The King of Rock ‘N’ Rock wouldn’t have reigned if it weren’t for his Colonel. To fans across the country, Elvis Presley seemed to shoot to megastardom after his 1956 national TV appearance on Stage Show, but the young singer’s career was carefully orchestrated by his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, a Dutch immigrant and shrewd businessman who got his early training on the circus scene and has been described as a cross between P.T. Barnum and W.C. Fields.
Parker immigrated to the United States as a stowaway
Much of Parker’s early years are shrouded in mystery, possibly because he was an illegal immigrant who didn’t have a passport or become a naturalized American citizen. Though he claimed he was born in Huntington, West Virginia, his actual identity was uncovered when relatives spotted him in a photo with Presley.
Born Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk in Breda, Netherlands, he started training horses with a local circus in his youth and then claimed to have worked as a sailor on Holland America Cruise Line in his teen years. While he told some that he came to the U.S. through Canada, he is widely believed to have arrived in Hoboken, N.J., as a ship stowaway.
Changing his name to Parker, he served in the U.S. Army and then went down to Florida to work for a traveling circus, where he learned how to hawk an attraction. (He was later known to refer to Presley as “my attraction.”) Parker was given the honorary title “colonel” by Louisiana Governor Jimmie Davis in 1948 after helping with his campaign.
Presley met Parker at a cafe in Memphis
Meanwhile, growing up in a humble family, Presley received a guitar for his 11th birthday and won a talent show at Memphis’ Humes High School a few years later. With dreams of musical fame, he worked odd jobs and eventually cut a demo and caught the attention of Sun Studio’s owner, Sam Phillips.
Presley started recording music and touring — and winning the attention of a young female audience for his striking looks and gyrating hips. On February 6, 1955, he played two shows with his band, Bill Black and Scotty Moore, at Ellis Auditorium in Memphis. In between those shows he went to Palumbo’s cafe, where he eventually had his career-defining meeting with Parker, according to Graceland’s site.
Parker had heard about Presley through his associate Oscar Davis and had seen his show on the Louisiana Hayride on January 15, 1955, but they didn’t meet. During that February meeting, all the players in Presley’s career, including his manger at the time Bob Neal, were at the table and decided to work jointly to ensure Elvis became a household name.
Sure enough, 1956 become a breakthrough year for Presley. He released his hits “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Hound Dog,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” and “Blue Suede Shoes," toured the country from coast to coast, appeared on Stage Show and Ed Sullivan Show among other TV appearances, and filmed and released his first movie, Love Me Tender. But by March of that year, Neal was out of the picture and Parker was managing Presley full time.
Parker took 50 percent of Presley's earnings
Presley and Parker’s relationship throughout the years was complex. Parker pulled all the strings, including Presley’s entry into the Army, his movie deals and his Las Vegas comeback. Presley never toured abroad — perhaps because of Parker’s illegal citizenship status. On top of that, Parker was known to take half of Presley’s earnings. When asked in 1968, Parker responded, “That’s not true at all. He takes 50 percent of everything I earn.”
With Presley as his sole client, much of whether Parker defrauded the King came out after both of their deaths. Memphis judge Blanchard Tual investigated the estates on behalf of a then-12-year-old Lisa Maria Presley. Tual found that the 50 percent cut was extreme, as the standard was 10 to 15 percent, and also found that Parker had defrauded about $7 to $8 million in three years, never registered Presley’s songs for royalties and sold off 700 songs for $6.2 million (while Presley got $4.6 million).
While the case was settled out of court in 1983, the discoveries revealed more of the complicated nature of between the musician and manager. Their relationship through the decades will become the subject of yet-to-be-titled upcoming biopic by director Baz Luhrmann, starring Once Upon a Time in Hollywood actor Austin Butler as Presley and Tom Hanks as Parker.