Who killed Elvis Presley? In his new film ‘Elvis’, which goes on release this week, writer-director Baz Luhrmann makes a pretty convincing argument that the singer’s manager, the phony ‘Colonel’ Tom Parker, bears much of the responsibility for the star’s early death. Many fans will agree with that, believing that, during those last months of Elvis’s life in 1977, he should have been in hospital detoxing from an addiction to prescription drugs rather than touring.
Well, yes, negligent though the manager certainly was in the care of his client, fans might also perhaps consider the period in which Elvis lived, his place in it and the star’s own mindset and weaknesses.
Elvis wasn’t the first person to sing rock and roll. But at the age of 21 he suddenly, and accidentally, found himself the world’s first rock superstar. From then on, extraordinary fame, coupled with his own personality, made him its prisoner.
He had it all, the almost three octave voice, the hair, the profile, the looks, the body and the timing that introduced him at a time of growing teenage prosperity into a world of records, juke boxes and television.
Brought up white in a racially mixed environment, musically his influences ranged from the black songs he enjoyed on the radio, to the white country and western singers on other stations and the gospel music he would hear in church every Sunday. The result was that musically he was like a Magimixer. It all went in, but came out sounding like nothing anyone had heard before in a voice that was instantly recognizable.
Making his first record when he was 19, before he’d ever sung in public, within two years he was the most famous, and desired, young man in the world. He would go on to sell hundreds of millions of records, to influence generations and for his Christian name to be as famous as Coca- Cola, only to die of a heart attack in 1977 at the age of 42.
But, had the seeds of his early death been planted before ever reached him, and then been nurtured by a Dutch illegal alien to America, Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk, better known as ‘Colonel’ Tom Parker? Played in the new movie by an unrecognizable Tom Hanks, Parker is as controlling on film as I found him in real life; while Austin Butler, as Elvis, has the unenviable task of pretending to be to one of the world’s most charismatic performers.
A poor white boy from Mississippi, Elvis was a surviving twin, born during the night in a frame, two-room shack with no running water, lit only by an oil lamp. It was tough from the beginning, Elvis as a baby being dragged along on a sack when his mother went cotton picking. Then, when he was three, his father was jailed for nine months for forging a cheque.
From then on, Elvis’s bond with his mother would be extraordinarily close. When in his first flush of millionaire fame, he bought the secluded Memphis mansion Graceland, it was so that she could keep her chickens in the garden and stop the folks next door commenting about her hanging her washing on the line.
Her needs were simple, and she never liked nor trusted the former fairground huckster, Tom Parker, who spotted gold in her son, moved him to a bigger record label and then on to national television and Hollywood films; all in less than a year.
Elvis would be forever grateful, although always afraid that if he ever left the Colonel he would find himself dirt poor again, back where he started. It was an attitude that Parker encouraged. Of course, he did. He had a gambling habit to keep fueled.
Parker’s problem was that although he was skilled at doing a deal, he knew nothing about music, and Hollywood would later run rings around him. The first movies in which Elvis starred, Love Me Tender, Loving You, Jailhouse Rock and King Creole weren’t bad. Given the right script and the right director he had a natural acting talent. And the camera loved him.
Then, at the height of his early fame in 1958, Elvis was called up for two years in the US Army, a shock compounded, when, just before he left for Germany, his mother died. Without her caution, Elvis had no-one to turn to for advice. His father, who loved the money they were getting, always agreed with the Colonel.
Parker didn’t follow his star client to Germany, presumably fearing that without a passport he might never have got back into America. Instead, he devised a new Hollywood career for a singing, loving, fighting, middle-of-the-road, Elvis, surrounded by blue seas and oceans of pretty girls. At first, those films did well, as fans rushed to see ‘Blue Hawaii’, which contained the song ‘Can’t Help Falling In Love With You’. But as the Sixties wore on, and with the Colonel claiming a million dollars for his star for every film, the queues grew shorter and the hits more rare.
For Elvis it was career suicide. Locked into his relationship with the Colonel, he squandered the huge amounts of money he earned in excessive generosity towards his hangers-on. With his father, who had left school at 13, his financial manager, he didn’t think of investing his wealth, but simply gave and gave to everyone he knew. Meanwhile, the films got worse and worse.
When I interviewed him in 1969, the only journalist who ever did, I now realise,I asked him why he’d made so many terrible films, although I hope I phrased the question more delicately.
He was embarrassed. ‘I wouldn’t be being honest with you if I said I wasn’t ashamed of some of the movies and the songs I’ve had to sing in them. I would like to say that they were good, but I can’t. How can you find twelve good songs for every film when you’re making three films a year? I knew a lot of them were bad songs, and they bothered the heck out of me. But I had to do them because they fitted the situation in the movies.’
