A Carney With a Secret Past
Was Elvis’s Most Trusted Hand
Until the 1980s, only parts of Colonel Thomas Andrew Parker’s colorful personal history were known. Before becoming his manager, he may have told Elvis Presley the he was born in Huntington, West Virginia, and had toured carnivals throughout the U.S., working with elephants, and managing a palm-reading business. With Elvis gone, at least the first part of that made-up story began to unravel.
As it turned out, he was actually Andreas Cornelius van Kuijk, of Breda, in the Netherlands, where he was born 103 years ago today. Tom Parker? That was the officer who’d interviewed him when he signed up for the Army. Elvis never knew about that, of course. Neither could he possibly know that the concert he performed in Indiana in 1977, on Parker’s 68th birthday, would also be his last.
When the colonel passed away, in 1997, another part, considerably darker, of that colorful past may have also got buried with him. Critics and biographers had speculated for years about possible reasons why Elvis never toured abroad, and only performed three times outside the U.S., in Canada, in 1957.
When Parker‘s alias was proven a fake, and his real identity emerged, part of this mystery was solved: he had never become a citizen of this country, or even a legal alien. So, understandably, he was afraid of being caught by the Immigration and deported, in what would’ve been a scandal that could as well hurt Elvis.
But that could not be sufficient reason; for at the peak of his career, Elvis could have simply called the White House and have the colonel declared a U.S. citizen in no time at all. The fact that it never happened, only deepened the mystery and rumors about the origins of the man who called himself Tom Parker, even though there was no record of someone with this name in Huntington.
MURDER IN A DUTCH TOWN
Two writers working apart, Dirk Vellenga and Alanna Nash, picked up early on on the discrepancies of the colonel’s biography. Helped by research, his Dutch family and anonymous tips, they established a somewhat coherent timeline of facts on Elvis and the Colonel, written by Vellenga and Mick Farren in 1988, and Nash’s The Extraordinary Story of Colonel Tom Parker and Elvis Presley, of 2003.
Both books portray Parker as an unscrupulous and short-sighted manager, overprotective and almost paranoid about the possibility that Elvis would have an unlikely awakening and wise up to his manager’s over-sized fees and lack of imagination to deal with the transformations in pop culture that ultimately turned his star into a dinosaur years before he actually died.
But the biggest bombshell shared by both books is about a young Dutch woman, Anna van den Enden, who was found murdered in 1929 in Breda, the same year that Parker, allegedly hurriedly, left Holland without even telling his big family. Since not even the local authorities considered him then a suspect, then or now, neither Vellenga nor Nash make any accusations against him.
SHADY PAST GETS IN THE WAY
But they do flesh out the possibility that it could be the reason why he never showed interest in getting his legal papers. That also makes one wonder how hard it must have been for him, in such a high-profile position, to hide his situation. It may explain also why one of his six siblings, who came to America to meet him during the 1960s, never gave interviews to the Breda papers upon returning.
Cover up or not, and with all due respect to the families of the dead, the colonel did help stunt Elvis’s growth as an artist. By signing him to profitable but lengthy Hollywood contracts, which made him a movie star but of some terribly mediocre vehicles, he bolted Elvis to the ground, just when the rock movement he had helped to usher to mass audiences was taking a huge turn to relevance.
Even when those commitments were fulfilled and Elvis staged a critically acclaimed ‘comeback,’ the TV special of the late 1960s, managing to land a another hit on the charts, the colonel seized the opportunity to bound him again. This time it was to the high-rollers of Las Vegas, effectively burning him out and burying any chance for him to have a second revival.
THE AMERICAN WAY
Ironically, what may have appealed to Elvis about the Colonel Parker, besides him representing a stronger father figure than his own father Vernon, may have been the identification with the American dream, which both shared on each one’s way. Elvis, from a humble working class origins to the top of the world, helped by the man who may have come to the U.S. to erase his past.
Together, they formed a formidable partnership that assured their place in popular culture, with all its ambiguities and trade-offs. The gospel singer at heart who became a revolutionary rock performer, the first white to truly recreate, not imitate or adapt, the emerging black rhythm of his time. And the man who created a completely new identity through which to latch on to fame and fortune.
In the end, Elvis’s fans may resent that Parker’s zeal protecting his own secrets may have cut short their idol’s trajectory. But there should be no doubt that, for a performer who did not write his own songs, without having such a consummated promoter at his side, it’d have been considerably harder for Elvis to have achieve his place among the greatest performers this country ever produced.