HBO’s Vinyl History: The Colonel and The King

Elvis Presley and Colonel Parker had a strange arrangement that went beyond Vinyl

This week’s Vinyl episode is entitled “The King and I,” but it has nothing to do with the king of Siam. Richie Finestra, played by Bobbie Cannavale, the head of American Century Records, has a meeting with the King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley. The show is set in 1973, so it’s not that long after Martin Scorsese aimed cameras at the old hound dog for the documentary concert film Elvis On Tour.

The meeting at the center of the episode is the result of what this writer sees as a frustration that has been going through the musical community’s collective subconscious for generations. What the fuck happened to Elvis? Why did he let his career go like that? Why did he let himself go like that? Who is this Colonel Parker and why did he have such a hold over the King of Rock and Roll? During the famed meeting between Elvis and The Beatles, John Lennon asked his idol, the guy who brought him into rock and roll, why he kept making those shitty movies when he could have been making great music. Hell, Lennon would have jumped at the chance to play rhythm if he could make it happen. Lennon said Elvis had some regrets, but what could he do?

On the Vinyl episode, Finestra explains exactly what he could do. I won’t spoil it by giving away the ultimate surprise, but the details the record guy gave the singer at the meeting was exactly what the king needed to reclaim his crown. Go back to basics. Get a small band of great musicians. There wasn’t a player in the world who wouldn’t sell his soul at some southern state crossroads for a chance to be at that session.

Elvis could have had anything he wanted musically. And he was invested in the music. In his heart, Elvis was a musician. He knew what was going on and probably would have knocked them out at Woodstock. All he needed was a mic and a guitar.

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Elvis died, in 1977, at age 42, and the world is split on how to remember him. The young man with the swiveling hips and the sneer, or the Vegas lounge singer who kissed blue haired ladies, and we’re not talking punks, we’re talking that faded blue that comes when you’re covering up grey. This isn’t lost on Zak, played by Ray Romano. Romano catches the excitement that any music fan must have had. I can see him guessing flip sides when he was growing up. If you don’t know what that means, do a little research, start with Richard Price’s The Breaks and the movie Diner, and then go back to Richard Price and binge his entire catalogue.

Fifties rock and roll spawned insane devotion to details and teenagers would yell out a hit and their friends would have to name the B-Side and either the color of the label or the label, depending on what city you grew up in. Romano captures that without making a single reference. All we know is he wants to hear “Mystery Train.” It’s not a request. But it is.

“Mystery Train” is the ultimate Elvis song. It’s one of his first and he goes nuts on it. The whole band does. Elvis could have won over any generation with that song. The mystery is what stopped him.

There’s a famous story about Colonel Parker that tells about how when he was a young carney performer, he signed a contract and went out and played to huge crowds. For weeks he did this, filling theaters and he when he was done, he made like a dollar eighty, I’m doing this from memory, but you get the point. He went to his manager to find out how he got screwed like that and the manager pointed to a sentence in his contract. The young talent took a pair of scissors to that sentence. He didn’t want to forget it. He’d look for it in future contracts. He didn’t find it. Every time the young artist played a gig there would be a different sentence in his contract that kicked his money up to someone who was not putting asses in seats, the first rule of show business.

After years as a failed performer, Colonel Parker started managing artists. When he met Elvis, he took all those sentences, scotch taped them all on one piece of paper and made the young singer sign it.

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The Colonel told Elvis he was Thomas Andrew Parker, and that he was born in Huntingdon, West Virginia, sometime shortly after 1900. But his real name was Andreas van Kuijk and he was born in Breda, the Netherlands, in June 1909 and he was an illegal immigrant who had never been naturalized as an American.

He wasn’t a Colonel either. He’d served in the Army but never made it past the rank of private and spent time in solitary confinement for desertion and was discharged as a psychopath. When people were being drafted for World War II, Parker pulled a Homer Simpson by eating his way out of service, ballooning up to over 300 pounds to get himself declared unfit for duty. The Colonel was an honorary title he got from a country singer named Jimmie Davis, when he was named Governor of Louisiana.

Parker’s first managing gig was with country singer Eddy Arnold, who gave the Colonel 25% of his take home pay.

The Colonel met Elvis through Hank Snow, who introduced the young singer at his only appearance at the Grand Ole Opry in October 1954. Colonel Parker was Snow’s manager and brought the country star along to meet Elvis’s mother Gladys when it was time to get the contract signed. Elvis’s mom didn’t trust the Colonel, but if her son was also signing with Snow, she figured it would be okay. But in early 1956 Snow found out that contract Presley’s family signed stipulated that Presley was managed by Colonel Tom Parker and nobody else. Neither Hank Snow nor Jamboree Attractions, his management company, was mentioned on that piece of paper.

At first Colonel Tom Parker took a 25% commission from Elvis, excessive, but the Memphis Mafia believed Parker did more than a normal manager. The Colonel only managed one artist.

By the time Parker was up to pulling in half of Elvis’ earnings, he countered by saying Presley was actually taking “50 percent of everything I earn,” according to his book. And The Colonel was no great dealmaker. The seven-year contract that Parker negotiated with RCA Records for Elvis in 1973 actually lost the king royalties and Parker gave away the rights Elvis’ master recordings.

Parker didn’t just tie up the money, though. I mean any character on Vinyl would be happy to do that. But Parker also forced Presley to become a B-movies actor in seven flicks during the time he should have been playing music. The music was growing and Elvis remained the same. He showed that old fire at his comeback special in 1968. He even started singing the original words to the song he’d tweaked into “One Night With You.” With one slip of the lip, Elvis let the world know how much he loved the original. That was the original Zak wanted to see and sign.

Vinyl’s music supervisor, Randall Poster, was nice enough to send us an exclusive “Primer to Elvis” playlist that he curated for Sunday’s episode. From B.B. King to Dean Martin, Presley had a keen ear and probably nicked a vocal lick or two from each of these songs.

Listen to it here: