We’re caught in a trap, I can’t walk out

The peculiar relationship between Elvis Presley and his manager, “Colonel” Tom Parker, has been a fascinating story waiting to be told in a feature film for many decades. Now, finally, that film has been made, and what an extraordinary work it is. In “Elvis,” Director Baz Luhrmann, Austin Butler as Elvis and Tom Hanks as Parker have captured the ups and downs of that complicated relationship and have done it in a dazzling, thoroughly entertaining fashion.

“Colonel” Tom Parker and Elvis Presley, 1956

I first wrote about the Presley/Parker association seven years ago after having read a number of articles and books about it. Upon re-reading it, I think it holds up well, so I’m publishing it again this week, followed by some commentary by the film principals that sheds new light on the alternately triumphant and tragic tale.

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When you mention Elvis Presley’s name, so many things may come to mind.  The extraordinary voice.  The iconic songs.  The hips and the curled lip.  The “Yes Ma’am” demeanor.  The lame-o movies.  The comeback TV special.  The Vegas years.  The downward drug spiral.  The premature death.

For me and those of my age, born in 1955, Elvis was before my time, so I didn’t learn to appreciate him until many years later.  As a passionate student of rock and roll, I have since read a great deal about Elvis and immersed myself in his music, particularly the amazing, groundbreaking, trailblazing singles and albums he recorded in his first four years in the business (1954-1957).

Presley’s debut LP on RCA

The sessions he did at Sam Phillips’ Sun Records in Memphis in 1954-55 are simply phenomenal, among the very best in rock music history.  Similarly, the body of work he recorded under his RCA Records contract in 1956 and 1957 still sends chills up the spine. (There’s a Spotify playlist at the end of this essay.)

Once you’ve heard and listened to what he was capable of doing, it’s absolutely heartbreaking to observe what happened to him over the next 20 years until his death in 1977.

Taken as a whole, Elvis’s career can be summed up in four words:  Gross mismanagement.  Failed potential.

And the blame for that, in my view, falls primarily on the shoulders of one man:  His manager, “Colonel” Tom Parker.  If you were to compile a ranking of rock and roll’s most notorious characters, Parker’s name would surely be right near the top.

The list of Parker’s transgressions that harmed Presley and his career is substantial:  Blatant greed.  Astoundingly poor business decisions.  Serious fraud.  Crass exploitation.  Unconscionable extortion.

Before we delve into these, we must pay the Devil his due, to be fair.

A)  It is beyond question that Parker was responsible for securing Presley’s recording contract with RCA, one of the major recording companies in the country at the time.  This took his fledgling career with the small, regional Sun Records in Memphis and catapulted him onto the national stage with the support of RCA’s broad distribution and promotion.  When that happened in March 1956, Elvis’s singles and albums were suddenly everywhere, airing on hundreds of radio stations and selling like proverbial hotcakes across the nation.

B)  As a former huckster and promoter in the circus and carny businesses, and as manager for country artists like Gene Austin and Hank Snow in the ’40s and early ’50s, Parker knew all about how to attract paying customers, and he brought those skills to bear on Presley’s behalf.  He built the Elvis brand into a money-making juggernaut through saturation marketing never before seen in the music business, not even for big stars like Frank Sinatra.  Merchandise of all kinds — charm bracelets, ornaments, record players, you name it — were plastered with Elvis’s image.  In 1956 alone, merchandise brought in $22 million, an unheard-of sum at the time.

C)  Parker pulled the right strings to get Presley invaluable exposure on popular national TV shows like The Milton Berle Show, The Steve Allen Show and particularly The Ed Sullivan Show.  These appearances, which included some of the famous “Elvis the Pelvis” hip gyrations that created such controversy (and priceless publicity), sent his celebrity status into the stratosphere.

D)  Presley was very interested in making films, and Parker was instrumental in securing a screen test with Paramount Pictures.  He then negotiated a seven-movie deal for Presley that would bring in new revenue streams, both at the box office and from soundtrack albums.  His first several efforts, including “Love Me Tender,” “Jailhouse Rock” and especially “King Creole,” were big successes and even earned some decent reviews from conservative critics who mostly disapproved of him.

