Colonel Thomas Andrew "Tom" Parker
Born Andreas Cornelis ("Dries") van Kuijk, was a Dutch-born entertainment impresario known best as the manager of Elvis Presley. Parker's management of Presley defined the role of masterminding talent management which involved every facet of his life and was seen as central to the astonishing success of Presley's career. The "Colonel" displayed a ruthless devotion to his client's interests and took far more than the traditional 10 percent of his earnings (reaching up to 50 percent by the end of Presley's life). Presley said of Parker: "I don't think I would have been very big with another man. Because he's a very smart man." For many years Parker claimed to have been U.S.-born, but it eventually emerged that he was born in Breda, Netherlands.
Parker was born Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk in Breda, the Netherlands, the seventh of eleven children. As a boy, he worked as a barker at carnivals in his home town, learning many of the attributes that he would require in later life working in the entertainment industry.
At the age of 15 Parker moved to Rotterdam, gaining employment on the boats in the port town. At age 17 he first displayed signs of wanting to run away to America to "make his fortune," and a year later, with enough money to sustain him for a short period, he emigrated illegally into America by jumping ship off the vessel that employed him. During his first visit there, he traveled with a Chautauqua educative tent show, before returning briefly to Holland.
Alanna Nash would later write in The Colonel, her biography of him, that there were questions about a murder in Breda in which Van Kuijk, as he was then still known, might have been a suspect or a person of interest at least. This might have motivated Parker to avoid seeking a passport, as the Netherlands has an active extradition treaty with the United States, and Parker might have wanted to avoid criminal arrest by Dutch authorities in that case.
Emigration to America
Parker returned to America at age 20, finding work with carnivals due to his previous experience in Holland. After a while, he enlisted in the United States Army, taking the name "Tom Parker" from the officer who interviewed him to disguise the fact he was an illegal immigrant.
He served two years in the 64th Regiment of the Coast Artillery at Fort Shafter in Hawaii, and shortly afterwards re-enlisted at Fort Barrancas, Florida. Although Parker had served honorably before, he went AWOL this time and was charged with desertion. He was punished with solitary confinement, from which he emerged with a psychosis that led to two months in a mental hospital. He was discharged from the Army due to his mental condition.
Following his discharge, Parker worked at a number of jobs, including food concessions and gaming carnivals. He began to build up a list of contacts that would prove valuable in later years, including men of authority and influence.
In 1935 Parker married 27-year-old Marie Francis Mott. They struggled to survive through the depression-era, working short-cons and traveling the country to seek work. Parker would later claim that at times they had had to live on as little as $1 a week.
Talent management (1938–1954)
Parker's involvement in the music industry began as a music promoter in 1938, working with popular singer Gene Austin. Despite having sold in excess of 86 million records since 1924, and with earnings exceeding $17 million, Austin's career had hit a bad patch. He had wasted much of his fortune on partying, cars, mansions, and women. Parker, charged with the task of promoting the star, took to it like a duck to water, using much of his "carny" experience to sell tickets and pack in the crowds. He was a very good promoter, but he had his sights set on management.
Austin offered Parker the opportunity to move to Nashville, Tennessee, the place where music was becoming big business, but for reasons unknown Parker turned him down. Instead he decided to stay in Temple Terrace, Florida with his family, perhaps to avoid having to fill in paperwork that could expose his illegal status. Within a year, however, he had the opportunity to become a legal citizen within the United States by way of the 1940 Alien Registration Act; a bill passed by the United States Government to allow illegal immigrants the chance to become US citizens in return for their promise to fight for the country during World War II, if required. Parker decided against registering, possibly to avoid his previous Army record becoming public.
Instead, he found employment as a field agent with a local animal shelter, the Hillsborough County Humane Society. The job not only offered him a secure wage, but it also offered a rent-free apartment for him and his family. With the Society in need of funds, Parker set about using his promotional experience to raise money and awareness for the shelter.
