Elvis: Colonel Tom Parker Really Was That Bad

Tom Hanks plays the bad guy in Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, but what the real historical Colonel Tom Parker did to Presley was heinous.

Tom Hanks as Colonel Tom Parker in Elvis versus Real History
Photo: Warner Bros. / Getty Images

Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis stars Austin Butler as the hip-swiveling titular hound dog and Tom Hanks as his manager Colonel Tom Parker. In this Elvis Presley biopic, the musician is presented as a mythic figure and true life superhero, saving the world from repressive rhythms to become the King of Rock and Roll, while Parker comes off as the cartoon villain, and not only because Hanks sounds like the Dutch uncle of Looney Tunes’ Foghorn Leghorn.

As Parker confesses at the beginning of the movie, “There are some who’d make me out to be the villain of this here story.” And it can be said that “the Colonel” was the antagonist of Elvis’ true life as well.

“I’m not interested in playing a bad guy just for the sake of [it being like], ‘Before I kill you Mr. Bond, would you like a tour of my installation,’” Hanks said at the film’s initial press conference at the Cannes Film Festival. “What Baz tantalized me with, right off the bat, was here’s a guy who saw the opportunity to manifest a once-in-a-lifetime talent into a cultural force.”

The Beatles were also a cultural force. Their manager, Brian Epstein, was dedicated to them. When the band faced death threats after the 1966 “bigger than Jesus” controversy, his first reaction was to cancel their American tour and take it out of his own money. The only thing Epstein couldn’t do for the Beatles was negotiate in their favor, losing them millions of dollars in bad copyright, recording, and merchandising deals.

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Parker, by contrast, was dedicated to the money he could pump out of Elvis. His merchandising alone grossed over $22 million by the end of 1957. It was arguably the first marketing campaign aimed squarely at the teen demographic. He sold Elvis hats, lipstick, sneakers, charm bracelets, record players, and teddy bear perfume. He even sold “I Hate Elvis” buttons.

“The carnie’s job is to bring people to the glittering lights on the outside of town, promise them something they’ve never experienced before, and then almost giving it to them, at a cost,” Hanks told The New York Post.  

Luhrmann’s film sees Presley through the deathbed memories of the Colonel, and his accounting would claim victory. His client is still the biggest selling solo artist of all time, whitening African American gospel and blues into something that conservative 1950s middle-America could dance to, and making a fortune off it. Parker initially took a 25 percent commission, which grew to 50 percent. He made more off the toys, TV appearances, and acting roles, than Elvis.

“Was he a cheap crook that played fast and loose? Yeah,” Hanks said at Cannes “The amount of ways that Parker cheated people out of nickels and dimes, and dollars is extraordinary. As far as his background, I think no one knew the Colonel’s background. There are some extraordinary, tabloidy, melodramatic stories about why and how he left Holland. I’d like to think, yeah, he was running away from an aspect of his past and escaping his small town, and who among us wouldn’t jump at an opportunity to do that very thing?”

At the height of Presley’s popularity, the Colonel turned down offers to tour overseas. There is some speculation this may be due to the manager’s hidden status as an illegal immigrant. Thomas Andrew Parker’s real name was Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk. He was born on June 26, 1909 in Breda, the Netherlands. He entered America illegally by jumping ship and traveling with a tent show before returning to the Netherlands. Alanna Nash’s biography of Parker, The Colonel, claims he may have been trying to avoid passport scrutiny because he might have been a suspect in a murder in Breda.

Parker returned to the U.S. in 1929. He took the name Tom Parker when he enlisted in the Army, christening himself after the officer who interviewed him. He served for two years, went AWOL, got charged with desertion, and was punished with solitary confinement. This led to his admission to a mental hospital. The Colonel never made it past the rank of private when he served in the military, his discharge papers labeled him a psychopath. He got the honorary title from a country singer named Jimmie Davis in exchange for working on the campaign which helped get him elected Governor of Louisiana.

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Parker was a fairly popular entertainer on the carnival circuit with acts like the Great Parker Pony Circus, and Colonel Tom Parker and His Dancing Chickens. These could be called animal cruelty shows. The chickens danced because they were on a sawdust-covered hot plate. This became a business model for managing musicians.

Parker’s shows brought in big crowds, but he got screwed by management when it came time to pay out. They would always point to a particular sentence in their contract to deny him his fair share. Parker took notes, cutting out each clause in every contract which robbed him of a percentage, and working them into masterpieces of managerial tyranny. Country singer Eddy Arnold was the first to sign in 1938 and found himself giving the Colonel 25 percent of his take-home pay. Parker went on to manage the crooner Gene Austin and country singer Hank Snow (David Wenham in the new movie), the latter of whom made some very important introductions for the young Elvis.