E)  When authorities threatened to jail Presley for “indecent” acts on stage, Parker arranged for Presley to volunteer for a two-year stint in the Army (1958-1960), serving as a regular soldier at boot camp and on Army bases in Germany. According to author Alanna Nash in her 2010 book bout Presley and Parker, “This would sand off the rough edges of his image and bring him back as the all American boy fit for family entertainment. It was all to make him a beloved pop idol. And it worked.” Parker arranged for Presley to record a backlog of songs (including huge hits like “Hard Headed Woman,” “One Night,” “A Fool Such as I” and “A Big Hunk o’ Love”), which would be released every few months to keep his name in the public eye during his absence.

So Parker made himself invaluable to Presley in those early years, as a manager, as a father figure, as a mentor and confidante.  This bond, while initially comforting and financially beneficial, would prove to be hugely detrimental to Elvis from 1960 on.

Consider the following ways Parker hindered, obstructed, and cheapened Elvis’s potential and reputation, and cheated him (knowingly and unknowingly) out of untold millions:

A)  Presley loved the contact with fans through live performing, and had toured incessantly during his pre-Army years.  That came to an end in 1961 when Parker pulled the plug on Elvis concerts for nearly all of the 1960s, convinced that his future instead lay in Hollywood.  This lack of live appearances during his prime hurt Elvis terribly, as the popular music scene changed in 1964 with the arrival of The Beatles and the “British invasion,” Motown groups, folk rock acts, psychedelic rock bands and more, all of whom thrived in the vibrant club/concert scene.  Presley was conspicuous in his absence, and it helped foment the perception of him as a has-been, a relic from a previous era.

The soundtrack LP to Presley’s 1967 bomb

B)  Parker signed Presley to a long-term movie deal that in hindsight can only be described as disastrous.  Elvis fancied himself a serious dramatic actor, but when his first few efforts in that vein fell flat, Parker pushed him to star in a total of 27 (!) lightweight, low-budget musical comedies which, although profitable, were universally panned.  Even the songs Parker arranged for Presley to sing in these inconsequential films were, at best, average and, at worst, cheesy and embarrassing.  The soundtrack albums sold well for a while, producing a couple of hits each, but by 1965, both the albums and the singles had trouble breaking into the Top 40.  His credibility with music fans plummeted.

C)  Presley was approached multiple times over the years to tour internationally to Europe, Japan, South America, Saudi Arabia and more.  Parker said no to all offers, regardless of how lucrative they were, and here’s why (and the new movie stresses this point):  Unbeknownst to virtually everyone, Tom Parker had a secret past.  He was, in fact, Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk, born in Holland, who worked on the docks at a young age and entered the United States illegally at age 18 by jumping ship in New York harbor, eventually enlisting in the Army, taking the name “Tom Parker” from the colonel who interviewed him, and later got in trouble and earned a dishonorable discharge.  Much later, as an illegal immigrant with no passport, he refused to travel abroad for fear he would ultimately be detected and deported, or refused re-entry.  So Presley’s many opportunities to earn more money and fame on the international stage was ultimately thwarted by Parker’s fear of deportation.

Priscilla and Elvis on their wedding day, 1967

D)  While stationed in Germany in 1959, Presley, then 23, met 14-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu, and they ended up conducting an on-again off-again courtship for nearly seven years, mostly hidden from public view at Parker’s insistence (to his credit, since the public would find it scandalous).  Elvis’s flings with his Sixties movie co-stars angered Priscilla, who by 1967 pressured him to marry her or risk exposure of their “sordid” relationship and the kind of negative publicity that sunk Jerry Lee Lewis’s career in the ’50s.  What did Parker do?  He sided with Priscilla, citing a “morals clause” in Presley’s contract with RCA, and joined those pushing for the wedding.  Elvis felt railroaded with no options, and reluctantly agreed.  Six years later, when the marriage ended, the financial consequences proved enormous (see next item).

E)  To satisfy the demands of the divorce settlement, Elvis needed quick cash, so Parker made a decision that now looks so ill-advised as to be insane:  He sold Elvis’s back catalog to RCA for $5.4 million — everything he recorded prior to 1973.  Some say neither Presley nor Parker could have known how valuable the back catalog would become, but others say that’s nonsense, and that a savvy business manager would have seen the folly in giving it up.  The Presley estate has estimated that the lost royalties from the catalog have been well over $2 billion.