Through the fund-raising, Parker found himself heading to Tennessee to find acts to perform at his charity events, among them stars such as Minnie Pearl and Eddy Arnold. Eventually, Parker began getting more involved in music promotion again, this time for himself rather than the Society.
In 1945 Parker became Arnold's full-time manager, signing a contract for 25% of the stars earnings. Over the next few years he would help Arnold secure hit songs, television appearances and live tours.
In 1948, Parker received the rank of colonel in the Louisiana State Militia from Jimmie Davis, the governor of Louisiana and former country singer, in return for work he did on Davis's election campaign. Parker used the title throughout his life, becoming known simply as "the Colonel" to many acquaintances.
Arnold fired Parker in 1953 due to Parker's growing involvement with the singer Hank Snow. However, Parker remained involved in many of Arnold's live tours, and demanded a buyout of $50,000 to settle their contract. Parker and Snow worked well together and eventually formed Hank Snow Enterprises and Jamboree Attractions; a successful promotional outfit for up and coming country singers.
In early 1955, Parker became aware of a young singer by the name of Elvis Presley. Presley had a singing style that was different from the current trend, and Parker was immediately interested in the future of this musical style. Presley's current manager, Bob Neal, was struggling at the time to accommodate the success of his client, and in February 1955, following a meeting with Parker, he agreed to let Parker take some control of future bookings and promotions.
Parker and Neal worked together to promote Presley, using their own Hank Snow Tour to book him and tour him. Although Neal remained Presley's official manager, Parker was becoming increasingly involved in the running of his career, and by the summer of 1955 he had become "Special Advisor" to Presley. Part of his role was to secure a new recording contract with a bigger label. Presley had been at Sun Records since the beginning of his career, but Sam Phillips, the owner of Presley's current label, was aware that for Presley to have any kind of a successful future in the business he would need the backing of a much larger label. Despite this, Phillips was not keen to let him go easily, advising Parker that he would require $40,000 to secure the release of Presley's contract, a completely unheard of sum at the time.
Parker immediately got to work on finding a new label for Presley. Both Mercury Records and Columbia Records showed interest, although their initial offers were nowhere near the $40,000 requirement. RCA Records, Hank Snow's current label, was also showing an interest, but they were put off by the cost of the contract. However, RCA producer Steve Scholes was convinced that Presley's style of music would be a huge hit with the right label, and he began talks with Parker. RCA made it very clear that they were not willing to go above $25,000 for a practically unknown singer, but Parker persuaded them that Presley was no ordinary unknown singer.
Signing Elvis (1955–1957) On October 20, Parker became Presley's official manager, signing him to Hank Snow Enterprises. Neal, who was still contracted to be Presley's manager until early 1956, accepted that Parker had taken control, and he gradually became less involved. In November, Parker and Snow persuaded RCA to buy Presley out from Sun for $40,000, and on November 21 Presley's contract was officially transferred to RCA Records. With his first RCA single, "Heartbreak Hotel" in 1956, Presley graduated from rumor to bona-fide recording star.
Parker began 1956 with intentions of bringing his new star to the national stage. He arranged for Presley to appear on popular television shows such as The Milton Berle Show and The Ed Sullivan Show, acquiring fees that would make him the highest paid star on television. By the summer Presley had become one of the most famous new faces of the year, causing excitement amongst the new teenage audience and outrage amongst some older audiences and religious groups in equal measure.
Parker signed a merchandising deal with Beverly Hills movie merchandiser Hank Saperstein for nearly $40,000 to turn Presley into a brand name. With over 78 different ranges, from charm bracelets to record players, Presley merchandise had brought in $22,000,000 by the end of 1956. Parker, with his 25% share of profits, was finding many new ways to make money from his artist that managers before him could only have dreamed about. He had even come up with the idea to market "I Hate Elvis" badges to make money from those who otherwise wouldn't have parted with their cash.
