Author: Chris Welch
Parker, the one-time carnival huckster and country music promoter, would become almost as famous and revered as his protege, the teenage hillbilly who became the King of Rock’ n’Roll. For good or ill he would oversee the creation of the Presley legend and guide the singer and actor’s career through its many stages of birth, renewal and decline, until Elvis’s death in 1977.
It was Parker who groomed the teenage rebel for a new role as the acceptable face of American showbiz. He oversaw the transformation from “Elvis the Pelvis” to the Hollywood star of countless lightweight movies. Gradually it came to be perceived that perhaps the Colonel was too protective and was the root cause of the erosion of Presley’s talents and stature.
But this was only in the eyes of critics and those fans – like John Lennon – who saw Elvis as crucial to the development of le vrai rock’n’roll. Millions of less demanding Elvis fans around the world queued up to see the movies like GI Blues (1960) and Viva Las Vegas (1964) and continued to swoon at his feet, white spangled jumpsuit and all.
But Col Thomas Andrew Parker – the all-American father figure – wasn’t the first to discover Elvis. He wasn’t a colonel and he wasn’t even born in America. His origins were steeped in mystery.
He always said he was born in West Virginia, but it was revealed in the Sixties (by a Dutch researcher and later explored in Elvis, 1981, Albert Goldman’s hard-hitting biography) that he was born Andreas Cornelius Van Kuijk in Breda, Holland in 1909, the fifth of a family of nine children. His somewhat tyrannical father Adam ran a livery stable, and as a child Andreas loved looking after the horses. Fascinated by the circus, he’d drive around town on a cart promoting the local show and tried to see every performance.
His father died when Andreas was 16 and he went to live with an uncle who was a ship’s captain. Under his auspices he sailed for New York and returned to Holland in 1927, bringing gifts for his mother but refusing to reveal what he’d been doing in the States. He returned to America for good in May 1929 and his family in Holland never heard from him again until they saw his photograph in a magazine in 1961.
Andreas had learned to speak English as he explored the States, hitching rides on railroad cars. After a stint as a salesman he joined the US army in 1930 and served with the coastal artillery at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii. It has been suggested he assumed his new name from a Captain Thomas Parker he met in the service.
Given his love of the circus it was natural he gravitated to the American version, and he began working for the Royal American Shows, a touring carnival which included everything from roller-coaster rides to animal acts and freak shows. He stayed for some ten years, learning everything there was to know about showbusiness bunkum and the art of publicity and promotion.
Tales of his stunts and exploits have been gleefully recounted – like that of Col Parker and His Amazing Dancing Chickens. Live animals were regarded as tax exempt as they needed feeding. A pair of chickens were kept idle at the side of the stage, until Parker decided one night to recruit them into an act. He concealed a hot plate under their feet and set them to work – dancing animatedly to the tune of “Turkey in the Straw”.
In 1932, while working with the carnival in Tampa, Florida, he met and married Marie Ross who became his wife and bookkeeper. During the Second World War he was deferred military service and in 1940 took a temporary job as Tampa’s town dog catcher, after the failure of a projected Pony Circus. He soon returned to showbusiness, becoming manager of the country singers Eddie Arnold and Hank Snow who benefited from his energy and enterprise throughout the 1940s and 1950s.
It was through his country music connections that Parker was bestowed his honorary title “Colonel” in 1948 by the Governor of Louisiana. He also managed the pop singer Gene Austin who had a big hit with “My Blue Heaven”. Parker and Hank Snow opened a booking agency in Nashville in the Fifties which was when the Colonel first heard about Elvis Presley.
Oscar Davies, a fellow promoter who had heard Presley on radio and seen him perform “live”, recommended that Parker should see the boy in action. At the time he was being managed by Bob Neal and produced by Sam Phillips at Sun Studios. At their first meeting at the Memphis resturant, Parker simply said to Elvis: “Oscar tells me you’re sensational. I’m going to see if I can book you on one of my shows.”
Parker booked Elvis on a ten-day tour and was amazed at the reaction he got particularly from screaming young girl fans. Presley’s first big tour, which began in May 1955, was supporting Hank Snow. Having pursued Elvis with great determination and fending off competition from others with an interest in him, Parker finally signed Presley to a management contract on 15 August 1955. It was believed that he took 25 per cent of Presley’s earnings during the first years of their association and later up to 50 per cent.
In a famous clause to his first agreement with Presley, a paragraph was inserted which stated:
As a special concession to Col Parker Elvis Presley is to play 100 personal appearances within one year for the special sum of $200 – including his musicians.”
As was later pointed out this meant Elvis would have to play a large number of concerts at reduced rates. It was perhaps no worse a situation than many another rock star would find him or herself. But Parker had shown a ruthlessness in his business methods which did not always endear him to others, although it helped ensure that Presley was signed to a lucrative contract with RCA, and Parker booked him on to early appearances of the Ed Sullivan Show on television that made him a star.
With Presley himself he seemed to offer kindly, even fatherly advice, but he showed a hint of iron discipline. Many feared Parker and his powers and suggested that Elvis was in awe of him. Apart from his love of a fast buck, Parker’s most serious deficiencies were held to be a lust for gambling, smoking cigars and over-eating.
Yet he conducted himself well in most of his business affairs, did not drink or take drugs, and was a loyal husband and father to his stepson. Throughout the years when Elvis was touring, making movies or later performing his Las Vegas cabaret shows, Parker remained at the helm, keeping tabs on everything from merchandising to the fan clubs.
After Elvis’s drug-related death in 1977, Parker virtually retired and only occasionally emerged to defend his role as Presley’s mentor. He spent his last years walking with a cane to the gaming tables of Las Vegas where he lived from the 1980s onwards. He was often asked to write his own book about Elvis, but replied: “You know what they want – dirt. But I’m not a dirt farmer.”
Andreas Cornelius Van Kuijk (“Colonel Tom Parker”), manager and promoter: born Breda, Holland 26 June 1909; twice married; died Las Vegas 21 January 1997.
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