It's hard to fathom that without Colonel Tom Parker, we might not have had Elvis Presley. Or at least the Elvis we know as one of the greatest rock n' roll legends of all time. The superstar's longtime manager is credited with discovering him and helping him reach global fame but he was always shrouded in mystery, hiding secrets no one realized at the time. He also become a controversial figure for his, at times, unethical dealings with his famous client whom he represented until his death.
Tom Hanks will be playing the mysterious manager in the upcoming Baz Luhrmann film about Elvis's life and we can't wait to see how he portrays Parker on the big screen. But it also brings up some questions about Parker and who he really was. Who exactly was the real Col. Tom? Was he even a Colonel?
Colonel Thomas Andrew Parker, as he introduced himself to the world, had quite an interesting history before discovering a young Elvis. He claimed to have origins in West Virginia with early years ranging from working in carnivals with elephants to managing a palm-reading booth. He technically did serve in the U.S. Army as a private, but after serving briefly, he went AWOL. Forced to serve a short prison sentence for desertion, Parker was finally released from prison after suffering a psychotic breakdown and landing a psychopath diagnosis from the Army. As a result, he earned himself a discharge.
To make things more bizarre, a few years later, Parker worked to gain over 300 lbs in order to avoid the draft. He never had a U.S. passport so its unclear how they would have found him anyways, but Parker didn't take any changes. He also didn't let this experience stop his professional career. His next venture was music.
In the late '30s, Parker started working with singer Gene Austin, whose career had taken a downward spiral. He discovered he was quite an effective promoter and started working with other singers including Minnie Pearl and Eddy Arnold. His first official role as a music manager was for Eddy Arnold who he helped secure tours, television appearances and hit songs. Clearly, Parker had found what he was meant to do.
Curious about how he became known as the Colonel? He was given an honorary rank of colonel in the Louisiana State Militia from state governor Jimmie Davis. Now known as Colonel Parker, he continued working with various singers, including Hank Snow, before finally making his big break with a young Elvis Presley.
He wasn't Elvis's first manager
While we know that the Colonel is credited with discovering Elvis, he technically wasn't his first manager. Scotty Moore was the guitarist in Presley's band who Sun Records encouraged to take on the role of manager in order to protect the singer from controversial promoters. Guess that didn't work out. After that contract expired, Memphis radio personality Bob Neal took over the role, but Col. Tom also stepped in to help with some promotions. Elvis really wasn't an unknown at the time and even had songs showing up on the country charts, but Parker knew he could be more and felt like he was too big for his current label.
He bought Bob Neal out from his contract, took over full management, and got Elvis signed to RCA Victor. Pretty soon his first No. 1 hit "Heartbreak Hotel" changed the trajectory of his career and Parker was there to help with his journey to the top.
Parker really did make Elvis a superstar, but had his downsides
While there are definitely some things Col. Tom did wrong, he really can be credited with turning Presley into a global sensation. He turned Elvis into The King, secured a contract with Paramount to allow the singer to pursue his dreams of acting, but was the one who persuaded him to incorporate music. He saw the value in the cross promotion of putting songs into his movies and it really worked. Some of Presley's biggest songs were those featured in his films, despite his initial desire to pursue a serious acting career.
Parker was behind Presley's successful tours around the country, his legendary Las Vegas residency, and even encouraged him to settle down with Priscilla Presley, helping organize their Vegas nuptials.
But there were some downsides to working with Parker, who continued to get greedy the more sucessful Presley became. The singer was dependent on talented songwriters to bring him good material and, over time, Parker scared many away over disagreements on royalties. According to biographer Alanna Nash, he also continued to ignore Presley's ongoing drug battle towards the end of his life.
So who is the real Tom?
Well, for starters, he wasn't born in West Virginia. Or the United States. It wasn't until the 1980s, long after Presley's death and Parker's retirement that the truth of his origins began to circulate. Turns out, he's actually Dutch. His real hometown is Breda in the Netherlands. According to the Smithsonian Mag, a local Breda journalist named Dirk Vellenga got a tip that Colonel Parker was actually the son of a stableman and decided to set out on a lengthy quest to discover the truth. What he discovered, was most unexpected.
Parker abruptly left his home country in 1929 without his personal papers or telling anyone where he was going. Why the rush? He essentially traveled into the United States without a dime, so what happened at home that led to this drastic decision?
Rumors emerged that Parker was allegedly behind an unsolved murder from 1929. A 23 year old woman married to a local grocer was battered to death behind their store. People have theorized that because this happened around the time Parker abruptly left the country, it could've have been him. Those who actually knew the Col. have their own opinions on the situation, some supporting this belief and some opposed. No evidence has ever been tied to Parker in terms of this specific crime, but his biographer has her own personal theory on the matter.
Nash explains, "I want to be clear in saying that there is no hard proof that he committed this murder, in my heart of hearts, I believe he did. Certainly the way he lived his life, for the duration of his years, suggests a secret of that kind of gravity. In other words, if that's not what happened back in Holland, something equally awful did."
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