Puppet Master

Colonel Tom Parker lit the blue touch paper when Elvis mania spread-like a bushfire across the world. Calculating, cold-hearted and not entirely legal, his puppet mastery made Elvis the most famous man on the planet. Peter Toyberg looks at the remarkable growth and staying power of ‘The King’ and the man behind the throne.

Elvis Aaron Presley was a one-off. He was unique, his achievements speak for his talent and his popularity cannot be compared with any other.

Despite journeying to the great Las Vegas gig in the sky in 1977 at the age of 42, Forbes Magazine estimates that his estate currently earns around $55M each year.

But how did this shy boy from Tupelo, Mississippi who got a C in music, become the world’s first rock star and charm millions of people around the world?

A hugely controversial figure in the life and career of Elvis was Colonel Tom Parker. Cold and manipulative, history does not speak kindly of him. Yet, he played a key role in the unprecedented growth of The King of Rock n’ Roll.

A telling insight into Parker’s character came the day after Elvis died. Parker felt no obligation to join in the hysterical grief. Instead, he flew to New York to negotiate a deal for merchandising rights to the dead star. Presley’s death meant that business was even better than usual. An older, fat Presley could be repackaged and sold as a timeless pop icon. Posthumous sales of records and memorabilia boomed. “Elvis didn’t die,” the Colonel said. “The body did. We’re keeping Elvis alive.”

Colonel Tom Parker wasn’t a real American Colonel. He was born Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk in the Netherlands in 1909. At age 17, he wanted to run away to America to make his fortune. Biographers have suggested that he may have been on the run when he entered the States illegally a few years later. Questions about a murder in his hometown surfaced in recent years and Parker may have been a suspect.

Maybe it’s why he never applied for a passport and explains the greatest mystery of Presley’s career – why they turned down millions of dollars to tour the world. Elvis was a global superstar yet in 30 years he played just three concerts on foreign soil.

Soon after arriving stateside Van Kuijk enlisted in the United States Army, taking the name “Tom Parker” from the officer who interviewed him, to disguise he was an illegal immigrant. In 1948, Parker received the rank of colonel in the State Guard from the governor of Louisiana in return for work he did on his election. The rank was honorary but Parker used the title throughout his life.

Parker began working in the music industry and signed a young Elvis in 1955. With his first RCA Victor single, “Heartbreak Hotel” Presley became a recording star and Parker arranged for him to appear on popular television programmes such as The Milton Berle Show and The Ed Sullivan Show, securing fees that made him the highest-paid star on television. By the summer of 1956 Presley had become the most famous new face of the year, causing excitement among teenage audiences and outrage among parents and religious groups.

Parker signed a deal with a film merchandiser to turn Presley into a brand. With over 78 different ranges, from charm bracelets to record players, Presley merchandise brought in $22 million in 1956. Unscrupulous Parker, with his 25% share of profits, was finding new ways to gain from his client that other managers could only dream about. Cleverly, he even sold “I Hate Elvis” badges to make money from those who otherwise wouldn’t have parted with their cash.

Later in 1956 Elvis signed a seven-picture contract with Paramount, brokered of course, by the Colonel. Presley’s acting career was to be a serious one, but seeing a chance to cross-promote albums, Parker persuaded him to sing in his films. This proved very lucrative, especially when the single for Presley’s first film, Love Me Tender, sold over one million copies in advance sales. Already, Parker had made Presley one of the most well-known, well-paid entertainers in the world.

But Parker was greedy and he made mistakes. He didn’t understand the transformation in the industry when albums became all-important. Instead of moving to the modern release schedule of one blockbuster album per year and a couple of key chart singles, Parker kept pumping out the same saturation schedule of the 50s. Even after the crucial Memphis sessions of 1969 Parker kept releasing cheap budget compilations that still included dreadful old movie songs. No other artist of this stature scraped the bottom of the barrel to fulfil record contracts, diluting their artistic credibility in the process.

Following Elvis’s widely praised Christmas TV special in1968, when it seemed he might recapture some of the glories of his best work, Parker squeezed any remaining spark out by locking him into lengthy contracts at glitzy Las Vegas hotels.

The deals he negotiated for Elvis at this late stage of his career were remarkably poor as if too much success had dulled the Colonel’s predatory instincts. It subsequently emerged that Parker had been using the lure of Elvis to gain sympathetic treatment for his own gambling losses at the Vegas roulette tables. “The Colonel was one of the best customers we had,” said one Las Vegas hotel manager. “He was good for a million dollars a year.”

Parker’s ruthless and frequently tasteless handling of Elvis Presley has become the cornerstone of the myth of the pop manager as the fast-talking, money-grabber. Parker was responsible for building Presley into the most successful and recognisable star that pop music had seen, but it was also Parker who chained the King to the treadmill of mediocre Hollywood movies that made him a laughing stock by the mid-Sixties.

At PEA we do things very differently. We also help our clients grow but, unlike Parker, our relationships and our success is built on clarity, great communication, innovation and trust. The most powerful currency that cuts through business is the value of trust in building successful, profitable relationships. Once lost, it is almost impossible to regain.

We don’t outsource and we understand what you need – a service partner who can offer a bespoke administrative solution, providing flexible and accessible reporting and assistance meeting the transparency demands of investors, regulators and fiduciaries. Our clients seek adaptable solutions to the operational challenges that they face. With this understanding, PEA delivers what clients want and need.


Peter Toyberg is Group Managing Director of PEA and holds an MSc in Economics from Copenhagen Business School and has extensive experience in the management of private equity funds. Peter specialises in technical fund structuring, tax reviews, AIFMD, turn-key back office services solutions, and depositary solutions.

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