In April, Parker made his first mistake with Presley's career. He had booked him into a four week Las Vegas engagement, misjudging the reaction of the slightly older, more reserved audiences that Las Vegas attracted at that time. Whilst Presley was a hit amongst the youth of America, the middle-aged audiences found him to be something of an oddity. Some viewed him as a clown-like figure, wiggling his hips for screams like a monkey for peanuts, while others found his manner of performance vulgar and more suitable for late-night gentleman's clubs. After a very cool reception during his first few shows, Parker cut Presley's appearance to two weeks. Presley would later remember the event as one of the worst moments of his career.
Despite this hiccup in his career, Presley was still going from strength to strength. He had expressed interest in making films when he first met Parker, and now Parker was working to make that happen. He arranged for a screen test with Paramount Pictures, and after impressing them with his acting ability, Presley was signed up to a seven-picture contract. Parker made sure that the contract allowed Presley the freedom to make at least one film a year with another studio, and also managed to set up an office, with staff, at Paramount. Presley's acting career was originally intended to be a serious one, but after seeing a chance to cross-promote singles and albums with the films, Parker persuaded him to sing in his films. This proved very lucrative, especially when the single for Presley's first film, Love Me Tender, sold over one million copies in advance sales. With 1956 coming to a close, Parker had made Presley one of the most well known, and well paid, entertainers in the world.
Elvis in the Army, 1958 to 1960
Regardless of the success that Parker and Presley had achieved, Parker was still struggling to believe that Presley's career would last longer than a year or two. He had seen many acts come and go during his earlier years in management, and to think that Presley, despite being Parker's most successful act to date, would be any different was foolish. In January 1957 Presley received his draft notice from the United States Army. He was upset about the possibility of it affecting his career, but Parker was secretly overjoyed. Presley had been showing signs of rebellion against him recently, and Parker believed that a stint in the Army would cure him of this.
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Parker was looking ahead to the future when he persuaded Presley to sign up as a regular soldier. Presley had wanted to join Special Services, allowing him the opportunity to still perform while at the same time getting an easier ride than other soldiers. Parker, on the other hand, was fully aware that any special treatment given to Presley would instantly be used against him in the media and by those who disliked his style of music. If Presley could show the world that he was just the same as any other young man, Parker told him, then more people would be likely to accept him and his music. Parker was also afraid that any attempt to block Presley from being drafted would result in a more detailed look into his own service record. He also realized that it would be a great opportunity to promote Presley by having the media witness his induction day, including the Army haircut that would see the most famous hair style in the world destroyed.
While Presley was serving in Germany, Parker was hard at work keeping his name in the public domain. He realized that by keeping RCA, and more importantly the public, hungry for more Presley material, he would be able to negotiate a better contract for him when he returned from active service. He had arranged for Presley to record five singles before his induction, guaranteeing RCA enough material to release over a two year period. RCA were eager for Presley to record in Germany, but Parker insisted that it would ruin his reputation as a regular soldier if he was able to go into a recording studio and sing. Stories appeared in the press regularly about Presley; that he would do a live CCTV broadcast when he returned, that he had signed a deal for a series of annual television spectaculars to be broadcast across the country. All of these stories were fabrications, but it kept his name in view of the public.
Parker appeared to be in complete control during Presley's time away, but he was worried about the outside influence that he may come across in Germany. Parker had declined to travel to Europe, denying that he spoke the languages. He sent Presley's friends to keep him company, arranged for business associates to watch over him while they were working in Europe, and kept in regular contact with him via telephone and letter. He was afraid that Presley would realize that there were other managers available, contracts that did not require as much as 25% for his manager. Parker was still worried that Presley would return to nothing, that the public would have found a new star to fawn over by then, and that his golden goose would be reduced to nothing more than a "has-been."
Elvis returns (1960–1965)
For Presley's return in March 1960, Parker had arranged for a train to take him from Washington D.C. to Memphis, with stops along the way for fans to see their idol in person. If Parker had had any doubts about his return, they were soon gone when he witnessed the turnout along the route.
