• Email
  • Print

Hustling Elvis

Elvis Presley

by Bobbie Ann Mason
Lipper/Viking, 178 pp., $19.95

Having aspired to be as famous as Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup (a gut-bucket singer and songwriter well known only to blues devotees), Elvis Presley surpassed his early ambitions by a factor of about a zillion, and after a few years the enormity of his success began to weigh upon him. He struggled to grasp how he—a poor boy from East Tupelo, Mississippi, who had failed music in high school—could become the most popular recording artist in history, an idol to young people all over the world, and a movie star. “Why am I Elvis?” he wanted to know. “Why was I plucked out of the millions and millions of lives to be Elvis?”

At the suggestion of his confidant and hairdresser, Larry Geller, Elvis started reading inspirational texts and popular books on mysticism and Eastern thought, such as Paramahansa Yogananda’s The Autobiography of a Yogi, Vera Stanley Alder’s The Initiation of the World, and The Impersonal Life (by “Anonymous”).1 He took this spiritual inquiry so seriously that he considered devoting the rest of his life to it by becoming a monk.

Elvis would never find the answers he sought, though, because he was looking in the wrong place. Turning inward, as he was, he could presumably have learned something about himself and the music he created; but to understand how he became Elvis, the phenomenon, he would have had to study a different person: his manager (and something more), an outsized mystery man who went by the name of Thomas A. Parker and insisted upon being called “the Colonel.”

Before Parker laid siege to the twenty-year-old Presley and assumed control of his career, early in 1955, Elvis had been a regional sensation—a big story, but local news. Performing an erotic transmutation of black rhythm and blues, white gospel, and country music (with strains of cornball humor and Tin Pan Alley schmaltz), Presley had roused Southern girls to hysterics at county fairs, and local demand for the first few records he made for the Memphis-based Sun label, beginning with a fiery rendition of Crudup’s “That’s All Right” and a rocked-up version of the country ballad “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” overtaxed the small company’s pressing facilities. Distributed mostly in the South, the records Presley made for Sun Records never made the national pop-music charts.

Rock and roll was in the air; Elvis did not invent it. Teenagers, black and white, had been dancing to hard-driving “jump blues” records by black groups such as Jackie Brenston and the Delta Cats’ “Rocket 88” (commonly regarded as the first rock song) since the early 1950s, and white “hillbilly cats” and western-swing musicians such as Bill Haley and Billy Jack Wills were combining elements of African-American music with commercial pop and country-and-western styles around the same time. In fact, Haley had begun to make a career out of retooling black musicians’ hits like “Rocket 88” for white audiences even before Elvis paid Sun Records founder Sam Phillips four dollars to cut his first record. In doing so, Haley followed an old American custom of whitening black music for profit and glory, updating the tradition that had given us Stephen Foster; the first talking picture, The Jazz Singer; the first jazz record, “Livery Stable Blues,” by the all-white Original Dixieland Jass Band; and the Swing era.

To judge from Presley’s earliest recordings, however, it was Elvis who represented rock and roll at its unblushing, volatile best; he was its first master and the embodiment of every reason that adolescents of the postwar years turned to it in favor of the cheerfully torpid pop music (that of Perry Como, Teresa Brewer, and the like) to which their parents were listening. Elvis and his music were both young, and in their earthy unconventionality, overt sexuality, and coded blackness—Presley was white, yet, as a Southerner, still other to the rest of America—they implied all kinds of challenges to the conservatism and homogeneity of mainstream popular culture in the 1950s. Of course, in order to become our all-purpose symbol of postwar discontent, Elvis needed to quit his previous job as a truck driver for Crown Electric, and Colonel Parker, who had heard talk of Presley while he was promoting the country singer Eddy Arnold, made that possible by buying out his Sun contract (for a then-impressive $35,000) and taking him to RCA Records and into the big time. The Colonel’s price was lifelong servitude.

