telephone and letter. He was reportedly afraid that Presley would realize that there were other managers available prepared to sign contracts that did not require as much as 25% of his earnings. Parker was still worried that Presley would return to nothing, that the public would have found a new star to fawn over by then, and that his golden goose would be reduced to nothing more than a "has-been".
For Presley's return in March 1960, Parker had arranged for a train to take him from Washington, D.C., to Memphis, with stops along the way for fans to see their idol in person. If Parker had had any doubts about his return, they were soon gone when he witnessed the turnout along the route.
Frank Sinatra, who had declared Presley and rock and roll a disgrace in the 1950s, was keen to have him appear on his show. Parker, not one to forget harsh criticism, stated that the fee would be $125,000 (equivalent to about $1,145,000 in 2021) for two songs, a total of eight minutes on screen; Sinatra himself was receiving a lower sum for the whole show, but he agreed. The show, entitled "Welcome Home, Elvis", was Presley's first national television appearance since The Ed Sullivan Show in January 1957.
After the Sinatra special, Parker decided that Presley's future lay in Hollywood. He envisioned him as an entertainment machine, pumping out three films and soundtracks a year, until the end of the decade. He allowed him to perform three live shows in 1961, all charity events, two in Memphis and one in Hawaii. After that, until 1968, Presley gave no live performances, and had very little contact with his fans. Parker signed long-term contracts with the film studios, possibly to guarantee work and income for both him and Presley. This was, with hindsight, a mistake on his part; if he had negotiated each deal separately based on the profits of the previous film, he could have received more money. Throughout the 1960s Parker would continually renegotiate Presley's film contracts, often paying little attention to the scripts or the concerns of his client. These deals were sometimes so harsh on the studios that it led producer Hal Wallis to state: "I'd rather try and close a deal with the Devil."
Presley had to do no more than provide RCA with three albums a year, and his film soundtracks did that for him. With no touring or public appearances to be made, Parker was able to keep costs to a minimum. For the first few years Presley's films were somewhat successful, his albums topped the charts, and any singles that were released were mostly hits. But as time went on, as the Beatles began their dominance of the music charts and the worldwide phenomenon known as Beatlemania began, Presley became less and less successful. His films still made money and his albums still sold well, but the profits were falling. This led Parker to insist that films be made cheaply, on a strict schedule, and with as little hassle as possible.
For the remainder of the 1960s, Presley made films that relied heavily on exotic locations and mundane songs, and he was tied into contracts that he could not escape. Parker did not appear to care if the films were good or bad but only about the profits. When Presley complained to him that he wanted better scripts, Parker reminded him of his lavish lifestyle and that risking $1 million a year for doing practically no work was dangerous. Presley's career stagnated while artists like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and The Beach Boys dominated the charts. Later, in 1983, Parker admitted during an interview that after 1966, the income from Presley films and soundtracks was dramatically reduced. 
To make up for lack of earnings, Parker arranged for Presley's gold Cadillac to go on tour. Selling it to RCA for $24,000 (US$200,443 in 2021 dollars), it was used to promote Presley's latest film, Frankie & Johnny. The Cadillac tour proved to be somewhat more successful than the film itself. In Houston alone in one afternoon, 40,000 people paid to see it, with one woman offering to have sex with the tour manager if he would allow her to sit in it.
On January 2, 1967, Parker re-negotiated his managerial/agent contract with Presley, persuading him to increase Parker's share from 25% to 50% on certain transactions. When critics questioned this arrangement and that Parker was exploiting Presley for more money because of greed, Presley quipped "I could have signed with East Coast Entertainment where they take 70 percent!" Parker used the argument that Presley was his only client and he was thus earning only one fee.
