Col. Tom Parker, Elvis Presley’s severe, unconventional, and controversial manager from 1955 until his death in 1977, died Friday at Valley Hospital in Las Vegas, Nevada. He was 87 years old when he died.
According to Bruce Banke, a longtime friend and former executive at the Las Vegas Hilton, the cause was complications from a stroke.
Mr. Parker, who was given the honorary title Colonel and guided Presley’s rise from a Southern phenomenon to a worldwide celebrity, is perhaps the most well-known manager in show business. Many of Presley’s fans, on the other hand, held Mr. Parker in contempt, accusing him of encouraging the singer to embrace shlock rather than substance, of collecting outrageous commissions, and of preventing Elvis Presley from performing outside of the United States.
Mr. Parker was widely known to have arrived in the United States as an illegal immigrant from the Netherlands, fearing that if he travelled abroad with Presley, he would be deported. “The nicest people in the world,” Presley said of Mr. Parker and his first wife, Marie.
Mr. Parker, a rough-spoken, intimidating, cigar-chomping businessman, was known for misrepresenting his past and rarely gave interviews. He claimed to be a native of West Virginia and claimed to have walked away from an orphanage to join his uncle’s Great Parker Pony Circus.
A more likely scenario is that he emigrated to the United States at the age of 20 and worked as a circus performer before settling in Tampa, Fla., and marrying Marie Mott in 1935. He worked as a dog catcher in Tampa and built a pet cemetery, among his numerous early professions. In the meantime, he began working as a local promoter for country singers Gene Austin and Roy Acuff, as well as film cowboy Tom Mix.
Mr. Parker began his managerial profession by moving in with singer Eddy Arnold and his family in Nashville, earning a reputation as an all-consuming father. He wrangled the honorary colonel’s title from Louisiana Governor Jimmie Davis in 1948, and requested to be called as “Colonel” from then on. Mr. Parker obtained Mr. Arnold jobs in multiple Hollywood movies and booked him in Las Vegas, almost predicting the path he would pursue with Presley. Mr. Arnold sacked him in 1953, and Mr. Parker went on to create his own promotion firm and handle the musician Hank Snow.
Oscar Davis, who worked for Mr. Parker, recommended Presley to him. He hired Presley as an opener on a Hank Snow tour and began pleading with Presley, his parents, and his manager, Bob Neal, to allow him to provide professional assistance.
Presley agreed to hire Mr. Parker as an adviser in 1955. He quickly arranged for Presley’s departure from Sun Records, the modest label where he had begun recording, and for him to secure a contract with RCA Records. Mr. Parker was his “exclusive and exclusive counsel, personal representative, and manager” at the end of the year, according to their contract. His first song with RCA, “Heartbreak Hotel,” became the top-selling record of 1956.
Mr. Parker dedicated his entire life to Elvis Presley. At his presentations, he sold programs and counted tickets. Everything from Presley’s career-launching appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show” to his lucrative but forgettable Hollywood films was orchestrated by him. In the mid-1960s, he persuaded Presley to stop performing and making public appearances, and he orchestrated his comeback in Las Vegas in 1969.
Mr. Parker’s carnival experience, according to colleagues, made him a good judge of character and a ferocious negotiator who was able to collect enormous fees for Presley’s performances and interviews, transforming the singer into a $35 million commercial empire by 1964. The manager made profitable transactions for himself as well, receiving commissions as high as 50%.
He was sued by Presley’s heirs for fraud and mismanagement after his death, and a Memphis judge determined that he had no legal rights to the singer’s fortune. He sold his Presley master recordings to RCA for $2 million to settle a lawsuit with the firm.
He remarried and moved to Las Vegas after his wife died in 1980, where he gave his skills to entertainers and worked as an entertainment adviser for the Hilton Hotel group.
His Las Vegas-based wife, Loanne, survives him.
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