Parker thought nothing of music or culture of any sort. “He really was tone deaf,” the journalist Alanna Nash quotes Joan Deary of RCA Records as saying in The Colonel: The Extraordinary Story of Colonel Tom Parker and Elvis Presley, a commendably temperate and serious treatment of a story that could have tempted a lesser writer to sensationalism.2 Parker, like many people in the 1950s (including some of Presley’s fans), thought of Elvis as a charismatic novelty—an exotic, unique, and therefore valuable commodity in the entertainment trade. A veteran of the lurid, freewheeling carnivals and tent shows that appeared on the outskirts of rural communities and disappeared with the townsfolk’s earnings, the Colonel learned most of what he knew about show business and public taste as a sideshow barker and concessionaire. (He had a special fascination for one exhibit, a man with long hair, a beard, and a phony tail billed as “the Thing! Half Man, Half Animal!” according to Nash.)

He was also a highly developed grifter, a self-proclaimed con artist who thought every situation in life was a game to win, every person either a shill or a mark. He treated Elvis as both, accomplice and victim. He carried on negotiations with film studios as if he and Presley were collaborators and full partners, and he signed everything, even his Christmas cards, as “Elvis and the Colonel.” At the same time, his contract with Presley gave Parker independent decision-making authority over nearly every aspect of Elvis’s career, and he rigged the financial machinery so that he, the manager, often made more money than his client. Parker sometimes had Presley sign the bottom of blank contracts, which he would fill in later. Nash recounts an exchange between a British journalist and Parker in 1968. “Is it true that you take fifty percent of everything Elvis earns?” Parker was asked. After a moment’s thought, he answered, “No, that’s not true at all. He takes fifty percent of everything I earn.”

He claimed that he and Presley had a commensurate division of responsibilities: Elvis made the music and the movies, and the Colonel made the deals. The truth was knottier, as it often is with creative artists and their managers. Parker’s machinations dictated or limited most of Presley’s professional activities—the kinds of songs Presley could record, and when, where, and with what musicians, which movies he could make as well as many of his personal moves, down to the friends he could see, how they would spend their time, and even the woman he would marry. (The Colonel pressured Presley to wed Priscilla Beaulieu, the daughter of an army officer, whom Elvis met while he was stationed in Germany and who had been living with Presley in Graceland since she was sixteen, in order to avoid a career-damaging scandal exposing him as the seducer of a minor.) “Look, it’s pretty easy,” Parker told his client. “We do it this way, we make money. We do it your way, we don’t make money.” Elvis ended up doing almost everything the Colonel’s way, frequently to his career’s and his own detriment and, in time, to his frustration.

Like the managers of two other dominant figures in twentieth-century popular music—Irving Mills, who represented Duke Ellington, and Albert Grossman, who managed Bob Dylan—Colonel Parker recognized the profitability of music publishing and tried to maximize his artist’s participation in it. Mills and Grossman nurtured their young clients’ urges to compose, while Parker exploited Elvis’s trust and inertia, confining his repertoire almost exclusively to songs from a malleable old country-music publishing company he could manipulate, Hill and Range Songs, which “cut in” Presley (and, by extension, Parker) on the royalties. Elvis Presley’s name appears on the copyrights of dozens of tunes he recorded, including “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Love Me Tender,” and “Heartbreak Hotel.” As Dylan, the Beatles, and their peers elevated the standards for rock songwriting, Hill and Range’s offerings seemed ever more pale and dated. By the mid-Sixties, Elvis was recording goofy tripe such as “(There’s) No Room to Rhumba in a Sports Car,” “Do the Clam,” and “Petunia, the Gardener’s Daughter.”

Like Doris Day’s manager-husband, Marty Melcher, who took a sultry jazz singer and reduced her to pandering infantilism, compelling her to sing only “bouncy tunes,” Parker imposed a rigid code on Hill and Range songwriters. An “Elvis song” had to have simple, accessible words, a first-person point of view, and a happy ending—like the standards of children’s books. Composers were also prohibited from meeting Elvis, restricting their conception of him to his ever-more-wholesome public image and insulating them from his own indifference toward their contributions to it.

No other manager of a noted artist has ever been so cynical of his client’s talent, as Parker demonstrated in his pitiless lordship over Elvis’s tenure in Hollywood. Presley, a movie buff since boyhood, had committed whole scenes from Rebel Without a Cause to memory. Always fearful that his music might prove to be the passing fad of his critics’ predictions, he was enormously gratified when in 1956 Parker succeeded at parlaying Elvis’s early fame into a movie contract with Paramount, and he hoped to begin a substantial screen career, like those of pop-music stars of preceding generations such as Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. As he told the producer Hal Wallis, “My ambition has always been to become a motion picture actor—a good one, sir.” Parker, never confident of Elvis’s acting ability (or of the money in anything smacking of art), made sure Presley never had the chance. The studio contracts which the Colonel negotiated gave Parker approval over all of Elvis’s prospective movie projects, which he saw strictly as cross-merchandising vehicles for soundtrack records, tie-in singles, and souvenirs.

