Colonel Tom Parker: Devil in Disguise Or Earth Angel?
Best selling author Alanna Nash reveals the controversial, inscrutable man behind “The King”.
By Edie R. Lambert and Bill Miller
Preparing to celebrate her birthday in Louisville, Ky., August 16, 1977, Alanna Nash, pop music critic for The Louisville Courier-Journal, couldn’t know that she’d soon come face to face with a dramatic and historic event unfolding 382 miles away in Memphis.
“One day, I was celebrating my birthday, and the next, I was staring at Elvis Presley’s body lying in state in the foyer at Graceland,” she says.
At age 42, the King of Rock and Roll was dead, and Nash and John Filiatreau, also with the Courier-Journal, were the very first in the press pool (or the public) to file past Elvis’s body on that sad, shocking, morbidly hot Memphis day.
“People lined up as far as the eye could see, and many were fainting from heat and grief,” Nash recalls.
From all corners of the world, mourners had dropped what they were doing to get to Graceland when they heard that the public would be able to view the King’s body -- an experience Nash will never forget.
“It was shocking and thrilling at the same time – surreal, there were too many emotions bumping up against each other at once,” she says soberly.
If he had lived, Elvis would be 69 years old January 8. Curiously, his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, who incited as much controversy posthumously as he did alive, died in 1997, also in January.
Was Parker, né Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk, in truth, Elvis’s bane as many believe, or was he the engine that powered Elvis’s phenomenal success, as others insist?
Did Parker, a man without a country, furtively flee his homeland to escape punishment for a murder he’d committed? Or were there other, less sinister reasons for his mysterious flight and subsequent failure to obtain legal US citizenship?
What lay behind the moniker he adopted in his new country, and why the title of Colonel?
Nash spent six years investigating the elusive Parker. Her exhaustive research efforts across two continents answer many of the questions about Parker, his past, and how it affected his management of the King and brings Parker’s enigmatic and seemingly inscrutable personality into sharper focus.
Released in July, Nash’s compelling 342-page book, The Colonel: The extraordinary story of Colonel Tom Parker and Elvis Presley is a perceptive and sensitive examination of a 20th century pathological iconoclast and an enthralling story. Nash is a superb storyteller.
Beginning September 22, Bill Miller began a series of five interviews with Nash broadcast locally on KFEQ 680 AM. The Bill Miller Show is a syndicated radio program heard in over 100 US markets.
Here, provided courtesy of Bill Miller is an excerpt from those broadcast interviews.
Miller: What has the initial reaction been to the book?
Nash: Really good, wonderful press in the New York Times. People Magazine gave it a Critic’s Star. People are kind of polarized. The Colonel has a lot of defenders, but what has really made me feel good about most of the reviews is that they’ve said it was a fair portrait. I really strived to make it fair because the Colonel’s a controversial figure.
Miller: What prompted you to write another book about Elvis after writing Elvis Aaron Presley: Revelations from the Memphis Mafia?
Nash: When I started that book with three of the Elvis entourage, they were so critical of the Colonel. I thought that out of journalistic fairness we ought to give him a chance to respond. Also, the state of Tennessee forced Elvis’s estate to sue the Colonel in the early 80s because he was still taking 50 percent of Elvis’s income.
So I went to Las Vegas to find him. This was in 1992, and I met the Colonel. It was the first of three meetings I had with him.
I remember looking across the lunch table at him (he took me to lunch each time) and thinking, “Who are you? Who are you really?”
When he died in 1997, I was quite sad. He was very kind to me. I was also sad because I thought we’d never really know who he was and what his story was.
He got upset with me once when I tried to ask him questions about why he put Elvis into such lousy movies after 1961, and he got mad at me again when I asked him why he didn’t let Elvis record better songs in the latter half of his career. Other than those two times, he was really quite lovely to me.
Later, my agent insisted I write the book, but I’d thought it would be the hardest book in all of Rock and Roll to write. The Colonel was so mysterious and had covered his past so well. He was 87 when he died. It was ancient history.