After Presley showed signs of rebellion again in 1966 and because of his flagging career, Parker decided that it was time for a new approach: marriage. Frank Sinatra had married Mia Farrow in 1966, and it had produced enough publicity for Parker to sit up and take notice. Presley had been living with Priscilla Beaulieu, ten years his junior, for the past four years, but it had not been public knowledge. Jerry Lee Lewis's career had been almost destroyed when it came out that he had married his 13-year-old cousin – and Parker was not going to let a similar scandal happen to Presley.
Parker hoped that marriage would not only boost Presley's career but also possibly tame him. With Priscilla's father dropping heavy hints, and fear that their relationship might become public beforehand, Parker persuaded Presley that he should make an "honest woman" of her in the very near future. However, it would be a quiet wedding. Parker decided that Las Vegas was the perfect place to do it, and on May 1, 1967, the couple were married in a ceremony that lasted only eight minutes and had a handful of guests. A breakfast reception was arranged, taking place after the media got their photographs of the couple.
It took the energetic 1968 television special Elvis, which the Singer Company sponsored, and a subsequent series of acclaimed recording sessions in Memphis, Tennessee that included songs such as "Suspicious Minds" and "In the Ghetto", to restore Presley's musical reputation. However, the music scene had radically changed. It was producer Steve Binder who put forward the idea of Presley singing his old hits and even the staged section with his old band, Scotty Moore and D. J. Fontana, the latter inspired by a post-rehearsal informal jam in Presley's dressing room. Presley was never one to stand up against Parker, but he knew that this TV show was his one chance at a true comeback, and with Binder backing him, Presley told Parker he was doing it "Binder's way". Their instincts were proven right; the TV special proved an enormous hit, and the album that was released featuring performances from the special became a best-seller. After the special, Parker managed Presley's return to live performance, including a set of brief U.S. tours and many engagements in Las Vegas. Following the success of Presley's Las Vegas return, Parker signed a contract with the International Hotel to guarantee Presley would play a month-long engagement for $125,000 a week (US$974,043 in 2021 dollars), an unheard-of sum at the time. During this part of Presley's career, Parker and Presley agreed to a 50/50 "partnership", which, with Parker controlling merchandising and other non-music related items, resulted in Parker earning more than his client.
After the success of Presley's return to live performing in Las Vegas, Parker decided it was time to take him back out on tour for the first time in 13 years. The tours were so popular and financially successful that they determined Presley's workload for the remainder of his life and career. Parker's main role during these tours was to plan the logistics and make sure tickets were sold. He would usually fly ahead to the venues and prepare the way for Presley's entourage to follow, so that he and Presley rarely saw each other, and as time progressed it became even more difficult for Parker to get in contact with Presley. These live performances, as well as being financially satisfying, also allowed Parker to fulfill Presley's recording contract with RCA. Between 1969 and 1972 alone, RCA released three albums of live material.
By 1972, Parker had managed to increase Presley's weekly wage in Las Vegas to $150,000 (US$971,718 in 2021 dollars), and secured $50,000 a year (US$323,906 in 2021 dollars) for himself as a "consultant to the hotel chain". Parker had also decided that it was time for Presley to return to New York, and had arranged for him to perform at Madison Square Garden in June. Originally planned as three performances, demand was so high that Parker decided to add a fourth performance, making Presley the first performer to sell out the venue four consecutive times. These four shows alone grossed $730,000 (US$4,729,029 in 2021 dollars).
