The story of Elvis Presley is, as we know very well, one of the greatest and saddest success stories in the history of American entertainment. An immensely talented young man ended up as a ruin of his former self, dying from heart problems connected to long-time drug abuse. And while Elvis’ legacy keeps on living, a man behind the shadows – Colonel Tom Parker – played a role both in Elvis‘ rise to the stars and in his downfall into the pits of drug abuse and suffering. Parker was an essential and controversial figure in Elvis’ life, and in this article, we are going to tell you whether he actually stole money from the King or not.
And while Colonel Parker did not technically steal any money from Elvis, the deals he had with him were so unfair that they are certainly exploitative in nature. After Elvis’ death, an investigation concluded that Parker’s management deal of 50% was extortionate compared to the usual average of 15–20%, as well as that Parker’s handling of Presley’s business affairs during his lifetime was “unethical” and mishandled.
In the rest of this article, we are going to bring you everything you need to know about the story of Colonel Parker’s handling of Elvis’ estate and income. As we have stated, he did not – technically – steal from him, as it was all written in the contracts they had, but he did exploit him and threaten to bankrupt him if he decided to alter the conditions of their deal.
Did Colonel Parker really steal from Elvis?
On August 18, 1955, Parker signed a contract with Elvis Presley to be his official representative and manager, a date in which Presley was a promising singer of the new rhythm called rock and roll, but without being a real musical star. Parker signed a contract with RCA Records to buy Presley the recording rights to his songs for $40,000 (which included $5,000 going directly to Elvis as a premium), a considerable sum at the time.
With his first contract with RCA, Presley recorded the song “Heartbreak Hotel” in January 1956 and went from being a promising singer to a true rock star. Elvis Presley immediately began his career as a great rock star and Parker soon realized that Elvis’s personal charisma and stage dominance led him to a new mass media, television.
Parker then worked hard to get Elvis appearances on Milton Berle’s television show and then The Ed Sullivan Show, while simultaneously contracting with merchandising manufacturers to use the Elvis name identically to a trademark. By the end of 1956, Elvis had generated nearly $22 million in revenue, more than any other singer that year.
Parker arranged for Elvis to give a series of concerts in Las Vegas, but these were unsuccessful in a city with a crowd that was certainly wealthy but middle-aged and barely fond of rock and roll, before which Parker contacted Paramount Pictures for Elvis to participate in a total of seven films (considering that in those years, one of Presley’s main interests was acting).
In October 1956 Elvis released his fourth single, called “Love Me Tender”, and secured a new best-seller for the entire year of 1957, in parallel with the films made with Paramount; even so, Parker still doubted if Elvis’s fame would last long, having seen, over the years, many artists rise to stardom for a year or two and then be forgotten.
One sign of Parker’s influence was to convince Elvis to accept the military service to which he was enrolled in January 1958 by the United States Army, alleging that it would be in Presley’s career to show himself as an ordinary man and avoid special treatment. That harmed his public image and his music. Parker also strongly objected to Elvis recording songs in West Germany (where his garrison was stationed) to prevent Elvis from getting another manager there and fought to maintain public interest in Elvis during his time in the army.
To achieve this, Parker spread news about Elvis’s activities, messages to his fans, superficial stories (such as the one about the haircut the artist had to undergo in his garrison), or totally false advertisements (such as the offer for Elvis to have his own television show upon his return). In parallel, Parker feared that Elvis in Germany would decide to take on another manager, or that on his return he would have lost favor with the public.
When in January 1960 Elvis finished his military service and returned from Germany, Parker had prepared a special television program on ABC to welcome him; the show was entitled Welcome Home Elvis and featured the participation of Frank Sinatra, with Parker seeing to it that Sinatra was paid much less than Elvis, in retaliation for Sinatra’s earlier views against rock and roll.
From that date on, Parker again influenced Elvis so that he concentrated on shooting movies on an impressive scale, even making three films a year (all with Elvis in the main role), so that American theaters frequently had movies starring Presley. In parallel, Parker discouraged Presley from his project of offering great live concerts, to the point that in mid-1961. Elvis abandoned the presentations to dedicate himself to acting.
Parker noted that Elvis’ presence in various films was a sure source of income for many years, until the public began to react unfavorably. From 1964 the growing influence of British rock began in the United States, while at the same time Presley’s films slowly lost popularity, mainly due to the repeated formula of the scripts, although Elvis continued to record three annual albums for RCA.
By 1966 it seemed clear that Parker’s business scheme, based on exploiting Elvis’s presence in Hollywood, was coming to an end. Simultaneously, Parker had decided for many years to cut costs for his client by preventing Elvis from embarking on concert tours or mass contact with his fans. When Elvis’s income began to dwindle in 1966 as public interest in his movies waned, Parker suggested a major publicity stunt to bring his client back into the limelight: a marriage to Priscilla Beaulieu, Elvis Presley’s partner for nearly ten years, taking as an example the great publicity gained in those days by Frank Sinatra’s marriage to actress Mia Farrow.