Frank Sinatra, who had declared Presley and rock 'n' roll a disgrace in the fifties, was keen to have him appear on his show. Parker, not one to forget harsh criticism, stated that the fee would be $125,000 for two songs, a total of eight minutes on screen; Sinatra himself was receiving a lower sum for the whole show. Sinatra agreed and it was Presley's first national television appearance since The Ed Sullivan Show in January 1957, and titled Welcome Home, Elvis.
After the Sinatra special, Parker decided that Presley's future lay in Hollywood. He envisioned him as an entertainment machine, pumping out three films and soundtracks a year, until the end of the decade. He allowed him to perform three live shows in 1960, all charity events, two in Memphis and one in Hawaii. After that, until 1968, Presley gave no live performances, and had very little contact with his fans. Parker signed long-term contracts with the film studios, possibly to guarantee work and income for both him and Presley. This was, with hindsight, a mistake on his part, as if he had negotiated each deal separately based on the profits of the previous film, he could have received more money.
Presley only had to provide RCA with three albums a year, and his film soundtracks did that for him. With no touring or public appearances to be made, Parker was able to keep costs to a minimum. For the first few years Presley's films were somewhat successful, his albums topped the charts, and any singles that were released were mostly hits. But as time went on, and the worldwide phenomenon known as Beatlemania began, Presley became less and less successful as The Beatles began their dominance of the music charts. His films still made money and his albums still sold well, but the profits were falling. This led Parker to insist that films were made cheaply, to a strict time-scale, and with as little hassle as possible.
Dead ends (1966–1967)
For the remainder of the sixties, Presley made films that relied heavily on exotic locations and mundane songs, and he was tied into contracts that he could not escape. Parker, not worried if the films were good or bad, only cared about the profits. When Presley complained to him that he wanted better scripts, Parker reminded him of his lavish lifestyle and outgoings, and that risking $1 million a year for doing practically no work was dangerous. While other artists such as The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and The Doors were directing the way in music, Parker was letting Presley's credibility slip away. He later admitted, in 1983, that after 1966 the income from Presley films and soundtracks were dramatically reduced.
To make up for lack of earnings, Parker arranged for Presley's gold Cadillac to go on tour. Selling it to RCA for $24,000, it was used to promote Presley's latest film, Frankie & Johnny. The Cadillac tour proved to be somewhat more successful than the film itself. In Houston alone in one afternoon, forty-thousand people paid to see it, with one woman offering to have sex with the tour manager if he would allow her to sit in it.
On January 2, 1967, Parker renegotiated his managerial/agent contract with Presley, persuading him to increase Parker's share from 25% to 50%. Parker used the argument that Presley was his only client, and therefore he was only earning one fee.
After Presley showed signs of rebellion again in 1966, and because of his flagging career, Parker decided that it was time for a new approach; marriage. Frank Sinatra had married Mia Farrow in 1966, and it had produced a good enough amount of publicity for Parker to sit up and take notice. Presley had been living with Priscilla Beaulieu, several years his junior, for the past four years, but it had not been public knowledge. Jerry Lee Lewis's career had been almost destroyed when it came out that he had married his teenage sweetheart, and Parker was not going to let the same thing happen to Presley.
Parker hoped that marriage would not only boost Presley's career, but possibly tame him. With Priscilla's father dropping heavy hints, and fear that their relationship may become public beforehand, Parker persuaded Presley that he should make an honest woman of her in the very near future. However, it would not be a quiet wedding. Parker decided that Las Vegas was the perfect place to do it, and on May 1, 1967, the couple were married in a ceremony that lasted only eight minutes and had a handful of guests. A breakfast reception was arranged, taking place after the media got their photographs of the couple. It was, to some, nothing more than a circus.