On July 8, 1972, inspired by the visit of President Richard Nixon to China a few months earlier, Parker announced that there would be a worldwide satellite broadcast from Hawaii to allow the whole world the chance to see a Presley concert, "since it is impossible for us to play in every major city". (During Presley's career, except for a few concerts in Canada in 1957, he never performed outside the United States.) Parker held another press conference on September 4, 1972, in Las Vegas to confirm that the concert, now titled Aloha from Hawaii, would be broadcast on January 14, 1973. The press were told that an audience of 1 billion was expected to tune in to see the "first entertainment special to be broadcast live around the world", although Parker had not taken into account the fact that many countries, including parts of Europe and America, would not see the concert live due to the time of the broadcast. Two weeks after the Las Vegas press conference Parker received a letter from Honolulu Advertiser columnist Eddie Sherman. Sherman had read in news accounts that there was to be no charge for admittance to the concerts, a donation to charity being required instead. He suggested to Parker that, as Presley had recorded and was still performing the song "I'll Remember You" written by Kui Lee, the donations could go to the Kui Lee Cancer Fund that had been set up following the death of the songwriter in 1966. Seeing the chance to publicize Presley's charitable nature once again, Parker eagerly agreed. The album was released simultaneously around the world, and went to number 1 on the US charts, the first Presley album to do so since the Roustabout soundtrack, in 1964.
Aloha from Hawaii proved to be the last great moment in Presley's career. In May 1973, in an attempt to deal with Presley's growing dependence on prescription drugs, Presley's father, Vernon, and Parker attempted to cut off his supply. They hired private detectives to find out where the drugs were coming from and were successful in stopping any more from reaching Presley. However, it wasn't long before Presley was able to find other doctors to meet his demands. In later years, several of Presley's inner circle would tell of how difficult it was to persuade Presley to quit the drugs. As well as being their employer and paying their wages, he was also their main source of access to drugs for themselves. Presley's main doctor, George C. Nichopoulos, would often replace Presley's medication with placebos in an attempt to wean him off the drugs. This would be successful for a short time, but when Presley discovered the trick, he simply found himself other doctors. Author Alanna Nash suggests that one of the reasons Parker didn't do more is because he may have just not known how to handle the situation. In her book, The Colonel, she writes: "in the days before the Betty Ford Clinic, the Colonel didn't know where to take him for discreet, effective help and loathed risking the loss of work if the truth got out".
After the Aloha special, Parker made a deal that would later be used in court to prove that he had not acted in the best interests of Presley. He offered RCA the opportunity to buy Presley's entire back catalog for $5.4 million. At the time, Presley's back catalog was not considered that important and RCA initially calculated it at being worth much less, but in later years it would become one of the most valuable catalogs in the music business. The sale of the catalog to RCA meant that after his death Presley's estate would not receive any royalties for his songs prior to 1973. However, Presley had asked him to raise funds to pay for his upcoming divorce settlement.
From 1974 onward, Presley's weight gain and prescription drug abuse became too much to be controlled. In Las Vegas he was starting to appear drugged on stage, slurring his words and forgetting song lyrics.
During a closing night performance on September 3, 1973, following news that a Hilton staff member who Presley was fond of had been fired, he attacked Barron Hilton in a verbal rage on stage. Parker was furious, and he stormed into Presley's dressing room after the show to confront him. After a heated argument between the two, Presley told Parker he was fired. Angered by this outburst, Parker declared: "You can't fire me. I quit!"
Parker accepted that their working relationship was over, and demanded that Presley pay him $2 million to end their contract; money Parker claimed he was owed. However Presley's father, Vernon, upon reading the bill Parker sent itemizing each cost individually, declared that they could not afford to buy out their contract. After nearly two weeks of trading insults back and forth, Parker and Presley decided to continue to work together.
Although many around Presley were worried about his worsening drug dependency, Parker appeared to ignore the problem. Several members of Presley's band later stated that Parker had no idea just how bad the situation was getting. However, other friends and members of Presley's entourage have stood by the suggestion that Parker didn't want to admit there was such a problem because he didn't know how to deal with it, and he was also worried about any negative publicity it would create. According to Parker himself, he did privately attempt to talk to his client a number of times about the matter, but allegedly every time Parker casually told Presley to quit or at least tone it down with the pill popping and binge eating, Presley would respond by telling Parker to stay out of his personal business.
