Today is the birthday of one of the great impresarios, con artists and flim flam men of all time, Colonel Tom Parker (1909-1997). A former carnival worker and sideshow talker, he gradually worked his way into the music business when he began to promote Gene Austin in 1938. From here be began book, promote and manage Nashville acts like Minnie Pearl, Eddy Arnold, Tommy Sands and Hank Snow.
In 1955, he began to manage his masterpiece: Elvis Presley. The Colonel brought more than a little of the sideshow with him to his presenting Elvis, promoting him in his early years as the “freak” most of the public took him for. From relative obscurity, Parker rapidly made Elvis into a household word. The Colonel grew to be the King’s own Svengali, micromanaging every aspect of his career, helping him make a fortune…but also taking as much as half of it for himself in later days, and losing other opportunities like potential songwriting income, and the increased revenue he certainly would have gotten if he’d adopted some quality control in picking songs and movies after the mid 1960s. And by relying almost entirely on income from live performing during his last years, the Colonel essentially worked Elvis to death, killing that golden goose once and for all.
Still and all, the Colonel produced one other masterpiece besides Elvis during his long career, and that was HIMSELF. While he was indeed bestowed with the military honorific “Colonel” by the governor of Louisiana, Parker was not a native of West Virginia as he had always claimed. He was actually a DUTCHMAN, named Andreas Cornelis “Dries” van Kuijk, who snuck into the U.S. illegally at around the age of 20. He may well be the most successful illegal alien in U.S. history. These facts didn’t emerge until “Parker” was long since famous. I find it a hilarious commentary on Southern manners that no one had gotten the real story at any time earlier. The general reaction when the facts came out was essentially, “I thought that guy talked a little funny!” But neither Elvis nor any of his entourage would ever be so impolite as to ask him to his face who he really was!
To find out about the history of show business, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.