In doing so, Tom Parker was one of the inventors of the contemporary entertainment industry, in which the movie is the promotional device, and the baseball cap with the title logo is the main product. Every Elvis movie had to include at least four songs, and they would inevitably come from the Hill and Range catalog. Parker refused to allow Elvis to appear in Thunder Road, West Side Story, or Midnight Cowboy.

Indeed, Parker effectively kept Elvis out of the film world; although Presley starred in thirty-one movies (or, more accurately, made one movie thirty-one times), they have always existed in a self-contained, unchanging sphere all their own, unrelated to developments in film during the same years. (In 1956, a year before Love in the Afternoon, Presley appeared in his first title, Love Me Tender; thir-teen years later, when They Shoot Horses, Don’t They was released, he made The Trouble with Girls.) Elvis movies, with their interchangeable titles (Girls! Girls! Girls!, Girl Happy, Easy Come Easy Go, Live a Little Love a Little) and story lines (young race-car driver/pilot/speedboat driver with guitar confronts gangsters/politicians/businessmen, thereupon getting girl), have a genre to themselves: the Elvis movie. Ostensibly set in vacation locales like Acapulco or Hawaii, suggested by cartoonish backlot sets, they are as exotic as the foreign foods in a mall food court, and in their manufactured predictability, they provide the same kind of cheesy comfort. “They’ll never win any Academy Awards,” Parker admitted. “All they’re good for is to make money.” Presley called them “travelogues” and came to resent not being entrusted with more serious material.

Like Brian Epstein, who took a band of working-class rockers in pompadours and leather jackets, packaged them in bangs and Edwardian suits, and merchandised them, creating Beatlemania, Colonel Parker neatened up, softened, and promoted Elvis Presley as a brand suitable for mass consumption. Unlike the Beatles (especially John Lennon), however, Elvis failed to project a strong sense of self or a challenging artistic conception to counterbalance the accreting banality of all his marketing.3 While Epstein licensed the Beatles’ identities for use as characters on a Saturday morning cartoon show, the boys were recording “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever,” and Lennon was writing books of arch verse. The Mop Top hype and promotional gimmicks always felt ancillary and irrelevant to the real Beatles. In the case of Elvis, the exploitation came to define its object; indeed, it seemed to replace him. For years before Presley died in 1977, at the age of forty-two, there appeared to be nothing more to him than his detached, out-of-time presence in those movies, the throwaway songs, the garish Las Vegas stage shows, and the chintzy souvenirs—just the Elvis an old sideshow carny wanted us to have. To this day, much of what we think of when we think about Elvis is the handiwork of Colonel Parker.

How could any artist submit to such constriction for so long? For all the good their managers did them at one time, Duke Ellington fired Irving Mills once he was well established, and Bob Dylan eventually left Albert Grossman. When Marty Melcher died, Doris Day took over her own affairs (and won a landmark suit against Melcher’s partner for misappropriation of funds), as the Beatles did after Brian Epstein’s death. (They ended up suing one another.) Theories about the mysterious bond between Presley and Colonel Parker have been the midrash of Elvis fandom. Some believe Parker allowed Elvis to fall into drug addiction and supplied him with pills to keep him compliant, although there’s no hard evidence to support this. Others, including Nash, see the Colonel as a surrogate parent. (Elvis’s beloved mother, Gladys, died in 1958, and his father, Vernon, who outlived his only son by a few years, was something of a rogue and, in Elvis’s eyes, betrayed him by cheating on his mama.) There may be some truth to the latter notion: after Parker arranged for Presley to sign with RCA Records, Elvis told him, in a telegram,

You are the best, most wonderful person I could ever hope to work with. Believe me when I say I will stick with you through thick and thin and do everything I can to uphold your faith in me…. I love you like a father.

