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"Newsday" Review => The Man Who Made Elvis King

Wed Jul 16, 2003 3:26 am

Below is yet another favorable -- albeit somewhat flawed -- review of Alanna Nash's "The Colonel."

God bless Alanna -- and each of you!

Dr. John
The People's Man!


The Man Who Made Elvis King

By John Anderson
July 13, 2003

THE COLONEL: The Extraordinary Story of Colonel Tom Parker and Elvis
Presley, by Alanna Nash. Simon & Schuster, 394 pp., $25.

Guilty of every deadly sin except perhaps sloth and lust, the Colonel Tom Parker of Alanna Nash's "The Colonel" is a figure not just of cupidity, dishonesty and ruthlessness but unspeakable grubbiness and bad taste. Just reading about him makes you want to take a shower; having written nearly 400 pages about him, Nash probably wanted to have her soul sent out and dry-cleaned.

And yet, it's a fascinating book, the proverbial car crash with a dust jacket. Born Andre van Kuijk in Breda, Holland, and made a "colonel" by another snake charmer, Louisiana Gov. Jimmie Davis, Parker has long been the Iago, Judas and Caliban of rock and roll. Presley may or may not have been an "idiot savant," as he was dubbed by songwriting legends Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller. But he was a country boy whose father, Vernon, had done prison time, whose adored mother, Gladys, had, as a result, taught him both to fear authority and promise to get the family out of debt. Parker, a carny by both background and nature - a chiseler who makes Reagan-era junk-bond salesmen look like Boy Scouts - knew how to work a con and certainly knew how to work Elvis. It's been suggested that Parker took half of everything Presley made over the course of his two-decade career. Nash implies that this would be an understatement.

As the title makes plain, this book by Nash (who has also authored biographies of Dolly Parton, Jessica Savitch and Presley himself) is in no way an Elvis story, although Elvis, as Parker's only client (after stints managing singers Gene Austin and Eddy Arnold), is the solitary planet upon which Parker's cancerous moon throws its malignant shadow. There were always questions about their relationship as client and manager. Why was Elvis allowed to make such astoundingly bad movies, one after the other? Why did he go into the Army at the height of his popularity (he could easily have gotten out of it)? Why didn't Parker allow Presley to tour Europe? And why, despite a pathological need to swindle ("He treated everything like a carnival," a colleague told Nash) did Parker allow Elvis to become "the largest single taxpayer on a straight income in the country"? No tax shelters. Not even a hint of fiduciary impropriety. Because Parker was terrified of the IRS and of the government in general. Why? Nash concedes that much of what she's unearthed is speculation. But even as circumstantial evidence, it's pretty convincing.

Parker's entire life was a collection of chicaneries, evasions and forged information - he would even, apparently, take credit for inventing a hideous carnival scam like the "Dancing Chickens" (live poultry placed on a red-hot surface, which thus "danced") just to pilfer an anecdote ("If I can steal it and get by with it, it's mine," he once said.) While Parker's Dutch roots were no secret, why he left Breda - cutting off his entire family and all but denying their existence - is another story. Why did he leave so abruptly and without looking back? Nash says it may have been murder. On May 17, 1929, a newlywed named Anna van den Enden had her brains bashed in at her husband's Breda greengrocery, an act of such viciousness it was assumed to be a crime of passion. Parker's - or van Kuijk's - disappearance occurred simultaneously. Parker was never known for physical violence, although his temper was legendary. But if Anna van den Enden's blood was on his hands, it certainly would explain why he never left the United States after reaching its shores, why he never took advantage of the Alien Registration Act of 1940 (which would have allowed him to stay regardless of his undocumented past) and why, given Parker's piratical soul, he never wanted to become naturalized: Had he violated U.S. law, his unnaturalized status might have proved a tactical advantage.

Why do we care about Colonel Tom Parker, possible killer and unquestioned con man? Nash gives us two reasons: He was the man who "almost single-handedly took the carnival tradition first to rock and roll and then to modern mass entertainment, creating the blueprint for the powerful style of management and merchandising that the music business operates by today. By merely applying the exploitationalist tactics of the barker to his own client, he drew a straight line from the bally platform of the old- time carnival to the hullabalooed concert stage."

The other reason, of course, is Elvis Presley. The story of American popular music has been a long, sad tradition of white ripping off black: Presley was as guilty of this as any other white exploiter - even if, in his apparent simplicity, he was just following his musical heart. He took African-American musical trends and made them palatable to a white audience. The near-mythic twist in Presley's fate is that he wound up sharing with his black influences the soul-killing assassination of his talent, which ended with his slowly, methodically killing himself. Presley may have had more money, more prestige, drugs that were legal and a publicity machine that kept most of his sexual-pharmaceutical antics out of the limelight. Ultimately, though, Presley's artistic potential was stymied by a man who was interested only in protecting and enriching himself and who, unlike Frankenstein, outlived his own monster.

Copyright © 2003, Newsday, Inc.

Wed Jul 16, 2003 7:17 am

Thank you for that.

Looking forward to the book and also a balanced review from an informed Elvis source.

Like the curates egg - I am sure the Colonel had his good points along with the bad.

Wed Jul 16, 2003 10:53 am

"..........The story of American popular music has been a long, sad tradition of white ripping off black: Presley was as guilty of this as any other white exploiter - even if, in his apparent simplicity, he was just following his musical heart. He took African-American musical trends and made them palatable to a white audience..........." John Anderson. "Newsday"

See; Elvis, Ludwig Van Beethoven, and so-called Black Music, thread.

High time a serious musicologist took this silly issue to pieces!!! they need all the help we can give them.

Wed Jul 16, 2003 9:02 pm

Yes. This is the exact section alluded to when I termed the piece "somewhat flawed."

Wed Jul 16, 2003 9:17 pm

Dr. John:

I've been wondering - what is Elvis holding in your avatar picture?


Wed Jul 16, 2003 9:49 pm

Rich TCB -

It is the pen he just used to sign away half his earnings to the Colonel.

Wed Jul 16, 2003 10:04 pm

The Leiber & Stoller "idiot savant" reference was a bit misleading also. We all (hopefully) know that, after meeting and working with Elvis, they no longer thought that about him. But the writer, who oviously subscribes to the "Elvis-as-a-guitar-playing-Jethro Bodine" school of thought, neglects to mention that. And this "Elvis-ripped-off-the-blacks" stuff has really gotten old! Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't recall Bill Monroe, Dean Martin, Bing Crosby, Jake Hess, and Johnny Ray claiming that Elvis ripped them off. It's a double standard to say that white singers/musicians can be influenced by and borrow from the music of other whites, but when they're influenced by and borrow from the music of blacks it's called a rip-off. This also conveniently ignores the fact that Elvis' (and Bill Haley's) pioneering early rock & roll music was a COMBINATION of r&b AND c&w! And didn't Chuck Berry's first hit (Maybelline) have a STRONG c&w feel? But nobody accused Chuck of rippin' off the white man's country music. OK I'll get off my soapbox. :x

Wed Jul 16, 2003 10:57 pm

I just read this part of text from a review about "The King Of Rock 'N' Roll - The Complete Fifties Masters" box set from the Rolling Stone website.

This breadth also conclusively refutes the popular argument that Presley was just a lucky white man ripping off black song stylings. Blending and juggling this many genres was completely without precedent; there is simply no one he could have copied to produce this sound.

Not bad, eh?


Thu Jul 17, 2003 6:10 am

Spot on, Rich! Good excerpt.