The Truth About Elvis Presley's Relationship With His Manager, Colonel Tom Parker

Elvis Aaron Presley is, without a doubt, one of the most famous people in the history of music. The man who became known as the King of Rock 'n' Roll started his life as a humble working-class kid from Tupelo, Mississippi, but he was inevitably drawn toward music, winning talent competitions during his high school years and exploring opportunities to become a recording artist at an early age (via Biography). 

While no one could say that he didn't get what he wanted, it's hard to say whether he'd have become such a huge star without the help of his manager, Colonel Tom Parker. As longtime Elvis fan club president Todd Slaughter told The Express in 2020, Parker was a tireless promoter who was devoted to making Presley shine, and put in the work to do it. "Even when Elvis was on tour, he went to the next town, he made sure the radio, the TV were aware that Elvis was arriving," Slaughter described Parker's methods. "He even put additional posters up, even if the venues were sold out, because what he was doing was selling Elvis. He was dedicated to promoting Elvis."

Parker started managing Presley in the mid-1950s, and oversaw his sole client's rise to the top of Mount Fame. However, their relationship was far from an ordinary business commitment, and things were sometimes less than rosy behind the scenes. Let's take a look at the relationship between superstar singer Elvis Presley and his manager, Colonel Tom Parker. 

Colonel Tom Parker was a man with a shady past

Before getting into the relationship between the King and his manager, a quick crash course in the pre-Elvis life of Colonel Tom Parker is in order — and hoo boy, what a life it was. According to Smithsonian Magazine, Parker liked to present himself as an American man called Thomas Andrew Parker, but he wasn't a born-and-bred West Virginian any more than he was a military colonel. His true identity was Andreas van Kuijk, an illegal immigrant who was originally from the Netherlands, and he may or may not have decided to leave his family behind and try his luck Stateside after becoming a person of interest in a murder case in his original hometown of Breda. 

That's a whopper of a backstory, and things only got stranger when he started his new life across the pond. While he did serve in the U.S. military in the early 1930s, he never achieved any lofty ranks beyond private. Interestingly, this period in his life came to an abrupt end after he was imprisoned for desertion, diagnosed as a psychopath, and kicked out. Per Biography, however, he eventually received the honorary title of colonel from the Governor of Louisiana in 1948. 

Parker had a circus background from his years in the Netherlands, and after his unsuccessful time in the military, he resumed this career path. Per Elvis Australia, he started gravitating toward the music industry in the 1940s. 

Parker took over Elvis' management

Elvis Presley and Colonel Tom Parker first met on February 6, 1955, but the story of their eventual business team started well before that (via Graceland). In 1954, a man called Oscar Davis saw Presley live and met the singer and his then-manager, Bob Neal. At the time, Parker was already an established presence in the entertainment industry, having promoted a vast wealth of country music stars and even early Western actor Tom Mix (per Elvis Australia). Davis understood that young Presley would be a perfect protege for the Colonel, and his recommendation made Parker intrigued enough to attend a show in January 1955. This convinced him to set up a February 6 meeting with Presley's people.

According to Ultimate Classic Rock, Parker signed up with Presley in August, initially acting in an advisory position while Neal remained Presley's official manager. However, it was the Colonel who negotiated Presley's move from Sam Phillips' comparatively small Sun Records to the much larger RCA Records in November 1955. This was no mean feat, because Phillips demanded a then-unprecedented total of $40,000 (the equivalent of roughly $436,000 in today's money) for the deal to go through. Soon after the RCA move, Parker took over as Presley's one and only manager in 1956, and retained control of the singer's affairs until well after Presley's death (via Biography). 

Parker meddled in Elvis' marital affairs

Colonel Tom Parker wasn't afraid to meddle in his client's personal affairs. Per The Express, he was shocked when Elvis Presley became interested in 14-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu in 1959, fearing that the King would ruin his career like Jerry Lee Lewis when the latter married his 13-year-old second cousin in 1958. As a result, Beaulieu's existence was kept under wraps, and Presley maintained his image as a desirable bachelor — all the way down to publicly dating numerous women. 

