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.
It's Now or Never: As Elvis sleepwalked through 11 films between 1961 and 1965, Parker paid little heed to the faltering 45 rpm market, once the most lucrative division of the Presley franchise. Eventually, the Colonel noticed a missing lump in his wallet and sprung into action. Parker's plan? The "Gold Standard Series," 12 singles released over five years that consisted of album tracks and outtakes predating 1962 (before anyone even imagined Harum Scarum). Only one in the series dented the Top 10--an unreleased 1960 recording of "Crying in the Chapel," unearthed in time for Easter '65 commerce. By then, the Colonel wasn't too proud to suck up to the Man in the Sky to get a Top 5 hit.
Stuck on You: One reason the hits stopped a-coming was the deal the Colonel made with Hill and Range Music Publishing for Elvis to use its material exclusively. Although the Hill and Range team once included the great songwriting duo of Leiber and Stoller--responsible for "Hound Dog" and "Jailhouse Rock"--in later days, Elvis had to use such tune weavers as Ben Weisman, responsible for more than 50 excruciating Elvis songs, including "Rock-a-Hula Baby," "Do the Clam," "He's Your Uncle, Not Your Dad" and the title tracks for Spinout, Fun in Acapulco and Easy Come, Easy Go. During the sessions for the latter in 1967, Elvis couldn't help but moan to the RCA recording engineers, "What are you supposed to do with shit like this?"
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What'd I Say?: Nowhere was Colonel Tom's contempt for Elvis' "dyed in the wool" following more apparent than the day he started selling the souvenir "talking only" album, Having Fun Onstage With Elvis, at the King's live shows. The record consists of all the between-song banter excised from Elvis' numerous live albums, stitched together to make one zonked-out monologue. Come on, now, that's like trying to make a fruit salad out of banana and orange peels.
Viva Las Vegas: The Colonel was a rabid gambler, and it's long been rumored the main reason Elvis played so many Vegas shows at the end of his career was that the Colonel had to borrow a million dollars from various casinos against future Elvis earnings. Ladies and gentlemen, Elvis is not allowed to leave the building!
Doncha Think It's Time: In 1973, the Colonel sold RCA the rights to Presley's master tapes for $15 million. Sound like a lot of dough? Not for all the rights to all the Elvis music. Kaachinnngg! Didja hear that noise just then? That was probably RCA doubling its investment . . . again. How could the Colonel make such an abysmal deal for the Presley estate? Maybe RCA threw in a big mahogany desk.
I Feel So Bad: Literally minutes after hearing Elvis was dead, the Colonel was on the phone with grieving father Vernon Presley, negotiating for Elvis' worldwide merchandising rights. He allegedly made this statement to Memphis Mafia mainstay Lamar Fike: "Nothing has changed. This won't change anything.