Music History Monday: The Colonel

by Professor Robert Greenberg, PhD

“[Colonel Tom] Parker’s rise from his dishonorable discharge to Elvis’ Svengali reads like the rise of Don Corleone from immigrant orphan to Mafia boss: the great American success story, but with a few gnarly twists.”

Let us contemplate the word “colonel.” No, we’re not talking about a discreet unit of corn, “k-e-r-n-a-l”; rather, we’re talking about the military rank and honorific of “colonel”: “c-o-l-o-n-e-l.”

The word itself is of Italian origin; its root is the word colonna, which means “column”; in this case, as in a “column of soldiers”. By the sixteenth century, the word “colonello” was employed as a high military rank – someone who commanded a “column of soldiers”—in the various armies of the Italian city-states.

This article originally appeared on Professor Greenberg’s Music Blog

Just as the French adapted Italian cuisine to create their own (that was thanks to the Florentine Princess Caterina Maria Romola di Lorenzo de’ Medici, who as Queen of France from 1547 until 1559 and Queen Mother from 1559 to 1589 brought her cooks and the fork to France, giving birth to French cuisine); yes, just as the French made Italian cuisine their own, so they borrowed the Italian word “colonello” and made it their own, spelling (and pronouncing) it “coronel” – “c-o-r-o-n-e-l”. By the seventeenth century, the English military had adopted the word as well, employing the French pronunciation – coronel – but the Italian spelling: colonel.

Portrait of Caterina Maria Romola di Lorenzo de’ Medici
Caterina Maria Romola di Lorenzo de’ Medici

The rank of colonel in the United States Army, Air Force, and Marines is a direct descendent of the same rank in the British Army. The first American colonels were appointed by the British to command Colonial militias. With the outbreak of the American Revolution (in 1775), “gentlemen of influence” (meaning major landowners and politicians) were granted commissions by colonial legislatures to raise a regiment (a “column” of roughly 1000 men) and then serve as the regiment’s colonel.

Between the Revolutionary and Civil Wars (1783-1861), American gentry (meaning, in this case, wealthy southern landowners) were awarded the honorary title of “colonel” for financing local militias. To this day, certain southern states continue to confer the title of “colonel” as an honorific, a title associated with that archetypal southern aristocrat, the “southern gentleman”; those states include Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky. Among such honorary designees is Harland David Sanders (1890-1980), creator of Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC); in 1935, Sanders was commissioned as an honorary “Kentucky Colonel” by then-governor Ruby Laffoon.

Colonel Tom Parker

Which brings us to another honorary colonel, Colonel Tom Parker. Parker was a carnival barker, a con man, an inveterate gambler (as opposed to an invertebrate gambler, who clams up when he has to shell out money . . . sorry); the good Colonel Parker was very possibly a murderer (more in a bit!) who, as Elvis Presley’s manager, literally wrote the book on talent management. (Parker earned and stole from Elvis over 100 million dollars as Elvis’ manager. In 1968, he was asked in an interview if it was true that he took fifty percent of everything Elvis earned. Parker’s response: “That’s not true at all. He takes fifty percent of everything I earn.”)

In 1948—seven years before he went to work for Elvis—Parker did some “work” for a former country singer named Jimmie Davis, who was running for governor of Louisiana. The precise nature of that “work” remains unknown; it might have been above board but it might just as well have been nefarious. What ever it was, Jimmie Davis was elected, and he rewarded Parker with the honorary title of colonel in the otherwise non-existent Louisiana State Militia.

On September 24, 1962—56 years ago today—Elvis Presley received an invitation to appear at the Royal Variety Performance, an annual variety show televised live from London. The beneficiary of the show is the Royal Variety Charity, which supports sick, elderly, and/or impoverished people who worked professionally in the UK’s entertainment industry. The Royal Variety Charity has been officially “sponsored” by the reigning monarch since George V; QE2 is presently the “life-patron” of the charity. The televised show begins with the entrance of the Queen and the British Royal Family and a singing of the national anthem, God Save the Queen.

Colonel Tom Parker in 1969
Colonel Tom Parker in 1969

Yes indeed: a pretty impressive invitation for a singer born in a tiny, two-room shotgun house built by his father in Tupelo Mississippi just 27 years before. And it was marketing platinum for Colonel Parker: tens, if not hundreds of millions of people would be watching live as Elvis sang, gyrated, and then shook hands with Queen Elizabeth II!

All the more curious, then, that Parker immediately declined the invitation, claiming that movie commitments precluded Elvis from participating. The real reason Parker declined the invite is rather more interesting: he was an illegal alien who never became a naturalized U.S. citizen, didn’t have a passport, and was still a “person of interest” in a decades-old murder case.

As far as anyone knew at the time, Colonel Tom Parker was a good ol’ boy. He claimed to be a citizen of the U.S. of A. born in Huntingdon, West Virginia who had been orphaned young and had grown up in the seedy environs of a travelling circus/carnival owned by his uncle.

His real name was Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk. He was born in Breda, in the Netherlands, on June 26, 1909. He worked as a carnival barker as a boy. In 1929—at the age of twenty—he disappeared. According to Parker’s biographer Alanna Nash, a Dutch journalist had gotten a tip linking Parker (or more properly, Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk) to a murder in the city of Breda, when a 23 year-old woman was killed during the course of a robbery. The murder went unsolved; according to Alanna Nash, the circumstantial evidence:

“makes it impossible not to speculate that Colonel Tom Parker in fact may have gotten away with murder.”

On arriving in America, Parker initially found work with carnivals. He then enlisted in the United States Army, taking the name of “Tom Parker” from the officer who interviewed him during the enlistment process. He went AWOL; was listed as a deserter, captured by the military authorities and punished with solitary confinement.

Parker’s rise from his dishonorable discharge to Elvis’ Svengali reads like the rise of Don Corleone from immigrant orphan to Mafia boss: the great American success story, but with a few gnarly twists.

Talk about being born with nothing and leaving the world with next-to-nothing: Parker died in Las Vegas on January 21, 1997, age 87. After having earned over $100 million, Parker’s estate at his death was valued at less than $1 million. Though never officially confirmed, it was said that he owed the Las Vegas Hilton $30 million in gambling debts.

We leave the last word to the Colonel’s biographer Alanna Nash: “Whether regarded as an evil confidence man, or as a brilliant marketer and strategist—as remarkable as the star he managed—no figure in all of entertainment is more controversial, colorful, or larger than life than Tom Parker.”

Because it must be mentioned: also on this date in 1957—61 years ago today—Elvis Presley’s recording of Jailhouse Rock was released. It became his ninth number one single in the United States, and it stayed on the Billboard chart for nineteen weeks. The episode in his 1957 movie Jailhouse Rock, during which he sings the song, is generally considered to be the first rock ‘n’ roll video.

Dr. Robert Greenberg is Music Historian-in-Residence with San Francisco Performances
Many of his lectures series, including How to Listen to and Understand Great Music are available to stream at The Great Courses Plus.

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