In February 1975, during his engagement in Las Vegas, Presley, along with Parker, met with Barbra Streisand and Jon Peters. They discussed the possibility of Presley's co-starring with Streisand in a remake of the film A Star Is Born. Seeing it as a chance to finally be taken seriously as an actor, Presley agreed to take the role if the contracts could be worked out. According to Presley's friend, Jerry Schilling, Presley was excited about the opportunity to take on a new challenge. Streisand's production company, First Artists, offered Presley a salary of $500,000 (US$2,517,934 in 2021 dollars) and 10% of the profits. Parker, who had always dealt with Presley's film contracts and viewed the offer as a starting bid to earning more money, instead asked for a salary $1 million (US$5,035,869 in 2021 dollars), 50% of the profits, plus another $100,000 (US$503,587 in 2021 dollars) for expenses, and spoke of needing to arrange details of a soundtrack deal. First Artists, not used to such huge demands, didn't put forward a counter-offer and decided instead to offer the role, along with the original salary offer, to Kris Kristofferson who accepted. Parker later claimed that Presley had asked him to make the contract so demanding so that they would not offer him the part, although many of Presley's friends have contradicted Parker's statement because they had said Presley was furious at losing the role.
Later in 1975, the government of Saudi Arabia offered Parker $5 million for Presley to perform there. Parker turned the offer down, and Presley was overjoyed when they replied with another offer of $10 million. Yet, despite Presley's eagerness to do the shows, Parker again turned them down. Promoters in South America also made offers, as much as $2.5 million, and all of them were turned down by Parker; "Well, whenever I need $2.5 million I'll call you" he once said to them. Presley was beginning to consider new management, with Concerts West co-founder Tom Hulett being the clear favorite for the job. Hulett's company had managed tours for Presley, and he had worked with artists such as Led Zeppelin. According to several people who knew Presley at the time, the talks with Hulett got so far along that it seemed almost inevitable the deal would be done. The talks had included details about European tours, and buying out Presley's contract would not have been a problem for Hulett and his company. Despite this, however, the deal never materialized. According to Presley's biographer Peter Guralnick, Presley and Parker "were really like, in a sense, a married couple, who started out with great love, loyalty, respect that lasted for a considerable period of time, and went through a number of stages until, towards the end of Presley's life, they should have walked away. None of the rules of the relationship were operative any longer, yet neither had the courage to walk away, for a variety of reasons." In any case, Parker remained Presley's manager without a break until Presley's death in 1977.
By this time, Parker was aware that Presley needed a rest from touring and the chance to deal with his prescription drug addictions. He phoned Presley's father once to suggest taking time off, but Vernon Presley told him they couldn't afford to stop touring due to Presley's constant and lavish spending of money. Vernon also threatened to find a new manager if Parker wouldn't continue to tour Presley.
In July 1976, three of Presley's personal bodyguards and members of the "Memphis Mafia", Robert Gene "Red" West, his cousin Sonny West and David Hebler, were fired by Vernon Presley and decided to write a tell-all book about their life in his inner circle, entitled Elvis: What Happened? Worried about the impact such details might have on his career, Presley, through his father, asked Parker to stop the publication of the book. Parker made several attempts to have it stopped, but failed to do so. According to Presley's friend, Larry Geller, Parker secretly wanted the book to be published, hoping that it would open Presley's eyes to how bad he had gotten and persuade him to do something about it. The book would eventually be published one year later on July 12, 1977, one month before Presley's death.
For the remainder of Presley's life, Parker would see very little of him. The two had become almost strangers to each other, and false reports in the media suggested that Presley's contract was up for sale. Although Parker publicly denied these claims, he had been in talks with Peter Grant, manager of Led Zeppelin, about the possibility of him overseeing a European tour for Presley. As with all the talk about Presley touring overseas, Parker never followed through with the deal.