Bobbie Ann Mason, whose Penguin life of Presley deals knowingly with his roots in Southern poverty, de-fends Elvis’s subservience to the Colonel as a function of his provenance. Being poor and Southern and feeling powerless and inferior, Elvis (like his parents, whose approval was crucial to Parker when Elvis was still a minor) learned deference to authority as a survival tactic. The Presleys raised Elvis to see virtue in work, and he accepted orders from Colonel Parker because he was the boss, despite the technicality that Elvis Pres-ley employed him. Moreover, Mason suspects, if the Presleys recognized Parker as a hustler, they likely respected him as such:

There had to be a hustle, because you knew the game was rigged against you…. The Presleys knew they needed a guide, someone of their own kind who could maneuver among the bankers, lawyers, company executives—none of whom were to be trusted. The Presleys probably considered them- selves lucky to find a con man who could challenge the big dudes, because they knew the big dudes would just stomp on them. That was the way life was.

Elvis and his parents all died without knowing how grand a hustle the Colonel had pulled off. He was scarcely “one of their kind,” the West Virginia–born colonel he pretended to be, but an illegal alien named Andreas van Kuijk, who had fled his native Netherlands under hazy circumstances—perhaps a murder (never solved)—and scammed his way through the ranks of the American entertainment industry, from the carnivals into country music to Elvis, with stops as an army deserter (discharged as a psychopath) and a game warden along the way. Parker (never his legal name) kept his identity a secret until his final years, when he thought a few details from the truth would give him a tactical advantage in a court proceeding. In her book, Alanna Nash, building upon the research of the German journalist Dirk Vellenga, tells in unprecedented and meticulous detail the full story of Parker’s real history and his audacious posing.

In retrospect, it seems almost fitting that the man who transformed Elvis Presley into an icon of pop artifice should be a creature of self-invention. He knew his trade, as Bobbie Ann Mason points out. Both Presley and Parker were never what they seemed, we now know: in his youth, when Elvis terrified parents as he snarled and gyrated like something from hell, he was actually a shy, religious fellow who lived with his mother and father. When he returned from the army, looking clean-cut and demure, he began his private descent into drug abuse and sexual excess. No degree of deception could have fazed his manager, the colonel from Noord-Brabant.

Presley “was trapped by his dependence on the Colonel,” the songwriter Jerry Lieber told Alanna Nash. “He was never able to take control of his own life.” One can’t help but wonder how Presley’s life and work might have been different had he mustered the will to leave Parker in the Sixties, as he told friends he wanted to do. Would he have made Midnight Cowboy, after all, or accepted Barbra Streisand’s overture to appear with her in A Star Is Born? Could he have improved his performances? Or was he doing what he really wanted to do all along—and posing when he talked of wishing he could do more serious work?

Colonel Parker liked to stand outside the theater after Elvis had given a concert, peddling souvenirs. For Presley’s fans, Parker had “I Love Elvis” buttons. For others, he also carried “I Hate Elvis” buttons. Clearly, neither was appropriate for Parker; he just liked selling the buttons. He didn’t care one way or another about Elvis. In the end, sadly, his client seemed to feel the same way.

  1. 1

    Written anonymously by Joseph S. Benner in 1916, the book is currently published by DeVorss as The Impersonal Life: The Little Book in Which Elvis Found the Light: Graceland Edition.

  2. 2

    Several other books about Parker and Presley have been published. Among them: Elvis and the Colonel (Pocket Books, 1975), by May Mann, a fan’s diary; Elvis and the Colonel (Delacorte, 1988), by Dirk Vellenga (with Mick Farren), a straightforward account of Parker’s life and association with Presley by the journalist who first investigated Parker’s secret history; My Boy Elvis: The Colonel Tom Parker Story by Sean O’Neal (Barricade Books, 1998), a sketchy book whose cover photograph shows Presley standing alongside a man who is not Colonel Parker; and Colonel Tom Parker: The Curious Life of Elvis Presley’s Eccentric Manager (Cooper Square Press, 2001), by James L. Dickerson, which glances over Parker’s early life.

  3. 3

    There were exceptions, most notably Presley’s 1968 TV special, one of the highlights of his career, and the two soulful albums he made in Memphis shortly after that.

  • Email
  • Print