But the more I thought about it, the more I thought I had to try.
I think I got a really good handle on him, though there are things I’ll never know. But I was trying to find out the essence of who he was and why he made the decisions he did in managing Elvis’s career, a lot of which didn’t really make sense until my discoveries in Holland.
There’s a theory that the Colonel accidentally killed a woman, which is why he fled in 1929 and came over here but never became a citizen.
He had to admit that he was from Holland and that his real name was not Tom Parker in the early 80s when the estate of Elvis Presley went after him. In court, he also explained that when he joined the US Army after coming over here, he automatically forfeited his Dutch citizenship. He was, quite literally, a man without a country. And I wonder if that was on purpose, if he liked the idea of being stateless so the laws of no country actually governed him.
Miller: Can you tell us more about the murder?
Nash: A reporter named Dirk Vellenga for the Breda, Holland newspaper De Stem found out when Elvis died that the Colonel was actually from his little town, and he interviewed the Colonel’s family. He then wrote a series for his paper about the Colonel’s early years. The family was mystified about why he’d disappeared.
He’d first come to America at the age of 17, and his family had a big going-away party for him, and there was a lot of hoopla.
But when he left in 1929, literally overnight, he told no one goodbye, took no clothing with him, no papers, and no money. He told a young man named Byron Raphael, who worked for him in 1956, that he worked his way over as a galley boy on a ship and landed in Mobile, Alabama. He said that he never even went back and picked up his paycheck from the ship, which means he arrived in this country penniless. He was frightened of something that prevented him from getting that check.
When Dirk finished the series, he asked readers to respond if they knew why the Colonel had left so abruptly. He received an anonymous note that said Parker was really van Kuijk, and he had murdered the wife of the greengrocer on the Boschstraat in Breda.
I think the person who wrote that anonymous letter is the mother-in-law of the daughter of the Colonel’s uncle in Holland with whom he was living at the time he disappeared.
The Colonel’s never named, and the murder is unsolved to this day. But there are clues, reasons that you’d believe it’s true about the murder and the Colonel. And certainly the way he lived his life would make you think that he had a very great secret, far more sinister than just being an illegal alien, which he could have taken care of anytime.
Miller: Wasn’t the Colonel also involved with Eddy Arnold?
Nash: He was very well known in Nashville by the time he found Elvis because he had made Eddy a huge star. He hadn’t gotten Eddie his RCA contract, but he had nurtured him into a much larger star than Nashville had seen in a very long time.
Miller: I interviewed Eddy several years ago, and I thought the name came up. You’ve spoken to a lot of people in Nashville who knew Elvis. That and getting your book together on Elvis probably gave you a good cast of characters to talk to.
Nash: Yes, I have a lot of friends in Nashville, and I’ve covered the country music scene since 1975, so I have a lot of contacts there as well as friends.
But one of the problems is that a lot of people had started to die by the time I began the book. The Colonel himself died in 1997, and a lot of his contemporaries were already gone. In the six years that I researched the book, 30 people associated with the Colonel and Elvis died. I really got in there in the right window of time. It’s really a remarkable piece of history.
The Colonel gets slammed for a lot of the decisions he made managing Elvis, but in many parts of Nashville, he’s revered for a lot of things he did for a lot of the country stars. He also worked with Ernest Tubb, Jamup and Honey, and Minnie Pearl. He had a booking agency in Nashville when he split with Eddy. It was because of his prowess as a booking agent that a Memphis deejay named Bob Neal, who was managing Elvis at the time, came to the Colonel, or the Colonel went to him. That’s kind of hazy.
Certainly the Colonel had a wonderful reputation, and that’s how he came to be booking gigs for Elvis and later assumed his management.
Miller: Legend has it that Elvis was doing The Louisiana Hayride (radio program) when the Colonel first heard about him. Is that right?
