COLONEL TOM PARKER

The Curious Life of Elvis Presley's Eccentric Manager

By James L. Dickerson

Cooper Square. 262 pp. $27.95 Colonel Tom Parker wasn't a real colonel and his real name wasn't Tom Parker. His colonelcy was bestowed upon him in 1948 by Jimmie Davis, the crooning governor of Louisiana, and was purely of the honorary -- i.e., political -- variety, though immediately on receiving it Parker told an underling, "From now on, see to it that everyone addresses me as the Colonel." As for his name, it may (or may not) have been Andreas Cornelius van Kuijk, and he may (or may not) have been born in Holland in 1909, from which he may (or may not) have immigrated to the United States as a teenager.

He was an illegal immigrant in this country and apparently remained one all his life. In that regard as in almost every other, he operated at or near the wrong side of the law. His early training took place in carnivals and at the fringes of organized crime, from which he "received an education in the dark underbelly of American politics and business that would stay with him for the remainder of his life." He was bluff, overbearing and coarse, yet he lived in constant fear of discovery and deportation.

It is remarkable that he managed to avoid the law from his arrival in the United States sometime in the 1920s until his death in 1997. It is even more remarkable that he managed to weasel his way into the confidence of numerous prominent people -- in addition to Davis, they included Eddy Arnold, Hank Snow, Elvis Presley and, or so at least James L. Dickerson claims, Lyndon B. Johnson -- and score millions of dollars off them. He was a grifter, a crook, a con man, but to some his skills were irresistible:

"He knew that the success of every scam ever devised depended on the manipulation of minute details. He knew that whatever management paid the entertainers on the carnival circuit was peanuts compared to what they earned off the sale of concessions. The same principle governed the music business. For every singer who felt like a big shot because he made a hundred dollars for singing his heart out, there was a concession operator or theater owner who made twice that amount."

It has ever been thus. The story of the music business in America is in large measure about innocent, ambitious or otherwise pliable performers and composers who have been taken to the cleaners by unscrupulous managers, agents and other barnacles. In the course of his legendary career Tom Parker bilked Eddy Arnold and Hank Snow, two of the most popular (and best) country singers of the 1950s. When he had drained as much out of them as he could, he fastened his attention on a young singer and guitarist from Memphis named Elvis Presley.

The tale of Parker and Presley is well known. Dickerson adds little of note to what we already know. The chief source remains Peter Guralnik's overlong (two-volume) but authoritative biography of Presley. Dickerson has read the FBI's Presley files -- they are repeatedly cited as sources in his notes -- but his main contributions to the record are pedestrian prose and insights to match. What he most emphatically fails to do is answer the two big questions: What did Parker really do to enhance Presley's career, and why did Presley stick with him long after it surely had become clear that he was being exploited and cheated?

Parker is often cited as the e{acute}minence grise behind Presley -- a "marketing genius," in Dickerson's words -- who made a crude kid from Memphis into an international star, but in truth there's little evidence to support that. There's much more evidence that Parker's only interest in Presley was as a cash cow to finance his own addiction to Las Vegas gambling, that his determination to make Presley a movie star had calamitous effects on Presley's music, and that -- as a lawyer put it after Presley's death -- he was "guilty of self-dealing and over-reaching and . . . violated his duty both to Presley, when Presley was alive, and to the estate."

The hold he had on Presley is an enduring mystery. Presley was poorly educated, naive and uncouth, but he was not stupid and he felt passionately about his music. If early in his career he trusted and depended on Parker, it did not take long for him to get a fairly clear sense of how Parker was using him; both Guralnik and Dickerson provide plenty of proof on that count. Yet Parker seems to have terrified him as much as the law terrified Parker, so he clung to his "manager" far past any hope of benefit to himself. If Parker was the perfect con man, Presley seems to have been the perfect mark.