The comeback (1968–1977)
It took the energetic 1968 television special Elvis, which the Singer Sewing Machine Company sponsored, and a subsequent series of acclaimed recording sessions in Memphis, Tennessee, to restore Elvis Presley's musical reputation. However, the music scene and the culture in the latter part of the decade had radically changed. The "Singer Special" TV show was not intended to turn out the way it did. Parker was adamant that Presley would wear a Santa suit and sing Christmas songs, as the show was to be broadcast in December 1968. It was the producer of the show, Steve Binder, who put forward the idea of Presley singing his old hits and even the staged section with his old band, Scotty Moore and DJ Fontana. Presley was never one to stand up against Parker, but he knew that this TV show was his one chance at a true comeback, and with Binder backing him, Presley told Parker he was doing it "Binder's way."
After the special, Parker managed Presley's return to live performance, including a set of brief U.S. tours and many engagements in Las Vegas. Following the success of Presley's Las Vegas return, Parker signed a contract with the International Hotel to guarantee Presley would play a month-long engagement for $125,000 a week, an unheard of sum at the time. During this part of Presley's career, Parker and Presley agreed to a 50/50 "partnership," which, with Parker controlling merchandising and other non-music related items, resulted in Parker earning more than his client.
On July 8, 1972, inspired by a recent visit made by President Richard Nixon to China a few months earlier, Parker announced that there would be a worldwide satellite broadcast from Hawaii to allow the whole world the chance to see a Presley concert "since it is impossible for us to play in every major city." (during Presley's career, except for a few concerts in Canada in 1957, he never performed outside the United States). Parker held another press conference on September 4, 1972 in Las Vegas to confirm that the concert, now titled Aloha From Hawaii, would be broadcast on January 14, 1973. The press were told that an audience of 1 billion was expected to tune in to see the "first entertainment special to be broadcast live around the world," although Parker had not taken into account the fact that many countries, including parts of Europe and America, would not see the concert live due to the time of the broadcast. Two weeks after the Las Vegas press conference Parker received a letter from Honolulu Advertiser columnist Eddie Sherman. Sherman had read in news accounts that there was to be no charge for admittance to the concerts, instead a donation for charity was required. He suggested to Parker that, as Presley had recorded and was still performing the song "I'll Remember You" written by Kui Lee, the donations could go to the Kui Lee Cancer Fund that had been set up following the death of the song writer in 1966. Seeing the chance to publicize Presley's charitable nature once again, Parker eagerly agreed. The album was released simultaneously around the world, and went to No.1 in the US charts; the first Presley album to do so since 1965's Roustabout soundtrack.
Aloha From Hawaii proved to be the last great moment in the life of Presley and Parker.
From 1974 onwards, their relationship became strained. In Las Vegas he was starting to appear on stage slurring his words and forgetting song lyrics. During one performance in September 1973, following news that one of the Hilton's staff that Presley was fond of had been fired, he attacked Barron Hilton in a verbal rage on stage. Parker was furious, and stormed into Presley's dressing room after the show to confront him. After a heated argument between the two, Presley told Parker he was fired. Angered by this outburst, Parker declared, "You can't fire me. I quit!"
Parker accepted that their working relationship was over, and demanded that Presley paid $2 million to end their contract; money Parker claimed he was owed. But Presley's father, Vernon, upon reading the bill Parker sent itemizing each cost individually, declared that they could not afford to buy out their contract. After nearly two weeks of trading insults back and forth, Parker and Presley decided to bury the hatchet and put the whole situation behind them.
According to Presley biographer Peter Guralnick, Presley and Parker "were really like, in a sense, a married couple, who started out with great love, loyalty, respect which lasted for a considerable period of time, and went through a number of stages until, towards the end of Presley's life, they should have walked away. None of the rules of the relationship were operative any longer, yet neither had the courage to walk away, for a variety of reasons." In any case, Parker remained Presley's manager without break until Presley's death in 1977.