However, the winds changed as the years flew by, and in 1967, it was time for Presley and Beaulieu to get married. According to Alanna Nash's book "The Colonel: The Extraordinary Story of Colonel Tom Parker and Elvis Presley," Parker had likely been toying with the idea for quite some time, as a 1961 press release discussed the prospect of the star's eventual marriage at some length, and painted the Colonel as a fatherly figure who might very well bestow his advice on the matter. The book posits that Parker's motivation to get Presley hitched was to stop his wild behavior and avoid violating the morals clause in his contracts. The fact that Elvis was reportedly interested in acquiring the services of then-girlfriend Ann-Margret's manager may also have factored into the situation.

As for Presley, he may have been less than keen about the situation. Reportedly, his housekeeper found him weeping before the wedding, and admitting that he was being forced to go through with it. 

Parker influenced Elvis' movie career in questionable ways

Though Elvis Presley is certainly a rock 'n' roll legend, his movie career failed to light the world on fire despite his global fame. A quick glance at the King's IMDb page reveals that while his cinematic endeavors are actually quite numerous, it wouldn't be unfair to say that his 31 acting credits are mostly notable for the fact that, well, it was him in the movie. 

Per Smooth Radio, Colonel Tom Parker was in charge of Presley's acting roles as much as he was in charge of every other contract in the artist's career. The Washington Post has actually called this unimpressive cinematic streak Parker's biggest failing as the guide of Presley's career — not only because of the movies Parker signed Presley up for, but because of the opportunities he reportedly shot down. These include the role of Joe Buck in John Schlesinger's 1969's drama "Midnight Cowboy," and the male lead in the 1976 version of "A Star is Born." Those roles eventually went to Jon Voight — who got an Oscar nomination for the role — and Kris Kristoffersson, respectively, while Presley's film résumé consists of works like "Blue Hawaii," "Harum Scarum," and "Clambake." 

Could Presley have out-acted guys like Voight and Kristoffersson, should the roles have gone his way? That might be up for debate, but if Parker didn't even give him the opportunity to try, it doesn't seem very managerial of him, does it?

Parker loved to see Elvis spend his money

Elvis Presley earned plenty of money during his career, and wasn't afraid to spend it. Per Forbes, there are some pretty wild estimations about the King's career-wide monetary haul, some of which are in the range of $1 billion. However, according to the Los Angeles Times, at the time of the artist's 1977 death, his estate only had about $4.9 million dollars in its coffers. What's more, the estate's income was waning and the maintenance of Graceland was an absolute money pit, so there was a very real risk that there'd eventually be nothing left.  

A whole bunch of this was down to the fact that Presley wasn't just a big spender. He was the kind of guy who kept a private jet on retainer and spent wildly on not just himself, but on plenty of others — safe in the knowledge that he could pad his bank balance any time he felt like it, due to his highly lucrative fame. 

According to Alanna Nash's book "The Colonel: The Extraordinary Story of Colonel Tom Parker and Elvis Presley," some people in Presley's inner circle were concerned about this kind of wild financial policy. However, the star's manager was delighted to see his ward burn away his cash. This isn't as counterintuitive as you might assume. Parker's philosophy was simply that this "earn it to spend it" attitude kept Presley working ... which meant that he got paid, and Parker got his cut.

Parker may have prevented Elvis from touring globally

Per Smithsonian Magazine, Colonel Parker was an illegal immigrant who had changed his name and may not have held a U.S. passport at all. This, some suspect, may have been behind his otherwise mysterious decision to systematically reject the numerous concert and tour offers Elvis received all over the world. 

In a 2017 interview with Noise 11, Jerry Schilling — who worked with both Parker and Presley back in the day — stated in no uncertain terms that Presley himself was more than game to perform abroad, describing a particular conflict about the prospect of an international tour. According to Schilling, Parker immediately stated that he wouldn't follow Presley on any tours, and the situation escalated to the point that the star told the Colonel he was fired ... only to soon find out that even Elvis Presley didn't hold a torch to Colonel Parker in the entertainment industry. "When Elvis tried to get a tour going, no one would touch him because they were afraid of the Colonel," said Schilling. "They had the relationship with the Colonel. They respected the Colonel. They did not want to go behind his back."

In the end, the Colonel won this particular power struggle. During his entertainment career, Presley's only performances outside the U.S. were three Canadian dates in 1957 — and Parker didn't travel with him.