Some have speculated that the reason Presley only performed abroad once during his career, failing to undertake the highly lucrative prospect of touring other countries and continents, may have been that Parker was worried that he would not have been able to acquire a U.S. passport and might even have been deported upon filing his application. Although Parker was a U.S. Army veteran and the spouse of an American citizen, one of the basic tenets of U.S. immigration law is that unless an application is made as part of an amnesty program, there are few paths to citizenship or even legal residency for those who entered the country illegally. As Parker had not availed himself to the 1940 Alien Registration Act, and there was no amnesty program available to him afterwards, he was reportedly ineligible for US citizenship.
Throughout his entire career, Presley performed in only three venues outside the United States – all of them in Canada: Toronto, Ottawa and Vancouver, during brief tours there in 1957. At the time of those concerts, crossing the US-Canada border did not require a passport. Red Robinson, Vancouver radio icon and MC of the Presley concert in that city, said Parker did not accompany Presley to that show, but instead stayed in Washington. However, it is well-established that Parker did not accompany Presley on every tour and every performance date, even in the US, suggesting this may not have been the only rationale for Presley not performing abroad.
Rumors Presley would play overseas for the first time were fueled in 1974 by a million-dollar bid for an Australian tour. Parker was uncharacteristically reluctant, prompting those close to Presley to speculate about the manager's past and the reasons for his apparent unwillingness to apply for a passport. Parker ultimately quashed any notions Presley had of working abroad, although Presley did not push the issue, either.
To cover up Parker's need for questioning in criminal activity, many theories for Presley's lack of touring abroad have surfaced, including the following:
Parker's refusal to allow Presley to tour abroad opened up opportunities for other American rock-and-roll musicians, such as Neil Sedaka, to gain footholds there before Presley did. This also contributed to the phenomenon of some more obscure American acts becoming "big in Japan", since those acts would tour in Japan while Presley could and would not.
When Presley died in August 1977, one day before he was due to go out on tour, some accounts suggest Parker acted as if nothing had happened. Other accounts suggest he slumped in his chair at his office, muttered "oh dear God", and then quickly phoned Vernon Presley where Parker advised Presley's father that his son's image needed to be protected.
Parker set out to protect his future income. Asked by a journalist what he would do now, Parker responded: "Why, I'll just go right on managing him!" Almost immediately, before even visiting Graceland, Parker traveled to New York City to meet with merchandising associates and RCA executives, instructing them to prepare for a huge demand in Presley products. Shortly afterward, he traveled to Memphis for Presley's funeral. Mourners recall being surprised at his wearing a Hawaiian shirt and baseball cap, smoking his trademark cigar, and purposely avoiding the casket. At the funeral, he persuaded Presley's father to sign over control of Presley's career in death to him.
In September 1978, shortly after the first anniversary of Presley's death, Parker arranged a fan festival, Always Elvis, where he, Vernon, and Presley's ex-wife Priscilla, dedicated a bronze statue of him in the lobby of the Las Vegas Hilton.
Following Presley's death, Parker set up a licensing operation with Factors Etc. Inc, to control Presley merchandise and keep a steady income supporting his estate. It was later revealed that Presley owned 22% of the company, Parker owned 56%, and the final 22% was made up of various business associates. Due to an ill-advised agreement between Parker and Presley that gave RCA sole ownership of all his recording royalties prior to 1973, the estate was relying heavily on the income from Factors Etc. Inc. However, because Parker was still entitled to 50% of all Presley's income, and after taxes were taken off, the overall amount going towards the upkeep of the estate was less than $1 million a year.
In January 1979, it was discovered that Presley had lost out on royalties for songs on which he had been listed as an author or composer because Parker had unwisely advised him not to sign up to ASCAP or its younger competitor, BMI. Experts in the field at the time estimated that it had potentially cost Presley millions of dollars and worse for Parker, it had also potentially cost him those millions of dollars. Parker had unknowingly backed himself into a financial corner.