Nash: Yes. The Colonel had begun hearing about Elvis from various sources who had seen his appearances in Texas. He began checking him out. He would just show up. D. J. Fontana told me he remembered seeing the Colonel in the shadows. He stalked Elvis a little just to check him out. The Colonel had this pathologically predatory specter of his personality. He was always lurking somewhere. I found this out from my dealings with him. That’s what he did with Eddy, and that’s what he did with Elvis – staked him out first.
Miller: The Louisiana Hayride spawned a lot of great talent, but I suppose Elvis has to be at the top of the list. Do they still do those?
Nash: No, but a lot of people got their start there. Hank Williams had a lot of success there and Johnny Horton.
Miller: Let’s talk a little about Elvis. I read where you were one of the first people to see the body after Elvis died. Is that correct?
Nash: Yes. It was a very surreal experience. I worked for The Louisville Courier-Journal, and the paper sent me and another reporter, John Filiatreau on the company plane the day after Elvis died to cover the funeral. John and I were standing at the edge of the press pool when a fellow came out with a bullhorn and told members of the press who wished to view the body to line up behind us and put his hands on our shoulders.
We went through, and I understand how the rumors started that Elvis wasn’t dead because the person in that coffin really did look like a wax figure. His body was in such a state that they had to do a lot of work on him that made him look sort of waxy. He didn’t look human.
I went through again, and I tried to go through a third time, but a guard pulled me out.
Miller: Was the Colonel very possessive when it came to his talent stable?
Nash: Extremely possessive. He wouldn’t let anyone get near Elvis unless he himself sanctioned it. When Elvis went to Hollywood, and the William Morris Agency handled him, the Colonel was really the client. Those agents couldn’t get near Elvis. The Colonel was the client with RCA Records. The Colonel was the client in Las Vegas. Everybody had to go through the Colonel for everything. That’s why Christmas cards, letters, and telegrams were always signed by Elvis and the Colonel.
He was very possessive, but he also saw them as a team. He really thought of them as a joint entity.
He was also extremely possessive of his women. By that I mean his wives. The Colonel wasn’t someone to play around.
Miller: There’s a picture in the book of the Colonel with Elvis in a red BMW, a gift to the Colonel from Elvis, in which the Colonel almost looks comical.
Nash: Yes, almost like a cartoon character. He would have liked the idea of that because he had a wonderful sense of humor. He poked fun at everything.
Miller: Elvis never appeared on the Bob Hope Show, and Hope really wanted him.
Nash: Yes when Elvis was stationed in Germany. Bob had put the wheels in motion to get Elvis on the USO Show, but the Colonel dispatched Lamar Fike, one of Elvis’s entourage members, to stop that. The Colonel couldn’t go to Germany because he had no passport. He and Bob Hope were great friends, but the Colonel wasn’t going to let his boy, “his attraction” as he called him, perform free. The Colonel knew that footage would show up everywhere, and he was afraid that would cut into ticket sales when Elvis came home from the army.
Miller: Even though Elvis has been gone for over 20 years, I don’t think he’s going to go away, do you?
Nash: No, now we have another remake of Rubber Neckin’, one of his old songs. They did that with A Little Less Conversation putting a kind of techno beat to it. It’s just fabulous. Elvis is so contemporary in so many ways, and the state has done a great job of keeping him before the public eye. I think he’s here to last.
Miller: I really appreciate having you on the show.
Nash: Thank you. I’d like to mention that I have a Web site at www.colonelparker.com, and there are a lot more photos with more to come that I couldn’t fit into the book.
The author of six books on popular culture, Alanna Nash is a feature writer for Entertainment Weekly, USA Weekend, and The New York Times. She was named by Esquire magazine as one of the “Heavy 100 of Country Music”. The 1996 feature film Up Close and Personal starring Robert Redford, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Stockard Channing was based on Nash’s book Golden Girl: The Story of Jessica Savitch.
Though it was just published in July, Nash’s book about the Colonel has already attracted inquiries about a movie based on it. A paperback edition will be released in September 2004.