Presley only appeared at the Grand Ole Opry once in October 1954. Snow was the country star who introduced the young artist to the stage. He went with Parker to meet Elvis’ mother, Gladys (Helen Thomson in the movie), to get her approval of the contract, which was presented as including Snow’s Jamboree Attractions. Gladys didn’t trust Parker but agreed to advise Elvis to sign because she thought he was also signing with Snow. The contract did not mention Snow or the Jamboree Attractions. Snow didn’t notice until 1956. Presley, as it turned out, was managed by Parker alone.

Up until that time, the Memphis radio personality Bob Neal and guitarist Scotty Moore were acting as Presley’s personal managers. Moore had been with Elvis since the July 5, 1954, Sun Studios session when Presley started “jumping around and acting the fool,” and launched into Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s “That’s All Right” between takes. Upright bass player Bill Black dove right in, and Moore jammed along. The racket caused pioneering Sun Records founder Sam Phillips to come in from the control booth and demand to know what they were doing. The band said they weren’t sure, so Phillips told them to do it again. It wound up being the A-side of what sowed the seeds of a revolution.

In November 1955 in a deal brokered by Parker, Phillips sold Elvis’ contract to RCA Records for $35,000. Presley’s breakthrough single “Heartbreak Hotel” was released as a single on Jan. 27, 1956. Parker signed Elvis on March 26.  The first thing the Colonel did was plot to get rid of Presley’s original bandmates.

Moore, Black, and drummer D.J. Fontana backed Elvis on his TV appearances from January 1956 to January 1957, including the live shows for Milton Berle, Steve Allen, and the nationally star-making Ed Sullivan broadcasts. They also still made a few appearances behind Elvis after Parker convinced the singer to join the Army in 1958 but were then completely sidelined in the early ‘60s. The Colonel was even against the reunion which made the Elvis ’68 Comeback Special so special.

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The musical interference was worse than any of Parker’s usurious paperwork. Epstein would never think about stepping into the studio while the Beatles were recording. He didn’t want to stifle them. The Rolling Stones’ manager Andrew Loog Oldham locked Keith Richards and Mick Jagger in a room and wouldn’t let them out until they wrote a song. He wanted to inspire them. Parker kept Presley on a leash from the very beginning.

The Colonel insisted Elvis tone down the sexual innuendo in his cover of Dave Bartholomew, Pearl King, and Anita Steinman’s song, “One Night.” The singer recorded a version with the original lyrics on Jan. 18, 1957. Presley loved the song so much he rewrote the lyrics himself rather than have it go unreleased.

By the time of the 1968 comeback special, Presley was worried time passed him by because of the British invasion. The Beatles were managing themselves by that time and had produced their own film while Epstein was still alive. By contrast, the Colonel kept a higher percentage of the movie take than the star, and consigned Presley to a series of increasingly cringeworthy films, even for the singer himself, who yearned for the challenge to play a real role. Presley lobbied for the role of Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront. The Colonel made the comeback deal with NBC because his money dried up at the film studios. He could only finance Elvis’ next movie if the singer broadcast a television special.

Parker was not good with money and was no master dealmaker. He sold the rights to Presley’s early recordings, gave away the rights to the master recordings, lost royalties after he negotiated Elvis’ seven-year contract with RCA Records in 1973, and squandered his own fortune to a gambling habit. Parker continued his management role until Presley’s death in 1977, and managed the Presley estate for several more years until the extent of his scheming came fully to light. In 1980, a judge ordered an investigation into his practices and found Parker’s management was unethical and that he likely cost Elvis (and himself) millions. Subsequent lawsuits left Colonel estranged from the estate but not completely divorced from it, as Priscilla invited Parker to several notable milestones and anniversaries.

Parker suffered a stroke on Jan. 20, 1997 and died the next morning at a hospital in Las Vegas. He was 87.

Stories of managerial terrorism abound in music history. K-pop stars break under the pressure even today. Sam Cooke’s family labeled his manager, Allen Klein as a predator, sucking the money from the family long after the innovative soul singer’s death. Klein’s reputation has been overshadowed as the man who drove the Rolling Stones into exile, and broke up the Beatles, but he didn’t curb the musical enthusiasm.

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The Colonel waged war against his most loyal soldier. Forget the monetary malfeasance, Parker curbed the art. Presley was very serious about his music and honestly wanted to bring that to acting. The Colonel made a joke out of both.

Elvis is in theaters now.