By 1980, the cost of running the estate was estimated to be as much as $500,000 a year. Priscilla and the Trust were prepared to let Parker continue to handle Presley's business affairs, and petitioned the court to that end. However, Judge Joseph Evans, aware that Lisa Marie Presley was still a minor, appointed attorney Blanchard E. Tual to investigate Parker's management. Tual, once appointed as Lisa Marie's guardian ad litem, chose to investigate the entire period of Parker's management of Presley; his preliminary finding was that Parker's management deal of 50% was extortionate compared to the industry average of 15–20%. He also noted that Parker's handling of Presley's business affairs during his lifetime, including the decision to sell off past royalties to RCA for $5.4 million in 1973, was "unethical" and poorly handled. During a second, more detailed investigation, Tual discovered that all earnings were paid directly to the Trust instead of Parker. By this time, with the IRS demanding almost $15 million in taxes, the estate was facing bankruptcy.
On August 14, 1981, Judge Evans ordered EPE to sue Parker for mismanagement. In response to this, Parker countersued. The case against Parker was settled out of court in 1983, with the estate paying him $2 million (US$5,441,363 in 2021 dollars) in exchange for all Presley audio recordings or visual images that he owned and the termination of his involvement in any Presley related earnings for five years.
Parker had worked as a "consultant" for Hilton Hotels since Presley's death, with some believing he was working to pay off debts owed to the casino from his gambling during Presley's performances there. Part of this role resulted in Parker keeping the same fourth-floor suite he occupied when Presley was alive, but by 1984, with his gambling debts reportedly rising again, he was evicted. On the surface, however, relations between the two were as good as ever, with Parker helping the Hilton to commemorate the tenth anniversary of Presley's death.
The disputes with the Presley estate did not terminate his association with his most high-profile client. Parker appeared at posthumous events honoring Presley, such as the 1993 issuing of the United States Postal Service stamp honoring the King of Rock and Roll. He also became friendly with the estate again, attending special ceremonies and events in Memphis, invited by Priscilla. However, he did occasionally step on their toes by commenting negatively on some of their decisions. In 1994, following the marriage of Lisa Marie and Michael Jackson, Parker stated that Presley would not have approved, and in 1993, interest in Presley's enduring legend, interest that is sometimes notable for its obsessiveness, provoked Parker to remark: "I don't think I exploited Elvis as much as he's being exploited today."
In 1994, a Golden Palm Star on the Walk of Stars in Palm Springs, California was dedicated to him.
As Presley's fame grew, people became interested in Parker as well. For a time, Parker lied about his childhood, claiming to have been born in Huntington, West Virginia, (to explain his Dutch accent as being a Southern accent) and to have run away at an early age to join a circus run by an uncle. The truth about his early years was revealed in 1960 when one of Parker's sisters, Nel Dankers-van Kuijk, living in the Netherlands, recognized him in photographs standing next to Presley.
One of Parker's brothers, Adam "Ad" van Kuijk, visited Parker once in Los Angeles in April 1961. Parker privately acknowledged his brother and even introduced him to Presley. During the week-long visit, Parker was informed by Adam van Kuijk that their mother had died three years earlier in 1958, never knowing what happened to her son after he left the Netherlands for good in 1929. Adam van Kuijk died from emphysema in 1992, never seeing or visiting Parker again.
The claim of Parker's Dutch heritage was publicly confirmed when Parker unsuccessfully tried to avert a lawsuit brought against him in 1982 by asserting in open court that he was a Dutch citizen. The opposing counsel responded by presenting into evidence a copy of Parker's U.S. Army enlistment form which stated, through a legal loophole, that because Parker signed his enlistment papers under his alias "Thomas Andrew Parker" and once he took the oath by swearing allegiance to the United States of America, he unofficially renounced his Dutch citizenship. In 1993, in one of his last media appearances, Parker appeared in a television interview with Dutch TV director Jorrit van der Kooi where they spoke to each other in Dutch about the Netherlands and about Elvis Presley's life and career. During the interview, Parker said that he was not aware that another one of his sisters, named Adriana van Kuijk, had died in the Netherlands a few years before.