Elvis accepted the idea and married Priscilla Beaulieu in the spring of 1967. Shortly thereafter, Parker accepted the need to make changes to Elvis’s business scheme, but he was adamantly opposed to Presley’s idea of resorting to large concerts abroad, unlike what other American rockers such as Jerry Lee Lewis had done.
Certainly, in 1957, Elvis had given a concert in Canada (his only appearance abroad), but this was possible because Parker did not need to present an American passport there. In reality, Parker lacked that document because he had never resolved his illegal immigrant status; this caused the manager to fear traveling outside the US and being arrested upon his return, or deported.
Because of this fact, Parker convinced Elvis that a concert abroad would be risky for personal safety reasons, and that outside the US he would not find suitable settings for a star of his fame. Parker accepted that the outing would be a return to big live performances, choosing the old television set for Elvis to film a special.
Parker’s idea was to repeat the scheme of the 1950s, with Elvis singing in front of the cameras and showing only his orchestra in the background, as well as taking advantage of the proximity of Christmas 1968 for Elvis to perform a series of Christmas songs. But producer Steve Binder proposed another option, namely, that Elvis perform his greatest hits, with a special set and costumes.
Parker initially rejected Binder’s project, but shortly afterward Elvis himself insisted on going ahead, aware that only a luxurious and well-cared television presentation would restore him to prominence on the music scene. Parker agreed to let Elvis perform the show in December 1968, although he had serious doubts about his success.
The result was a show titled Elvis, taped at the NBC studios. The television performance was an immediate success: it not only garnered acclaim from music critics but returned Elvis’s name to mass popularity, even winning him new fans. After seeing the final recording, Parker accepted that Binder’s plan had been the right one, but for years he refused to admit it in public.
After the December 1968 special, Parker got Elvis to return to live performances, centering them in the newest and biggest casino in Las Vegas, while convincing Presley to raise his manager’s fee to almost 50% of the previous ones. Live performances in Las Vegas continued throughout 1969 and 1970, returning Elvis to the pinnacle of rock and roll fame and returning to the level of income of his best years.
Parker managed to conclude a contract with the Hilton Hotel in Las Vegas for Elvis to perform concerts there for a full month, in exchange for US$ 125,000 per week, a very high sum for the time for a single artist. In July 1972, inspired by Richard Nixon’s visit to the People’s Republic of China, Parker reported that Elvis would give a major live concert in Hawaii to be broadcast worldwide via satellite television.
The concert was held in January 1973 under the name of Aloha from Hawaii and was the last great musical success for Elvis Presley, although the main drawback of the television special was the time difference between Hawaii and the cities on the east coast of the USA. The Hawaiian show, like the 1968 special, was seen by 50 million viewers in the US and a total of more than a billion in the rest of the world. After this moment of splendor, Presley’s physical health went into frank decline for the next four years.
From the middle of 1973, Elvis began to gain weight rapidly, and began his addiction to tranquilizing drugs, to the point that they prevented his live performances where he was sometimes unable to sing or mumbled the lyrics of his songs. Faced with this problem, Parker could not keep up with the pace of presentations and eventually had to allow Elvis to return to his Graceland residence, dedicating himself only to receiving his royalties from RCA but without returning to recordings.
Elvis Presley died suddenly at Graceland on August 16, 1977, and Parker tried to continue managing his estate, although he failed due to legal conflicts with the administrators of the artist’s estate and against Priscilla Presley, ex-wife of the singer and mother of Lisa Marie Presley, the only daughter and heiress of Elvis.
Parker was accused of squandering Elvis’s income and charging too high a fee (nearly 50% of Elvis’s income), while the cost of maintaining Elvis’s huge estate at Graceland consumed almost all of Elvis’s royalties. Since 1979, several administrators chosen by Priscilla Presley on behalf of her daughter accused Parker of having closed a lousy deal with RCA in 1973 for selling the royalties from Elvis songs prior to that year for just 5.4 million dollars, a price considered unethical when considering that precisely this contract affected the period of greatest creativity and fame of Presley.
The new administration of Elvis’s estate was completely in the hands of his daughter in 1980 through a court ruling, setting aside Parker and putting an end to his duties as administrator, with all rights to the royalties falling to Lisa Marie Presley, represented by her mother. The fact that Parker had Elvis as his only client made the financial situation of the former manager difficult, and in 1981 Parker was brought to trial by Priscilla Presley, accusing him of negligent management.
The litigation lasted until 1983 when, through an out-of-court settlement, Parker received two million dollars in exchange for giving up all rights to Elvis’s royalties or income generated by the artist’s estate, in addition to giving up all future financial claims against the Elvis estate. Parker continued to live in the same suite he had occupied at the Las Vegas Hilton, but in 1984, he was eventually evicted from the hotel when his hotel gambling debts grew too high.