When Presley died in August 1977, one day before he was due to go out on tour, some accounts suggest Parker acted as if nothing had happened. Other accounts suggest he slumped in his chair and muttered, "Oh dear God," and immediately contacted Vernon Presley and advised Presley's father that his son's image needed to be protected. Asked by a journalist what he would do now, Parker responded, "Why, I'll just go right on managing him!" Almost immediately, before even visiting Graceland, he made his way to New York to meet with merchandising associates and RCA executives, instructing them to prepare for a huge demand in Presley products. Shortly after, he traveled to Memphis for Presley's funeral. Mourners recall being surprised at him wearing a Hawaiian shirt and baseball cap and smoking his trademark cigar, and purposely avoiding the casket. At the funeral he persuaded Presley's father to sign over control of Presley's career in death to him.
Following Presley's death, Parker set up a licensing operation with Factors Etc. Inc, to control Presley merchandise and keep a steady income supporting his estate. It was later revealed that Presley owned 22% of the company, Parker owned 56%, and the final 22% was made up of various business associates. Due to an ill-advised agreement between Parker and Presley which gave RCA sole ownership of all his recording royalties prior to 1973, the estate was relying heavily on the income from Factors Etc. Inc. However, because Parker was still entitled to 50% of all Presley's income, and after taxes were taken off, the overall amount going towards the upkeep of the estate was less than $1 million a year.
In January 1979, it was discovered that Presley had lost out on royalties for songs on which he had been listed as an author and/or composer, due to Parker advising him not to sign up to the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers or its younger competitor, Broadcast Music Incorporated. Experts in the field at the time summarized that it had potentially cost Presley millions of dollars.
By 1980 the cost of running the estate was estimated to be as much as $500,000 a year. Priscilla and the Trust were prepared to let Parker continue to handle Presley's business affairs, and petitioned the court to that end. However, Judge Joseph Evans, aware that Lisa Marie Presley was still a minor, appointed attorney Blanchard E. Tual to investigate Parker's management. Tual, once appointed as Lisa Marie's guardian ad litem, chose to investigate the entire period of Parker's management of Presley; his preliminary finding was that Parker's management deal of 50% was extortionate compared to the industry average of 15–20%. He also noted that Parker's handling of Presley's business affairs during his lifetime, including the decision to sell off past royalties to RCA for $5.4 million in 1973, was "unethical" and poorly handled. During a second, more detailed investigation, Tual discovered that all earnings were paid directly to the Trust instead of Parker. By this time, with the IRS demanding almost $15 million in taxes, the estate was facing bankruptcy.
On August 14, 1981 Judge Evans ordered EPE to sue Parker for mismanagement. In response to this, Parker counter-sued. The case against Parker was settled out of court in 1983, with the estate paying him $2 million, and the termination of his involvement in any Presley related earnings for five years. He was also ordered to hand over any Presley audio recordings or visual images that he owned.
Parker had worked as a "consultant" for Hilton Hotels since Presley's death, with some believing he was working to pay off debts owed to the casino from his gambling during Presley's performances there. Part of this role resulted in Parker keeping the same fourth-floor suite he occupied when Presley was alive, but by 1984, with his gambling debts reportedly rising again, he was evicted. On the surface, however, relations between the two were as good as ever, with Parker helping the Hilton to commemorate the tenth anniversary of Presley's death.
The disputes with the Presley estate did not terminate his association with his most high-profile client. Parker appeared at posthumous events honoring Presley, such as the 1993 issuing of the United States Postal Service stamp honoring the King of Rock and Roll. He also became friendly with the estate again, attending special ceremonies and events in Memphis, invited by Priscilla. However, he did occasionally step on their toes by commenting negatively on some of their decisions. In 1994, following the marriage of Lisa Marie and Michael Jackson, Parker stated that Presley would not have approved, and in 1993, interest in Presley's enduring legend, interest that is sometimes notable for its obsessiveness, provoked Parker to remark, "I don't think I exploited Elvis as much as he's being exploited today."