In 1935, while traveling with a circus, Parker met and married 27-year-old Marie Francis Mott. Marie was one of six children, had been married twice before, and had a son from her first marriage. Unbeknownst to Parker at the time, she had a second son from her first marriage, but had given him up for adoption at birth due to his disability (a club foot). Some have suggested that Parker married Marie to disguise his illegal status in the US; a marriage to a US citizen with a child could help him bury his past in a "ready-made family". However, there is no definite proof that anything other than romance led to their marriage.
Others, however, have doubts about whether they were legally married at all. According to interviews given by Parker to the Associated Press many years later, he and Marie were married in Tampa, Florida during the winter of 1932, but the Florida Office of Vital Statistics has no record of such a marriage any time between 1927 and 1946. It is also recorded that Marie did not divorce her second husband until 1936, and her brother, Bitsy, recalls no ceremony of marriage between Parker and Marie. Author Alanna Nash suggests the couple may have simply placed their hands on a Bible and given themselves a "carny wedding".
In the early days of their marriage, Marie and Parker worked together in the carnivals. As Parker's management career began to take off, Marie became more of a housewife, although she would occasionally travel with him to various parts of the country. During the 1960s, after many years of ill health, Marie began to display signs of dementia. Parker began to distance himself from her, heartbroken by her slow mental deterioration from the woman he once knew. Marie died on November 25, 1986, of a chronic brain syndrome at age 78. In October 1990, Parker married Loanne Miller, his secretary since 1972. From then on, he continued living in Las Vegas, mostly avoiding contact with the press.
Many Parker biographers, including Dirk Vellenga and Alanna Nash, have stated that Parker's gambling habit began to get out of control in the mid-1960s. During the 1960s, with his wife's health deteriorating, and Presley's career struggling, Parker found an escape with gambling at Las Vegas casinos. Fans and biographers alike believe that one of the main reasons Parker signed Presley to a Vegas hotel in 1969 for his live comeback was to help cover losses he experienced in their casino. He would often spend 12–14 hours at a time gambling in the casinos, betting large sums instead of small amounts. It is believed that Parker lost at least $1 million a year from excessive gambling. At the time of Presley's death in 1977, it was suspected that Parker owed the Las Vegas Hilton over $30 million (US$134,151,565 in 2021 dollars) in gambling losses. After a lifetime that saw him earn in excess of $100 million, Parker's estate was barely worth $1 million when he died.
"Colonel Tom Parker rubbed my head in Vegas", Eddie Murphy stated in 1989. "A couple times he set me up in the Elvis Presley suite on top of the Hilton, and I would go play Elvis for a week… One night we were at the crap table together and he rubbed my head for luck. I wanted to punch him in the face. But this guy is like eighty years old – too old to be taught the limits of racism… He probably doesn't realize how horrible a thing that was to do."
Parker made his last public appearances in 1994. By this point, he was a very sick man stricken with diabetes, gout, and other health problems in which he could barely leave his own house. On January 20, 1997, Parker's wife heard a crashing sound from the living room, and when she heard no response to her calls, she went in to find him slumped over in his chair. He had suffered a stroke.
Parker died the following morning at a hospital in Las Vegas, Nevada, from complications to the stroke at the age of 87. His death certificate lists his birth name as Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk, his country of birth as the Netherlands, and his citizenship as American. His funeral was held at the Hilton Hotel and was attended by a handful of friends and former associates, including Eddy Arnold and Sam Phillips. Priscilla Presley attended the funeral to represent the Elvis Presley Estate and gave a eulogy that, to many in the room, summed up Parker: "Elvis and the Colonel made history together, and the world is richer, better and far more interesting because of their collaboration. And now I need to locate my wallet, because I noticed there was no ticket booth on the way in here, but I'm sure that the Colonel must have arranged for some toll on the way out."
Parker was portrayed by:
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