Byron Raphael Interview
Few people can claim
to have had a ringside seat to the making of Rock 'n Roll History. Byron Raphael
was a William Morris agent-in-training in 1956. That position put him in contact
with Colonel Tom Parker and Elvis Presley, just at the precise time Elvis
was breaking in a big way.
Byron Raphael's account of that time and his dealings with Elvis and
the Colonel are beyond fascinating. Movies are made from material like
Q - Byron, back in the days when you worked for the William Morris Agency
in the mailroom, did you have to be a lawyer first to be considered for
an agency position?
A - No. Absolutely not. There were a couple of requirements, and I'll
be quite honest with you, one, you had to come from a well to do family
because your starting salary was $42.50 a week. So that basically eliminated
a core of people 'cause they couldn't afford to work for that, even in
those days. Secondly, you had to be Jewish. Now it sounds a bit like
a racial thing, a prejudice thing perhaps, anti-Christian type of thing.
However, that was the philosophy of the William Morris Agency. The man
who ran the agency, Abe Lastfogel had been turned down many times as
a young man because he was Jewish. So, his assumption was that, if I
build an agency, it'll be for Jewish people, and that's basically the
way the agency business went all way around. But, you didn't have to
be anything, you didn't even have to have a college education, although
I do understand, later, after I was there, they did require a college
Q - And then some!
A - Well, yeah, later on. Not when I was there. When I was there, you
had to have a contact. My father was running Walt Disney's music company.
So, because of that, I at least got a shot. It still took me six months
to get the opening. I think if my father hadn't been involved with
Disney, I probably wouldn't have gotten the job.
Q - Did you always want to be an agent? Did you have hopes of working
with singers and bands or actors and actresses?
A - That's a good question. I started out as a child actor. I did radio
in the radio days. But when I didn't get to be the typical leading man,
I realized I wasn't going to be a star. Then, I wanted to be in what
my father did, which was the music business. This was the 50s. These
were the days of Tony Martin, Perry Como, Kay Starr, Patti Page and of
course Elvis to be soon, The Hit Parade and Rodgers and Hammerstein,
that kind of music, which I loved. I wanted to be part of that. But,
I also wanted to work with actors. I had wanted to be an actor. So the
closest thing I could think of was to represent actors. That way, I could
be close to them and help them because I know what a difficult job it
was to face rejection constantly and not to show that rejection.
Q - Who were you working with before Elvis?
A - Well, I was in the mailroom. So my job at that point was to take
scripts to various studios and to our client's home. But, there was
a reason behind that. It wasn't just to be a flunky. If you were new
to the business, you had to learn where the studios were, you had to
learn where the producers were located. In being a delivery boy, working
in the mailroom, you found out. So there was a reason behind everything
they did at William Morris. After that, 'cause I was taken out to work
for Elvis and the Colonel, the next stop would have been working in
the file room. In the file room, you learn agent's deals and how deals
are put together. I missed that. After that, you become a secretary
to an agent and eventually, if you're successful, a full agent.
Q - Is a secretary the same as a Junior Agent.
A - I think so. When Elvis went into the army, I came back to William
Morris. I was secretary to an agent. But in that case, I really was
a Junior Agent. His name was Sy Marsh. Just a great guy. He was the
kind of agent who was more interested in socializing. So, he allowed
me at a very early time, to start making deals, even though I hardly
knew how to do it. It's like riding a bicycle. After a while, you just
learn how to do it. Basically I was a Junior Agent and I became a full
agent very quickly.
Q - You told your story to Playboy.(November, 2005) How were you able
to recall all the details from so far back? Did you keep a diary?
A - I never did. The only reason I remembered so distinctly is because
throughout my whole life, there had never been a period of those three
or four years, '56 until Elvis went into the army, that had such a tremendous
impact, that I remembered it as though it was yesterday. I worked with
Alanna Nash and she's a historian and she made it her business to know
every single date, down to April 16th, 1956. I did keep some letters
from Elvis and the Colonel, but most of the time I remembered those days
as if they were yesterday. I remember things that Elvis and the Colonel
told me word for word. I don't think anybody who worked for Elvis Presley
would forget anything he said to them. Remember, when I worked for him,
I always worked for William Morris, but I was assigned to work for him.
There was no entourage. There was just Colonel Parker, his secretary,
Tom Diskin and Gene Smith, who was Elvis' somewhat retarded cousin. Another
kind of a con-man by the name of Cliff and me. Later on, after the army,
there was eight or nine guys around Elvis. But, when I was there, I was
his sole confidant. To have that position at such a young age, twenty-one,
I was Elvis' age actually, was an awe inspiring existence.