Elvis and Parker both had bad experiences with the military

Colonel Parker was hardly the model of military discipline his apparent rank might imply. As Smithsonian Magazine tells us, his sole stint in the army — as a private, no more — ended when he was discharged after going AWOL and being imprisoned. He later managed to dodge the World War II draft with an eating regime that ballooned his weight north of 300 pounds. 

Elvis Presley, for his part, couldn't avoid being drafted. According to Biography, he didn't try to do so, either. When the Memphis Draft Board came calling during the Korean War in December 1957, the King was already an ultra-famous singer and actor, but he was still all too happy to do his part ... as long as they granted him a few months' deferral in order to wrap up his latest film. The beginnings of Presley's military service went comparatively well, but things soon took a turn for the worse. In August, his beloved mother died, and the shaken Presley was soon moved to Germany. There, per the Washington Post, he partied hard and developed a drug addiction that lasted for the rest of his life. It could be said that joining the military ruined his life

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Things got dicey for the Colonel after Elvis died

Elvis Presley was only 42 years old when he died on August 16, 1977 (via History). According to Biography, Presley's father let Colonel Tom Parker have the run of things for two more years, but after the elder Presley also died in 1979, things got complicated for the manager. The new legal protector of Elvis' 12-year-old daughter, Lisa Marie, looked into the estate's financial situation and compiled a report that confirmed the long-standing rumors that Parker took a whopping 50% of Presley's income, as opposed to the normal, much lower percentage. 

As the Los Angeles Times notes, this was just the tip of the iceberg, too. The report also found that the manager's actions had directly cost Presley a 9-figure sum over the years, and exposed several areas of poor and neglectful management that had caused the artist financial harm. "Elvis was naive, shy, and unassertive," the report read. "Parker was aggressive, shrewd, and tough. His strong personality dominated Elvis, his father, and all others in Elvis' entourage."

In 1982, the estate took Parker to court for his actions in a case that ended in a settlement, and effectively removed the Colonel from the Elvis business. As for the Presley estate, it managed to rise from the ashes, to the point that its 2020 net worth was an estimated $400 to $500 million, per Rolling Stone

Elvis' wife had a surprisingly good relationship with the Colonel

Because Colonel Tom Parker has something of a controversial reputation, it's easy to believe that the late manager's acquaintances would be quick to air their grievances about him whenever the opportunity arises. In an interview with "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert" (via YouTube), Tom Hanks noted that he expected this when he met Elvis' ex-wife Priscilla Presley. Hanks was looking for her insight for his role as Parker in the movie "Elvis," — but while Priscilla did mention that the Colonel had some negative traits, she actually had kind words about him. 

"I was expecting to hear stories about the distrust she had for Colonel Tom Parker over these many years," Hanks described Priscilla's words during the meeting. "And she said, 'No. He was a wonderful man, and I wish he was alive today. He took really great care of us. He was a scoundrel in his way.'"

This may be surprising to hear from Priscilla, considering that she was there when the estate's investigations revealed a court battle-worthy amount of financial shady stuff about the Colonel (per the Los Angeles Times). Yet, even after the case was settled, she didn't seem to hold too much ill will. "I saw how Elvis lived and saw his relationship with Colonel Parker, so I think I have a much better understanding of it than the outsider who comes in and says, 'Oh my God, this was robbery,'" she said in 1989.

Colonel Parker may not have really cared about Elvis

It's only natural that the relationship between a manager and an artist is a professional one. However, because Elvis Presley and Colonel Tom Parker worked together for such a long time, it's tempting to assume that the pair developed at least some amount of camaraderie and friendliness over the years. After all, they were both instrumental in steering the good ship Elvis. 

Yet, as Richard Harrington of the Washington Post has noted, there's no real indication that Parker much cared for his protégé — at least, beyond the money he brought in. Per Biography, Parker liked to call Presley his "attraction," harkening back to the Colonel's days with the circus. Reportedly, his first words after learning about Presley's death were even more telling. "This won't change anything," he said, and went on to work on a merchandise deal.

Harrington also writes that while Parker was certainly a good promoter, his narrow, finance-focused vision meant that the manager didn't really understand — let alone care about — the cultural impact of Elvis, so he ended up steering the star toward projects that removed him from his original allure of dangerous rock 'n' roll.