As he spoke, the Colonel, the architect of his failure in Hollywood, listened, without comment.
But Elvis didn’t have to do those films or sing those songs. He was Elvis. He could have done whatever he wanted. We know that. But he didn’t. So, he followed the money rather than his own talent. Parker used to boast that as the manager he did the deals without reading the scripts. Would any other manager or agent in Hollywood have signed his client to a film without reading the screenplay?
Hollywood saw Parker coming and waved a wad of loot in front of him. And, every time, he snatched it. He didn’t care that after he’d got his million dollars for Elvis (and sometimes he took as much as 50% in commission) there wouldn’t be enough left to make a halfway decent film. He didn’t care about the film, just the deal, and his seat at a gambling table.
As for the songs, Elvis was right when he said it was impossible to find almost forty good songs a year to furnish films like Tickle Me, Harum Scarum and Girl Happy. This was the Sixties, the time of singer songwriters, and no self-respecting songwriter was by then going to write for an Elvis Presley film which meant giving up at least a third of the writers’ royalties to find it badly recorded and used in a silly film.
Elvis should have said ‘no’, because, despite what he was doing to his career, he was still admired for the musical revolution he had started, and was still, as director Bazz Luhrmann points out, the original ‘punk’. If the phony Colonel had had the wit to approach the top songwriters of the period, say Lennon and McCartney, both Elvis fans, and promised not to demand a chunk of their writers’ royalties, they couldn’t have turned down the opportunity. But, not interested in music, it wouldn’t even have occurred to Parker.
So, knowing that, as he put it, he was ‘a joke in Hollywood’ and had become musically irrelevant, Elvis went into a slough of depression, No wonder the Beatles were disappointed when they met him during an American tour. But how must he have felt? So recently the king of all he surveyed, now his cultural throne had been usurped by four talented, mouthy newcomers.
That scene with the Beatles isn’t in the new biopic? What is in it, is Tom Hanks portrayal of the Colonel as a money-grabbing conman who discovered that all he had to do tp stay rich was to keep his golden show pony singing? Like many artists, Elvis had forgotten that it was he who was the talent, not Parker.
From Elvis’s earliest days of touring, he’d used his mother’s slimming pills to stay awake on long cross-country tours. Those pills are now known as amphetamines. They were then common in the music industry. He would later say he never took any illegal drugs, but his consumption of legal ones would become criminal to his body.
Hollywood had been one of his earliest ambitions but by 1968, after a run of unprofitable movies, it turned its back on him. Live performances were the only avenue left to keep the money rolling in. A television spectacular, for which he used pills to slim down, reignited his career. Suddenly he was contemporary again when he sang ‘If I Can Dream’. It was based on the last speech that Martin Luther King had made in Elvis’s home town of Memphis the night before his assassination.
The following year when Elvis appeared on stage in Las Vegas, he was slim and nervous that the fans wouldn’t love him anymore. They did. The wasted Hollywood years were forgiven. His career was reincarnated. It was a moment of triumph. The future was beckoning. He was full of hope.
That was when I met him, but looking back on my notes it’s sad to realise how few of the ambitions he talked about that night were ever realized. He promised he would never record another song that he didn’t believe in. But he did. And he was looking forward to more movies with better roles. But, apart from documentaries, there wouldn’t be any more films. Barbra Streisand wanted him to appear with her in A Star Is Born, but the Colonel squashed that, and Kris Kristofferson got the part. Then, as drugs became a problem, and Elvis’s body ballooned, Hollywood didn’t want him.
He was planning to tour the world, too, he told me, to come to Britain to meet the fans who had been so loyal to him. But he never came. When I asked Colonel Parker why, he fobbed me off with some excuse about his sick wife.
For the next eight years Elvis was always a sell-out in his Las Vegas seasons there, then he crisscrossed the states in tour after tour. There were hits, of course, like ‘Suspicious Minds’, ‘Promised Land’ and ‘Always In My Mind’. But as the years passed, and especially after he and his wife Priscilla divorced, he became increasingly a recluse in Graceland, only coming alive when he left the sanctuary of his home in his private jet to go out and sing.
Then one summer day in 1977, at the age of 42, he died of a heart attack, the indirect result of a lifetime’s drug abuse. Despite his extravagance and generosity he’d always worried about ending up poor. He didn’t. But, although he’d earned hundreds of millions during his career, he left less than ten million dollars in his will. By way of comparison when John Lennon died three years later, he left over one hundred and fifty million dollars.
Colonel Parker had gambled away nearly all his hundreds of millions. At the time of his death in 1997 he was worth just one million dollars
Being Elvis: A Lonely Life by Ray Connolly is now on sale in paperback and as an audiobook from Weidenfeld & Nicolson.