Remembering Elvis: Long Live the King

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The man born Andreas Cornelius van Kuijk may have been a thief. He may have been a swindler. He may have killed a woman. Whatever the case, he was without question a step ahead of the law when he hopped a ship from the Netherlands to America, where he then ran with the circus.

By 1929, a carny with a healthy disdain for the patsies who mobbed the midway, the fugitive bore the name Tom Parker. In time, he would add the honorific “Colonel” to the identity, a title awarded by Louisiana governor Jimmie Davis, who claimed—falsely, as it happens—to have written the song “You Are My Sunshine.”

Fifteen years later, Parker had set his sights on a different kind of mark. He became the country singer Eddy Arnold’s manager, writes Alanna Nash in The Colonel, and established a pattern that he would impose on other clients: that of total control. “All Eddy takes care of is his toothbrush and his drawers,” Parker said, and it was no exaggeration.

In 1955, when Arnold’s star was fading, Parker signed up a young singer named Elvis Presley, whom he appears to have pegged as another country artist, and a compliant one at that. Not until Presley played a gig that drew 14,000 fans “did Parker fully realize what he had,” writes Nash. And what he had was a money machine, the biggest in pop-music history.

For the next 22 years, Parker controlled Elvis, who died 30 years ago today in 1977. Parker rationed out TV appearances to keep audiences wanting more. He brokered Presley into the number-one slot on the music charts, and when musical tastes changed in the ’60s, he remade him into the country’s highest-paid movie star....

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