Colonel Tom Parker: The Curious Life Of Elvis Presley’s Eccentric Manager
Managers rarely achieve notoriety beyond the backrooms and boardrooms of the entertainment industry, but the rotund Colonel Tom Parker would have been a compelling character had Elvis Presley and rock ‘n’ roll been the flash in the pan everybody once assumed them to be.
By all accounts, Parker, who received his Coloneldom in Louisiana (not Kentucky), was an elusive fellow who left few tracks, and seems thoroughly unknowable despite several hundred published biographies of his most famous client. This is James Dickerson’s second pass at profiling Parker (an earlier volume is out of print), and it builds in part upon his co-authorship of an authorized biography of guitarist Scotty Moore.
Dickerson makes a series of allegations about Parker and his business dealings that, if true, would go a long way toward explaining the arc of Presley’s career, from beginning to end. Even the matter of Parker’s ancestry is open to question, in Dickerson’s opinion. Though courts and meticulous researchers (including Peter Guralnick) have long accepted the theory that Parker was an illegal immigrant from Holland, Dickerson offers an alternative view:
“A second theory, favored by the author, has it that Parker was born in Russia to Jewish parents and acquired his Dutch identity during his teen years…” And that’s as much proof as we are offered. Dickerson also argues that Elvis had a Jewish grandmother (and, hence, that his mother was Jewish), and that this secret in part explains Parker’s hold on the singer.
Dickerson subsequently suggests that Parker may have been homosexual, that the Colonel arranged Elvis’ induction into the Army so as to avoid having to turn Presley’s contract over to the mob to satisfy gambling debts, and, later, that Parker negotiated a 50% manager’s share because he had lost his original 25% to the gaming tables of Las Vegas. Because he does this with a newsman’s calm pacing, the story reads much less lurid than that synopsis would suggest.
Along the way we are offered a glimpse at the carnival culture that became Parker’s first family in the United States, his methodical courtship of Presley as a client, his campaign to separate the singer from his original band (a practice still followed today), and assorted contractual machinations. He also offers a quick portrait of organized crime in the South, even arguing that Memphis-born former Supreme Court Associate Justice Abe Fortas had ties to organized crime.
Why do we care? In part because the early fire of Elvis’ music disappeared so quickly, because he was — rather like George Jones — capable of great art and stony (or, stoned) indifference, because the little girls understood. And it is easier to ascribe his artistic failures to a manipulative manager than to accept that the King was as flawed as any artist.
So of course Parker wished for Presley to make movies, because they were more profitable than touring, and bad movies because they could be made more quickly. And of course Presley never toured Europe because Parker’s immigration status would have kept him from leaving the U.S. How, then, to reconcile the venal manager turning down $1 million from Japanese promoters wishing to book Presley, particularly when Parker’s gambling debts allegedly ran to at least that much a year?
Dickerson goes to some trouble to draw lines from Parker through organized crime and into the highest reaches of American politics, including a friendly correspondence with President Lyndon Baines Johnson. Here he seems out of his depth, for what he reads as intimate letters between friends seem much more like the casual correspondence of an astute Southern politician. And if Parker were that well connected, why didn’t he simply ask one of his influential friends to rectify his immigration status?
Dickerson’s sources range from probate court documents to interviews with Moore and other musicians, but Parker, who died January 20, 1997, left behind little to tell his side of the story. Dickerson’s version, though entertaining and suggestive, seems more guesswork than scholarship.