As Presley's fame grew, people became interested in Parker as well. For a time he lied about his childhood, claiming to have been born in Huntington, West Virginia, and to have run away at an early age to join a circus run by an uncle. The truth about his early years was revealed when his family in the Netherlands recognized him in photographs of him standing next to Presley. Parker's brother Adam "Ad" van Kuijk visited Parker in Los Angeles in 1961. Parker acknowledged his brother and introduced him to Presley. Parker also was informed that his mother died in 1958, never knowing what happened with her son after he left in 1929. The claim of Parker's Dutch heritage was confirmed when Parker tried to avert a lawsuit in 1982 by asserting that he was a Dutch citizen. In 1993, Dutch TV director Jorrit van der Kooi talked to him in Dutch about the Netherlands. Parker was not aware that his sister Adriana had died a few years before.
In 1935, while traveling with a circus, Parker met and married 27-year-old Marie Francis Mott. Marie was one of six children and had been married twice before, with a son from her first marriage. Unbeknownst to Parker at the time, she had a second son from her first marriage, but she had given him up for adoption at birth due to his disability with a clubfoot. Some have suggested that Parker married Marie to disguise his illegal status in the US; a marriage to a US citizen with a child could help him bury his past in a "ready-made family." However, there is no definitive proof that it was anything other than romance that led to their marriage. Others, however, have doubts about whether they were legally married at all. According to interviews given by Parker to the Associated Press many years later, he and Marie were married in Tampa, Florida during the winter of 1932, but the Florida Office of Vital Statistics has no record of such a marriage any time between 1927 and 1946. It is also recorded that Marie did not divorce her second husband until 1936, and her brother, Bitsy, recalls no ceremony of marriage between the two. Author Alanna Nash suggests that the couple may have simply placed their hands on a bible and given themselves a "carny wedding."
In the early days of their marriage, Marie and Parker worked together in the carnivals. As Parker's management career began to take off, Marie became more of a housewife and mother, although she would occasionally travel with him to different parts of the country. During the 1960s, after many years of ill health, Marie began to display signs of dementia. Parker began to distance himself from her, heartbroken by her rapid deterioration from the woman he once knew. Marie died in November 1986 of chronic brain syndrome. In October 1990, Parker married Loanne Miller, his secretary since 1972. From then on, he continued living in Las Vegas, mostly avoiding contact with the press.
Many Parker biographers, including Dirk Vellenga and Alanna Nash, have stated that Parker's gambling really began to get out of hand in the mid-1960s. With his wife's health deteriorating, and Presley's career struggling, Parker found an escape at the Las Vegas casinos. Fans and biographers alike believe that one of the main reasons Parker signed Presley to a Las Vegas hotel in 1969 for his live comeback was to help cover the losses he had experienced in their casino. He would often spend 12–14 hours at a time gambling, betting large sums of money instead of little amounts. At the time of Presley's death it was suspected that Parker owed the Las Vegas Hilton $30 million. In a lifetime that saw him earn in excess of $100 million, Parker's estate was barely worth $1 million when he died.
Parker made his last public appearances in 1994. He had been ill for a long time and was now struggling to even leave the house. On January 20, 1997, Parker's wife heard a bang from his living room, and when no response was heard from her calls, she went in to find him slouched in his chair; he had suffered a stroke.
Parker died on January 21, 1997, in Las Vegas, Nevada, at the age of 87. His death certificate listed his birthplace as Holland, but his citizenship as American. His funeral was held at the Hilton hotel, and was attended by friends and former associates. Priscilla attended to represent the Elvis Presley Estate, and gave a eulogy that, to many in the room, summed up Parker perfectly: "Elvis and the Colonel made history together, and the world is richer, better and far more interesting because of their collaboration. And now I need to locate my wallet, because I noticed there was no ticket booth on the way in here, but I'm sure that Colonel must have arranged for some toll on the way out."