Thursday, July 31, 2008

The one you never make

The Colonel: The Extraordinary Story of Colonel Tom Parker and Elvis Presley. Alanna Nash. Simon & Schuster. 416 pages.
by Richard Pachter

Several years back, I had a brainstorm; so I wrote up a proposal for a book, The Management Secrets of Brian Epstein and Colonel Tom Parker. How could I lose? After all, The Beatles and Elvis were the biggest entertainment acts in history, and I could surely glean a few relevant chestnuts from their (deceased) managers' experiences to spin into a pop biz book. Instant bestseller!

A consultation was set up with a very big agent who quickly brought me back down to earth and suggested (among many other things) that maybe these two guys' careers weren't the greatest templates for business success.

As I revised, then abandoned, the proposal, I realized that in many ways these artists probably succeeded in spite of these two supposed management masterminds! Epstein, for example, gave the Fab Four's merchandising rights away to a casual acquaintance for a pittance, costing him and his unknowing clients untold millions of dollars.

Then there's The Colonel. He was a carnival huckster, and that's not a euphemism or hyperbole, but an accurate description of what he was until his last days. But his story — and how he interacted with his client and the world of business — offers a fascinating lesson, several, in fact.

In this new book, journalist Alanna Nash tells the tale of the man the world knew as ''Col. Tom Parker,'' and that's where the lies begin: with his name. It has been an open secret for more than 20 years that ''Parker'' (not a colonel in any army in this world) was really Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk, an illegal alien from The Netherlands.

The Colonel's immigration status may have been the reason that he never allowed Elvis to tour outside of the United States. It could also explain why Parker never visited his charge during Elvis' celebrated two-year hitch in the U.S. Army. But Nash posits a bigger, darker reason for the fake Colonel's fear of transoceanic flying: He had committed murder in his native Holland and lived in mortal terror of being discovered.

He also possessed a thoroughly autocratic management style, which effectively killed Presley's chances for diverging from the former carnie's exploitative formula for success. And despite the huge sums Elvis earned, Parker demanded tribute — payment beyond even his admittedly exorbitant fees and commissions — from anyone who wanted to do business with him.

The manager also had an interesting view of his role; when a journalist asked if it were true that he took 50 percent of his client's earnings as a commission (a typical percentage is 15 percent), Parker replied, "That's not true at all. He takes fifty percent of everything I earn.''

It's all a very fascinating story, and Nash's diligent research keeps her narrative as far away as possible from supermarket-tabloid territory. For business people, she provides a vivid illustration of the notion that talent can be just as easily mismanaged as it can be handled correctly — and often more profitably, at least in the short term.

In the absence of each of their handler's flawed guidance, perhaps The Beatles might have been relegated to England's cabaret circuit, and Presley might have continued to drive a truck in Memphis, but maybe not. After all, in business, sometimes the best move of all is the one that you never make.

published 7/28/03 in The Miami Herald

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