The Colonel was initially hired to do bookings, but after he convinced RCA to buy out Presley’s Sun Records contract for the then-unheard-of sum of $40,000, he was hired as Elvis' manager.
olonel Tom Parker, the man behind Elvis Presley’s enormous success, is probably, along with the Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein, one of the most influential managers in all of entertainment history. But the manager who famously took as much as 50% of Elvis’ earnings (as opposed to the traditional 10% taken by most managers) was not really a Colonel but rather a Dutch-born illegal immigrant who invented a past for himself and kept his true origins secret for decades.
Parker was born Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk in Breda, Netherlands. He came to America at age 20 and found work in carnivals. Soon thereafter, he enlisted in the United States Army, where he signed up under the name Tom Parker (the name of the enlistment officer who first interviewed him). He served honorably and then re-enlisted, but went AWOL and was charged with desertion and was placed in solitary confinement.
He never actually earned the rank of Colonel in the Army; that title was an honorary one given to him by Louisiana governor Jimmie Davis to thank Parker for the work he did on his election campaign.
After his release he soon found work as a music promoter, working mostly with Gene Austin, a popular singer in the 1930s whose career was waning. Parker was able to successfully revive Austin’s career and this led to further work in the music business.
Parker began working with Elvis Presley in 1955, as Presley was looking to find a new record label. The Colonel was initially hired to do bookings and promotions, but after he convinced RCA to buy out the remainder of Presley’s Sun Records contract for the then-unheard-of sum of $40,000, Parker was hired as Presley’s manager.
Thus began one of the most successful show biz relationships in history. Parker not only got Elvis his big breaks on TV, but successfully merchandised the singer at a time when merchandising was not routinely done. He even merchandised “I Hate Elvis” buttons to sell the anti-Elvis contingent. In just one year, Elvis-branded merchandise earned the singer $22 million.
It was Parker who insisted that Elvis not only enlist in the Army, but that he serve as a regular soldier, fearing that any special treatment given to Presley would result in negative publicity.
Parker and Presley parted ways in 1974, as Elvis began abusing drugs and gaining weight.
Parker continued to do some business with Presley on and off until Elvis died in 1977. And after the singer’s death, Parker made merchandising deals that continued to allow him to profit from Elvis’ fame.
During all this time, the truth of Colonel Tom’s past was a closely guarded secret. As recently as the 1980s it was assumed that Parker was born in the United States. It wasn’t until 2003 when a biography of Parker (The Colonel by Alanna Nash) was published that people found out the truth. It told the full story of Parker’s past, and even hinted that he may have been involved in a murder in his native country. The idea that Parker was a wanted man in the Netherlands would explain why he never obtained a passport and never traveled abroad.
But whether or not the Colonel was a killer, he’ll always be remembered as the man who propelled the King to superstardom.