Elvis' Svengali: Biography of Colonel Tom Parker reads like a thriller

If there is one figure in 20th-century show business who was even larger-in-life than Elvis Presley, it was Presley's manager, Colonel Tom Parker. The Colonel outweighed Elvis by 100 pounds, outlived him by 20 years and out-earned his charge by crafting deals that gave him more than 50 percent of Presley's income.

He was hated by fans for pimping his famous client into trashy movies, feared by anyone who did business with him and known for boasting that he had never once had so much as one meal with Elvis. In a nutshell, he hated Elvis, and any Elvis fan hated the Colonel. Parker was a villain of the first order, and his life, as Alanna Nash states in the introduction to her splendid book "The Colonel," was unequivocally "the stuff of Shakespeare."

Yet Parker was colorful. Nash has plenty to work with, retelling the sordid stories of Parker's pre-Elvis years on the carnival circuit. The Colonel bragged of his many cons and spun tales of dancing chickens (aided by hot-plates under their straw) and suckers born every minute. His eventual collision with Elvis seems almost pre-ordained, part of the natural evolution of Parker's cons.

Though the relationship between Elvis and his crooked manager has been examined so many times it is a familiar story, Nash constructs it so well it reads like a freshly conjured thriller. Nash is best when she tackles the psychological roots of Parker's con: As an illegal immigrant the Colonel forever feared deportation, a fact he kept hidden during Presley's life but one that assured Elvis would never tour outside the United States. Nash's telling is the definitive account of Parker's early life in Holland, and though the actual details can never be confirmed, she leaves a reader convinced that Parker was also a murderer.

Upon arriving in the United States, Parker sets out to re-create and rename himself, a task that Nash notes he did with aplomb. "A master illusionist in business and in the business of life," she writes, "Tom Parker made things appear and disappear at will, and created something very great out of nothing — including himself." He wasn't even really a colonel.

Once Parker hooked up with the naive Presley, he became the most powerful manager in show business — and the most disliked. He began to bizarrely talk about himself in the third person ("The Colonel won't like that"), and he grew fatter, meaner and more pathological as his power grew. His control over his charge, Elvis, was so great, particularly when it came to controlling the press, that Nash suggests "it was almost as if there were no Elvis, except what the Colonel made him out to be."

Nash quotes one of Parker's aides comparing the Colonel to Adolph Hitler, but she is careful to paint a full and fair portrait of her subject, one that also gives Parker his due for the tremendous success he made of Presley (though always taking his generous cut). "The Colonel was all the things that he appeared to be," she writes, "both good and bad, and if Parker was the very definition of shrewd, the morality of his decisions was not always discernible as black or white."

Though "The Colonel" is a biography of Parker, it is also essential reading for Elvis fans, because it provides the first clear and accurate portrait of the neuroses that kept Presley under Parker's thumb. Only toward the end of his life does Presley ever seriously consider firing Parker, planning on giving the job to Tom Hulett of Seattle's Concerts West.

But Elvis, like a Shakespearean character, can't break free of the Colonel's hold. His heart proves even weaker than Parker's, and he dies at 42, strung out on prescription drugs. In his con-man character until the very end, Parker didn't even shed a tear.

Charles R. Cross is the Seattle author of "Heavier Than Heaven: A Biography of Kurt Cobain."

"The Colonel: The Extraordinary Story of Colonel Tom Parker and Elvis Presley"

by Alanna Nash
Simon & Schuster, $25