Elvis and the Colonel

From The Wall Street Journal:

I love a good contrarian pop-culture take. The Beatles have too many fans. Monty Python is painfully unfunny. Chefs are not artists. But recasting the notorious Col. Tom Parker as a good guy is about as strong a current as you can swim against. The infamous talent manager has been blamed for ruining Elvis Presley and robbing from him for years. In “Elvis and the Colonel,” Parker’s former protégé takes on the monumental task of redeeming one of the more despised figures in Americana.

Greg McDonald grew up in the entertainment business with Parker’s guidance, later becoming a talent manager for the singer Ricky Nelson. He eventually took over Parker’s All Star Shows production company and was the president of the label that signed the Backstreet Boys and ’NSync. He also owns Parker’s likeness and image.

In attempting to redeem his late mentor, Mr. McDonald nails a necessary prerequisite. As he recounts Parker’s biography, he convincingly rehabilitates the colonel’s reputation into a 20th-century American success story—the stowaway immigrant from the Netherlands who became a hobo, an Army enlistee, a carny and, ultimately, an entertainment mogul. It’s impossible to dislike or disrespect Mr. McDonald’s Parker.

The early years of Presley and Parker’s relationship read here like a standard Elvis biography. Parker honed his game promoting the country stars Eddy Arnold and Hank Snow. Presley outgrew his local management under a Memphis disc jockey and wanted more. When Parker attended a 1954 Presley show in Texarkana, Texas, he saw the audience “going crazy, especially the young girls,” he later recounted to Mr. McDonald. “They were screaming and fainting and throwing their clothes on stage.” Parker realized that Snow could never amount to as much. Once Presley and the colonel got going, the hits and dollars piled up. Mr. McDonald covers the RCA deal, Presley’s enlistment and film career. The duo’s charitable works, including support for the USS Arizona memorial, receive deserved, refreshed attention.

It isn’t until Mr. McDonald’s appearance, nearly halfway through the book, that we begin to learn some quality inside stuff. As a teenager, Mr. McDonald worked as an air-conditioning mechanic, with access to many celebrities’ houses in Palm Springs, Calif. One day he stumbled upon Presley and a female companion sunbathing by a pool. Young Greg and Presley immediately hit it off, and the boy was soon introduced to Parker. The colonel and his wife also took a liking to him, and before long Greg was a regular at the Parker household. His relationship with the colonel took a surprising turn when Parker practically adopted Greg and saw to his education. It’s a major plot point supporting the colonel-as-good-guy narrative.

In the ensuing years, Mr. McDonald worked hard to remain close to this potent pairing. He became a driver for Parker, and sometimes Presley, with a front-row seat to many memorable moments. He dishes on how a miscommunication between the singer and his entourage resulted in Presley missing a dinner invitation from Marilyn Monroe.

Mr. McDonald also recounts the only meeting held between Presley and the Fab Four, with more detail and richer quotes about that 1965 Bel Air encounter than I’ve seen anywhere else. It’s a vivid scene, right down to the details of Presley’s attire and the Inspector Clouseau accent affected by a nervous John Lennon. After a few moments of stoned-Beatles awkwardness, Presley threatened to go to bed if John, Paul, Ringo and George were just going to sit there staring. “I thought we might sit and talk and jam a little,” Presley said. This cut through the haze and a session for the ages broke out, with Presley playing bass on the Beatles’ “I Feel Fine.”

Mr. McDonald is at his best when he’s looking at the world as the talent promoter he eventually becomes. Observing the increasingly restless Presley of the mid-1960s—an era in his career most fans don’t care about—Mr. McDonald notes: “Becoming famous is one thing; avoiding becoming infamous, entirely another.” Where we see Presley practically sleepwalking through cheesy movies, Parker sensed constant danger. “Once you’re at the top, you’re walking across a lagoon on the backs of alligators,” Mr. McDonald writes. “The press loves a fall as much it loves as a rise, and they’re happy to send you in either direction.” Parker’s job wasn’t simply to fatten the golden goose.

As for the belief that Parker robbed Presley, think of it this way: He didn’t have to. Their relationship was unprecedented and up to them to negotiate. And if Presley sensed the shelf life of rock ’n’ roll expiring with the ’50s and sought to pivot to movies and soundtracks, who could blame him? In hindsight we may feel deprived of a precious decade of great music, but the films were a wise career move at the time. So what if the results of “Fun in Acapulco” (1963), “Harum Scarum” (1965), “Clambake” (1967) and others—it really is a long, horrid list—pale in comparison to the singer’s smoking early songs: “Mystery Train,” “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Don’t Be Cruel.” Presley, according to Mr. McDonald, had become addicted to his lifestyle and needed the money. Parker worked tirelessly to deliver.

Who got ripped off in early rock ’n’ roll? Virtually everyone. It’s easy to sympathize with Big Mama Thornton and Little Richard for recording “Hound Dog” and “Tutti Frutti” for a ¼ cent a sale, but the Beatles received a similar deal. A guitarist for Manfred Mann once told me that the five members of his group split a penny for every dollar earned on hits such as “Do Wah Diddy Diddy.” You know who didn’t get ripped off? Elvis the movie star. For each of his films, Presley earned a six-figure salary and a profit share of nearly 50%. Unheard of. Parker got 50% of Elvis, but he earned it, Mr. McDonald tells us. “What history and countless other books on Elvis Presley don’t tell you is that Colonel Parker was the first megamanager who made forays into today’s multimedia world of music, film, television, publishing, and Las Vegas-style entertainment.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal.