by lyle e davis
First off . . . he was never a real Colonel. Secondly, his name was not Thomas Andrew Parker, third . . . he was not a born and bred American.
Those are just a few of the puzzle pieces you have to put into place before you can begin to understand what and who “Colonel Tom Parker” was.
‘Colonel Tom Parker’ was, in actuality, Andreas Cornelis ("Dries") van Kuijk. Birth records show he was born on June 26, 1909, in Breda, Noord-Brabant, Netherlands.
Yes, I’m afraid it’s true. Our Colonel Tom Parker, the genius who helped make Elvis Presley the worldwide entertainer that he was . . . was not an American Colonel . . . but a Dutchman.
As Presley's fame grew, people became interested in Parker as well. For a time he lied about his childhood, claiming to have been born in Huntington, West Virginia, and to have run away at an early age to join a circus run by an uncle. The truth about his early years was revealed when his family in the Netherlands recognized him in photographs of him standing next to Elvis. Parker's brother Ad van Kuijk visited Parker in Los Angeles in 1961. Parker acknowledged his brother and introduced him to Elvis. Parker also was informed that his mother died in 1958, never knowing what happened toher son after he left in 1929.
The claim of Parker's Dutch heritage was confirmed when Parker tried to avert a lawsuit in 1982 by asserting that he was a Dutch citizen.
In 1993 Dutch TV director Jorrit van der Kooi talked to him in Dutch about the Netherlands. Parker was not aware that his sister Adriana had died a few years before. Van der Kooi also filmed the Colonel in Las Vegas. This footage can be seen in the Dutch documentary “Looking for Colonel Parker.”
Andreas Cornelis ("Andries") van Kuijk left his native land at about the age of 20 and joined the United States Army, despite the fact that he was not a U.S. citizen. Van Kuijk was stationed in Hawaii, at a base commanded by a Captain Tom Parker. After leaving the service, van Kuijk adopted the name Tom Parker as his own. He became part of the circus world some time later. He also worked as a dogcatcher and a pet cemetery proprietor in Temple Terrace, Florida, in the 1940s.
Elvis fans have speculated that the reason Presley never performed abroad, which would probably have been a highly lucrative proposition, may have been that Parker was worried that he would not have been able to acquire a U.S. passport and might even have been deported upon filing his application. In addition, applying for the citizenship required for a U.S. passport would probably have exposed his carefully concealed foreign birth, even though as a U.S. Army veteran and spouse of an American citizen he would have been eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship. Presley did tour Canada in 1957 with concerts in Toronto, Ottawa, and Vancouver; however, at the time of these concerts, crossing the U.S.-Canada border did not require a passport. (Red Robinson, Vancouver radio icon and MC of the Elvis concert in that city, said Parker did not accompany Presley to that show, but instead stayed in Washington State.)
Of all things, before managing Elvis Presley, Parker's most successful show-business effort had been "Colonel Parker's Dancing Chickens," an act in which chickens were persuaded to "dance" by being made to stand on an electric hot plate.
After his “Dancing Chickens” act, but before managing Elvis Presley, Parker managed to persuade country-and-western stars Eddy Arnold, Hank Snow, and Minnie Pearl to let him represent them.
During this time he received the rank of colonel in the Louisiana State Militia in 1948 from Jimmie Davis, the governor of Louisiana, in return for work he did on Davis's election campaign. He was very proud of it, and people had to address him as 'Colonel', rather than 'Mr. Parker.'
On August 18, 1955, Parker became Presley's manager officially, replacing Bob Neal, and broke his agreement with Hank Snow (to co-manage) the fledgling star. It was Snow who first discovered Elvis, and mentored him, and persuaded Sun and RCA (Hanks life long label) to consider recording him and in November he persuaded RCA Records to buy Presley out from Sun Records for $40,000 (which included $5,000 going directly to Elvis as a bonus), a considerable sum for that time.
Parker got a 25% share of Elvis' paycheck. That share was raised to 50% in 1967 (the normal share for managers at the time was about 15%).
With his first RCA single, "Heartbreak Hotel," one of whose authors-composers, Mae Boren Axton, had been one of Parker's associates for years, Presley graduated from rumor to bona-fide recording star.
It is debatable both whether Presley would have become the superstar he became without Parker and to what extent Parker's management of the King of Rock and Roll was Svengali-like. Parker held the reins of Presley's singing and acting career for the rest of Presley's life and was said to be instrumental in virtually every business decision that Presley made—including his decision to cut back on recording and stop touring after returning from his stint in the United States Army in 1960 in favor of a film career (from 1960 to 1967-68) that was lucrative in terms of his bank account but, to many critics and fans, bankrupting in terms of Presley's music quality.
It took the energetic 1968 television special “Elvis Presley's '68 Comeback Special,” and a subsequent series of acclaimed recording sessions in Memphis, Tennessee, to restore Elvis Presley's musical reputation.