F)  In the music business, a manager typically received a cut of between 10-20%, but incredibly, Parker engineered contracts with Elvis that eventually gave him up to 50% of everything — royalties, merchandise, record sales, concert appearances, the works.  Some of Presley’s inner circle (the “Memphis Mafia,” a group of friends who were with him from the beginning) urged him to stand up to Parker, but he rarely did, for a number of reasons:  naiveté, an inclination to be deferential, gratitude for making him famous, and a resignation exacerbated by the prescription drugs that made him lethargic and ambivalent.  In any case, Parker’s money grab reeks of greed and self-interest at Elvis’s expense. The fact that Parker was in the grips of a serious gambling addiction with huge debts only partly explains the man’s insatiable lust for more than his fair share of Presley’s wealth.

A mock-up of “what might have been”

G)  On more than one occasion, Presley received offers to appear in films or participate in recording sessions with other established artists.  Elvis was Barbra Streisand’s original choice to be her co-star in the huge 1976 film “A Star is Born,” but Parker turned it down because he didn’t want Elvis to be upstaged, nor to play the part of a star on his way down.  Presley was reportedly enraged when he learned of Parker’s decision.  Likewise, Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin, a huge Elvis fan from way back, wanted to record some material together with Presley in the mid-’70s, but again, Parker said no, fearing the comparisons between Presley and the much younger, fitter Plant.

The heartbreaking upshot of all this, of course, is that the world will never know how much more outstanding work Elvis Presley could have accomplished if given the chance.  Just think if he’d been out on the road, here and abroad, giving more concerts during his peak years.  Imagine him recording much better songs to compete with the higher caliber of material coming from emerging artists at the time.  Fantasize about him jamming with Zeppelin, or John Lennon, or Ray Charles, or who knows who else.   All of it might have been possible if Parker had not stood in his way.

It’s a mighty sad commentary on Parker’s myopic focus on his own self-aggrandizement that, at Parker’s funeral in 1997, where Priscilla Presley delivered the eulogy, she ended it this way:  “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.”

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There’s a scene early in the film where Presley is performing at a country music venue, and his electric stage presence ignites something deep down in the young women in attendance. In the words of Parker, whose character narrates the story in retrospect, “If I could find an act that gave the audience feelings they weren’t sure they should enjoy, but did, I could create the greatest show on Earth.” That was Parker’s mission, and he largely achieved it, but not without dire consequences down the road.

At the time of the film’s release in June, Luhrmann had this to say: “If Elvis represented the soul and the ‘new’ in America — the possibility in America, the rags and riches in America, all those positive, very American things — the Colonel represents the sell. The promotion. The branding. The promises. But the more I learned about Parker, the more I saw that it was the sell overwhelming the other side.”

Tom Hanks as the devious “Colonel” Tom Parker

Hanks, who has played mostly admirable characters in his film career, was intrigued by Parker’s paradoxical nature. Said Hanks: “Baz said to me, ‘There would’ve been no Colonel Tom Parker without Elvis. And there certainly would’ve been no Elvis without Colonel Tom Parker.’ And when he said that, I said, ‘Oh, well, okay, now that’s a new take on the Elvis legend.’ Up to that point, my limited understanding of Parker is of this mercurial, puppeteer-like, quasi-evil, greedy manager who took advantage of Elvis from the get-go. The Parker-Presley partnership made some of the most brilliant moves in the history of show business, but because of his own personal problems, Parker felt forced to manipulate his star into doing things detrimental to his career.”

I would be remiss not to mention the eye-opening performance of Austin Butler as The King. Whether he’s performing as Elvis the energetic 20-year-old, or as the sluggish 40-year-old, or just interacting with his family or his posse, Butler has absolutely nailed Presley’s demeanor and mannerisms. He is a joy to watch.

Elvis clearly demonstrates the ways in which Parker was integral in crafting Presley into an icon, but it also doesn’t hold back in exposing the abuses and limitations of that relationship — a paradox and tragedy that Hanks says became the most intriguing driving force in his portrayal. For the devoted Elvis fan, and for the casual observer, Luhrmann’s new movie is an absorbing revelation.

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This playlist includes #1 hits and personal favorites, most of which were featured in Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis” film.

2 comments

  1. Andrea Cimini · August 5

    Superb! Kudos. Incredibly well written. I enjoyed immensely and agree. One question was the euology in 1997? Maybe a typo. He died in august 1977.
    Interestingly enough I noticed a date mistake in the Baz movie too regarding the year of his death.

    Like

    • brucehhackett · August 5

      The eulogy Priscilla delivered was at Parker’s funeral in 1997, not Presley’s in 1977…

      Like

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