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Despite the bombardment of mediocre Elvis impersonators, the world still largely acknowledges that the Elvis Presley who toppled off his porcelain throne 20 years ago is the King of Rock 'n' Roll. But now that longtime Elvis handler Colonel Tom Parker has kicked the bucket--Parker died of a stroke January 21 at the age of 87--should we posthumously crown him "King of Rock 'n' Roll Managers"?
Bah! Not since Doctor Smith stowed away inside the Robinsons' vessel on Lost in Space has such a meddlesome adversary been so entrusted in close quarters. Elvis is the King, all right, despite having Colonel Tom for a manager. Parker, a former carnival barker, had little appreciation for Presley's talent beyond its ability to ring cash registers. He was the Don King of rock 'n' roll, lauded for getting top dollar and delivering a sure thing.
Elvis was already a piping-hot property by the time the Colonel got his slimy, fat fingers on the Hillbilly Cat in 1955: All the Colonel did was hold out for the biggest cash advance. Hell, a Let's Make a Deal contestant can do as much. But here's the kicker--Parker made some good moves for Elvis, but some of the deals he cut were boneheaded beyond belief, recent obits heralding his business acumen notwithstanding.
Luckily, nothing could stop Elvis from fulfilling his destiny, not even a cigar-chomping control freak in the wings, ready to botch up things at every turn. In case the torrent of tears over the Colonel's death last week has misted your memory banks, here are just a few of the Colonel's Greatest Hits (and Misses):
That's When Your Heartaches Begin: Bluffing his way onto the fairground circuit by claiming to be the prodigy of West Virginia carny folk, Parker gained notoriety touring as "Colonel Tom Parker and His Dancing Chickens" (the chickens "danced" because ol' Tom stuck 'em on a hot plate). Neither of carny stock nor a real colonel, "Parker" was actually an illegal Dutch immigrant named Andreas Cornelius Van Kuijk--a fiercely guarded secret that didn't come out until Albert Goldman's Elvis biography, published after the King's death. Parker knew he couldn't get a passport without risking a one-way trip back to wooden-shoe world. Nor would he let Elvis go on the road without him. The result? Elvis, ever the loyal lackey, never performed a concert on foreign soil. Maybe in another life, Parker was a real colonel. And Elvis was his dancing chicken.
I Want You, I Need You, I Love You: The Colonel secured an unprecedented $35,000 from RCA Records to sign Elvis to his first major contract. The closest bidder was Atlantic Records--which offered $25,000 and anxious company president Ahmet Ertegun's desk. A big mahogany desk? Aw, you blew it, Andreas.
Too Much: The Colonel marked Presley fans as suckers early in the game when he rereleased the first Elvis RCA album in its entirety on six singles and two EPs, all of which sold like hot cakes. That greedy trend was reversed in the '60s, when Big E's film soundtracks were so piss-poor their contents were scattered exclusively across B-sides and EPs, probably in the hopes no one would notice them.
Heartbreak Hotel: The Colonel routinely locked Elvis in his hotel room until showtime, fearing a romantically entangled cash cow would adversely affect record and ticket sales. Forbidding the Pelvis to have girlfriends inadvertently provided the virginal blueprint for Elvis' future ex-son-in-law, Michael Jackson.
Fame and Fortune: Elvis almost made his screen debut in The Rainmaker (1956), opposite Burt Lancaster and Katharine Hepburn. The Colonel interceded, however, and got Elvis cast in a crummy Western called The Reno Brothers (later retitled Love Me Tender) opposite performers the likes of Richard Egan and Debra Paget. Wow--no expense spared there! The Colonel's reason for nixing Burt and Kate? He thought Elvis, who had one screen test under his belt, was too big for supporting roles.
Big Boss Man: The Colonel's "creative" marketing strategies included personally hawking Presley trinkets and programs at concerts (the better to put the money directly into his own pocket) and establishing the infamous Elvis Presley Midget Fan Club. Only when David Lee Roth hired two dwarves to be his bodyguards some 20 years later did small people again play such a big role in rock.
Treat Me Nice: Flaming Star (1960) and Wild in the Country (1961) were Parker's last-ditch efforts to establish Elvis as a dramatic film actor. When both movies failed to gross (and gross out) like G.I. Blues (1960), the Colonel restricted Elvis film vehicles to vacuous musical comedies. Although he refused to even attend a script conference without getting paid, Parker did offer Kissin' Cousins director Gene Nelson one idea for the silly hillbilly flick free of charge. His concept? Put in a talking camel.
Double Trouble: The Colonel's 1956 contractual agreement with Elvis entitled him to 25 percent of the King's income, a figure which doubled by mutual agreement when it came up for renewal in 1967. Maybe the King was distracted by his upcoming nuptials to Priscilla, or his upcoming Summer of Love cinema stink bomb--yep, you guessed it--Double Trouble. That film, yet another Parker-engineered project, called for Elvis to sing both "Long Legged Girl With the Short Dress On" and "Old MacDonald (Had a Farm, E-I-E-I-O)" without blushing.