After the special, Parker managed Elvis's return to live performance, including a set of brief U.S. tours and many engagements in Las Vegas. Following the success of Elvis' Las Vegas return, Parker signed a contract with the International Hotel to guarantee Elvis would play a month-long engagement for $125,000 a week, an unheard of sum at the time. During this part of Elvis' career, Parker and Presley agreed to a 50/50 "partnership" which, with Parker controlling merchandising and other non-music related items, resulted in Parker earning more than his client.
According to Presley biographer Peter Guralnick, Elvis and Parker "were really like, in a sense, a married couple, who started out with great love, loyalty, respect which lasted for a considerable period of time, and went through a number of stages until, towards the end of Elvis's life, they should have walked away. None of the rules of the relationship were operative any longer, yet neither had the courage to walk away, for a variety of reasons." Indeed, Elvis reportedly on at least one occasion did try to fire Parker; he gave an associate orders to "tell Parker he's fired," which the associate did. However, Parker replied that he would go only if Elvis gave him the order to do so in person. Parker may thus have taken advantage of Elvis' well-documented fear of direct confrontation; in any case, he remained Elvis' manager without break until Presley's death.
In January of 1956 Elvis is paired with the Jordanaires, who would remain his main back-up group until the late 60s.
By January 27, 1956 Heartbreak Hotel is released. (I Was the One on the flip). It sells 300,000 copies in the first week and will ultimately be Elvis' first Gold Record by selling over a million.
Between January 28 and March 24 of 1956, Elvis will make six appearances on the Jackie Gleason-produced Stage Show, starring Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey on CBS. On March 13 of that same year, Elvis Presley, his first album, is released by RCA. Selling over a million, it will become his first Gold Album.
In April 1956, he signs a seven-year movie contract with Hal Wallis and Paramount Pictures.
In July he does a parody singing “You Ain’t Nothin’ But a Hound Dog,” to a real Basset Hound on Steve Allen's show. Elvis' ain't happy about it - but he does it. His success from having appeared with both Milton Berle and Steve Allen prompt the previously reluctant Ed Sullivan to sign a three appearance deal for $50,000 - an unheard of amount back then.
September 9, 1956 - the first Sullivan show. Charles Laughton subs for an ailing Sullivan. Presley sings Don't Be Cruel, Love Me Tender, Ready Teddy, and Hound Dog. October 28th is the second show and the songs are Don't Be Cruel, Love Me Tender, Love Me and Hound Dog.
November 16, 1956. Elvis' first movie, Love Me Tender premieres.
January 6, 1957. The "waist up only" Sullivan show. He does a medley, plus Don't Be Cruel, Too Much, When My Blue Moon Turns to Gold and then closes with Peace in the Valley.
Graceland is purchased in March of 1957.
In the spring of 1969, Colonel Parker came into Las Vegas to sign a contract for the opening of the International Hotel. He met a secretary to the advertising and publicity director of the soon- to- be opened International Hotel. Her name was Loanne Miller. She was soon to become the official secretary for RCA Record tours when Elvis started touring. She reports: “In the 70s the Colonel was business from morning til night. 24 hours a day. He thought about Elvis and his business. He just didn't turn it off. It kept going. He expected everyone to be as dedicated as he was. And that made it a little tough on some of his people, because they needed some private life. And it was tough for them to get it. He was a perfectionist. If the billboards looked good this engagement, he would say, ‘how could I make them look better the next engagement.’ He never stopped. We would be driving around, and he would say, 'Now that board, that's a good location. But I don't think we'll use it the next time. We're going for a better location'. His focus was what can I do to better present Elvis. What can I do to better protect Elvis when it comes to contracts and business affairs. What can I do to let the people know in a better way that Elvis is going to be there. He never stopped thinking about it, ever. Never. He though about many things at the same time. He could be thinking about something that he needed to do with his wife in Palm Springs to take care of her. She was an invalid for many, many years, and required around the clock care. He could be thinking about a friend that he was going to have dinner with, simultaneously.” (In 1986 his first wife Marie (Mott) died. In 1990 he married Loanne Miller, his secretary at the time. (See photo below). From then on he continued living in Las Vegas, mostly avoiding contact with the press.)
Parker became friends with Presidents Johnson, Reagan and Clinton.
At personal appearances, Colonel would sit in front of the stage. And he always was watching the audience to see what was happening with the audience. He knew Elvis was taking care of his show on stage. That wasn't his business. His business was to protect Elvis, to make sure that things didn't get out of hand.