Q - Why did Elvis trust you so much? Or maybe a better question would
be how did he know he could trust you?
A - Well, he didn't know. When I went to work for the Colonel, it was
the first thing. Colonel Parker and I became very close. He'd never had
a son. He kind of adopted me. He did. I called him Pops after a couple
of months. He was like my father. He said to me one day, "You know
Byron, Elvis has never met anybody but young Southern boys from very
poor backgrounds from Tupelo." He'd never met anybody from the West
Coast. He'd never met anyone who had come from a middle class family.
I was his age. He said "why don't you try to become Elvis' friend.
He doesn't have any friends. A year ago, he was a truck driver. He's
afraid to go out and I don't want him to go out. So when you leave the
office here, when we leave Paramount, Fox or MGM, go to see him. Go to
the Beverly Wilshire Hotel and be his friend." And we hit it off.
He used to call me "Byron The Siren." Right away. If I hadn't
hit it off with him then that would've changed. Later on the philosophy
changed and Colonel Parker did not want people that worked for him to
socialize with Elvis. The other reason the Colonel wanted me there was
to be a spy. In other words, he wanted to make sure that Elvis didn't
have any bad characters hanging around him, that weren't there for instance,
people trying to steal him away from William Morris or Colonel Parker.
You know, which I'm sure there would've been people try to do that. Or,
that somebody was bringing in marijuana. He just wanted me to be there
and report back to him what was happening and possibly a friend to Elvis.
Not only did I become a friend to Elvis, but I brought my girlfriend,
who later became my wife, up to meet him. Naturally he was shy and a
star and she wanted to meet him. And he absolutely fell in love with
her. Every girl that basically he had a relationship with, was a direct
copy of Caroline, who became my wife. Priscilla almost looked exactly
like Caroline. Ann Margaret looked somewhat like Caroline and so did
Ginger Alden, the last girl who was sharing his bed when he died. Caroline
was the type. He said to me, "Byron, you did pretty good with her.
I'd like a girl like that." That may seem funny because he was one
of the most handsomest men I've ever met in my life, probably the most
handsomest man I'd ever seen when he was twenty-two years old. But, he
couldn't go out and get girls because he would've been mobbed. He couldn't
go into nightclubs. He didn't have anybody else to arrange that for him.
So I became the go between. I hate to say pimp because we weren't doing
this for money. So I would stand outside the gate at MGM, not at Fox
'cause the girls couldn't get close to Fox, but Paramount they could.
There would be hundreds of 'em waiting for him to come in everyday and
leave everyday. I would find the girls. Now I knew the type he liked
and I would invite them back, two, three, four at a time to the Beverly
Wilshire Hotel. That's the way that started.
Q - How did you know that these girls wouldn't
say "Elvis touched
me here. Elvis touched me there." How did you know they wouldn't
scream rape or try to blackmail him by saying something happened when
A - Good question. Another one of the reasons the Colonel didn't want
Elvis to be alone. I was there. So was his cousin Gene Smith. There was
no DNA in those days. But, if by chance a girl said "he made me
pregnant" or "he touched me", there were three of us there.
So you see, it could've been Elvis. I could've been me. It could've been
Gene. If it was just Elvis, she might have been able to say that. We
were fearful of that. And there were times that Colonel Parker did meet
with some of the girls parents and financial arrangements were made.
But, Elvis was most happy, most content in not actually having intercourse
with these girls, but just heavy petting. Now, I say heavy petting, I
think a lot of reactions from the Playboy article I've gotten are saying "what
are you saying, what are you doing saying he wasn't a good lover?" I'm
not saying that at all. What I'm saying is, this was the late fifties,
most young guys didn't have intercourse. They would go to drive-ins and
there would be heavy petting and panting and that's about as far as is
went, especially when you take into consideration Colonel Parker said "Be
careful! If you get a girl pregnant, we're gonna have trouble and even
if we can pay her off, it will ruin your career." And it would have
in those days! If you got a girl pregnant in those days before you got
married, your career was over.
Q - Did Elvis ever do that?
A - I never knew that. But, I did know that the Colonel made some visits
to a couple of girl's families and made some financial arrangements.
So whether or not he actually got a girl pregnant or Gene did or I
did, we really don't know. But, that's really the way it was. As I
said, most of the time he didn't do anything that would get them pregnant.
Most of the time it was just two or three girls at a time, all in bed,
with no clothes on. His mother Gladys was a very, very religious woman
and Elvis loved her dearly. She was the only woman he really, really
loved. She said to him, having sex before marriage was a sin. And so,
together with the Colonel's warnings and his mother pleading with him
he shouldn't do it before he got married, to me I could understand.