To ensure things went smoothly, there was always advance work. Again, Loanne: “When we were on the road, when we were touring, we would do a pre-tour. And this was the nucleus of Colonels group. I would go. Pat Kelleher from RCA Records would go. George Parkhill, who was part of Colonel's staff, would go. Quite often we would take one of Elvis’ men. One of his staff. And then we would take someone from Concerts West, Management III, one of those men. We would take a jet. A small jet. And we might do six towns in one day. That was not unusual. We had a system. We would fly into the town. I stayed on the plane. Typed up notes from the previous town. The rest of the men would get into a prearranged car. They would go to the building, they would talk to the building manager. They would make the concession deal. They would physically see the rooms where Elvis would be staying. They would make sure security could be handled properly there. They would look around to see what restaurants were in the area. In fact, they would check everything. They would check the time from the airport to the building. The time from the airport to the hotel. All this was done in advance. So that when the show actually came into town, it was very easy for them.”
Loanne was with The Colonel on August 16th, 1977, the day Elvis died: “The day that Elvis died, Colonel and his basic staff were in Portland waiting for Elvis to arrive. I was in my room. I was doing some work. And Colonel was in the room that usually we would have, he would have a suite and, we would use the living room area as a temporary office. He came to my room, knocked on the door and I could see he was physically upset. He said, 'They have some bad news.' He said, 'I've got a call and they think, they're not sure that Elvis is going to live.' He said, 'I'll keep you updated'. And he went back to his temporary office. And of course I was in shock. I remember I just paced the floor. I was in shock because honest to God we never thought Elvis would die. He had almost become bigger than life to us and he felt he could handle everything. And in hind sight you can look back and say, well, that wasn't too intelligent of them. But you had to be there, you would have to have felt the emotional impact that we felt on the tours. You would have to realize that our every moment was guided by what Elvis needed, what we could do for him. Now I was not personally involved with his daily activities the way his own staff was. But from a business point of view, it was always in our minds, always. And suddenly to think that it would be gone was just inconceivable, you couldn't believe it. I felt it's going to be all right. And then, of course, Colonel came and he said, 'He's gone'. He said, 'I talked to Joe, I talked to Vernon'. And his biggest concern at that moment was Vernon. He said, 'I don't know if he can make it'. Because we knew Vernon's health was not good. He said, 'He's so distraught, I don't know what's going to happen to Vernon'. And, of course, that was it. One of the most difficult dinners that I've ever experienced was the night that Elvis had died. Colonel said to the staff that were there, 'We're going to go to the restaurant here in the hotel and we're going to have dinner. We're going to eat, you're not going to put on a sad face, you're not going to be depressed, no one is going to sit and cry. We're doing this for Elvis.' Everyone in that restaurant is going to be watching us. And he's going to be proud. And we did it. Need I say, no one ate very much and we all lost weight over that meal, we pushed food away on our plates, but we maintained a normal exterior. And it was true, everyone in the restaurant was focused on our table.
And on the plane when we were flying to Memphis, Colonel gave us a little talk. And he said, 'I want Elvis to be proud of us today. And everything that you do, think of him. But I want you to maintain a very calm exterior. No one breaks down, no one cries. This is our chance to act the part that he would want us to.' And we did the best we could.”
“The Colonel made several personal appearances on Elvis' behalf. On the 10th anniversay of Elvis death they cleared everything out what we used to call the Elvis suite at the Las Vegas Hilton and Colonel brought in memorabilia, pictures and all kinds of things. They allowed the fans to tour and go through and look at all of these things. Colonel sat at a table and as the fans came by he shook hands with them, he talked with them and it was very nice. One of the men who walked through that line was a Canadian. He said to Colonel, 'Colonel, I've got a young singer star who's going to be a sensation, she's fabulous'. Colonel said, 'Tell me about her'. He loved to hear about young up-and-coming artists. And they had quite a long conversation. Colonel, he said, 'If I can help you in any way, just let me know'. Well, that man was Rene Angelil, who is the husband of Celine Dion. And he was talking about Celine Dion.”
Giving the devil his due, Parker masterminded Elvis meteroric rise to fame. He took an unknown artist with a unique style and made him a huge star. To speculate whether someone else could have accomplished this is pointless. Parker did it. Parker gets the credit.
Parker was a heavy gambler. It has been said that he spent as much as $1 million a year at the gambling table in Las Vegas.
After Elvis died, attorney Blanchard E. Tual was appointed by the probate court to represent Lisa Marie Presley. He begins to investigate Parker and his arrangements with Elvis and what he finds astonishes him.
In short, if a deal was good for the Colonel, it got made. Regardless of whether it was beneficial to Elvis or not. But Parker was being paid a hefty sum to protect Elvis' interests, a fiduciary he violated again and again.
The Presley estate sued in 1981 and an out of court settlement was made. The upshot was that Parker had to surrender all rights to Elvis Presley.
Eventually, some reconcilliation was accomplished and Parker sold all his files, photos, memoribilia etc. to Graceland.
Parker died in 1997 of a stroke.
He was 87 years old.