A lot of the Elvis fans are saying "Gee, you're making like he
wasn't very good at it. Well, that wasn't it at all. That's the way
he was taught from a young man, to wait until marriage. I don't think
he always did, but there were a lot of fears in his mind because of
his mother and the Colonel.
Q - I recall reading that when The Beatles toured, ex-F.B.I. men were
placed on floors by the elevator to make sure girls didn't get close
to the group. Just recently someone told me, girls did find a way around
that. It was on Brian Epstein's mind that scandal like you described
could sink The Beatles' ship.
A - Now, we had guards at the Beverly Wilshire so the girls couldn't
come through unless they were with me. The Memphis Mafia want to say
this isn't true, Byron wasn't there. But you see the truth is, none of
those people were there in 1956. Lamar Fike was the first close associate
of Elvis to follow me and he didn't come until '57. So, in '56, I was
the closest confidante that Elvis had. He liked me because of the fact
I was different from him. I was a West Coast guy. He had never met anyone
like that. He had never met anyone that worked for an agency. He was
a truck driver and then he was a guitar player.
Q - Were you an Elvis fan prior to meeting Elvis?
A - I was not thrilled. I'd heard his first couple of songs, "That's
All Right Mama", and he hadn't made any movies yet. I went to work
for them before he even made a movie. Being at William Morris, we represented,
in those days, most of the stars in Hollywood. Morris isn't alone anymore.
They have many other big agencies - I.C.M., Creative Artists and so on.
But, in those days we handled Marilyn (Monroe) Frank Sinatra, Rita Hayworth,
and so these were the stars I looked up to. Of course I was too young
and inexperienced to deal with them. The older agents did that. All I
could do was see them and say "Good Morning." Elvis was kind
of a freak. I didn't know if he was just gonna be a flash in the pan.
He had a "hot" couple of records and that's all I knew. I had
never seen him perform, 'cause he hadn't performed in Los Angeles yet.
That wasn't until the Pan Pacific a few years later. So, I didn't know
how great a performer he was. I saw him on The Ed Sullivan Show and that
was kind of exciting. I saw the girls screaming. But it wasn't until
I went to work for him and the movies started to come out and the records
started to become huge successes, that I realized what a huge fan I was
of his. Then when I saw him perform "live", it was nothing
like I'd ever seen. I've seen The Beatles, Sinatra and Streisand. I'll
tell you there has never been anything close to those early performances.
I don't mean later on when Elvis gained weight. Those early performances,
he was the most exciting performer ever! Without question. With The Beatles,
there were four guys. This was one guy. I used to stand by the stage
to hold the Nipper Dog from falling off the stage, the R.C.A. emblem.
It was made out of plaster of Paris. The noise was so loud and continuous
I couldn't hear Elvis' voice even though I was standing two feet from
him. It never stopped. The screaming went on from the moment he went
on stage until he left the stage. It was unbelievable. It's never happened
Q - Were you there when he played Las Vegas for the first time?
A - You mean when he wasn't successful?
Q - Right.
A - I was not there. First time I saw him perform was at the Pan Pacific
Auditorium in Los Angeles. That was the show the police closed down
the second night, because of what he'd done the first night. He was
in those days a pretty raw performer. Later on, his act became much
more sophisticated. He was always exciting. But, in those very early
days, he did things that if he had repeated it, he would've gone to
jail! Course, it wouldn't have happened today. In 1960 or so, we were
a very innocent people. There were a lot of people that thought he
was a sinner because he moved his hips, that he was evil. Parents thought
they didn't want any Elvis Presley records in their home. For a teenager,
that just meant they would go out and buy it. That was one of the things
that helped him. The parents and the religious people thought he was
a sinner. Of course Elvis Presley was not even close to that. He was
truly not only a gentleman, but a very sweet natured young man who
didn't drink, didn't smoke and didn't take any drugs...not in those
days. There was none of that.
Q - When you first met Elvis, you delivered an envelope to Colonel Parker
at 20th Century Fox Studios. What was in that envelope? A film script?
A - When Elvis was first contacted by William Morris about making movies,
the original deal was to be a movie for Hal Wallis. That deal was going
to be a $10,000 picture. The Colonel said "I trust William Morris,
but I've gotta make more money than that." And the Morris office
said "no you can't." The Colonel just said "if I can't,
then we won't make movies. We'll go back out on the road and make $30,000
- $50,000 a night playing personal appearances." So Hal Wallis loaned
Elvis out to 20th Century Fox. I think Love Me Tender, which turned out
to be his first movie. What I brought him most likely was correspondence
between Hal Wallis and Fox, because that was a loan out. Hal Wallis loaned
Elvis Presley to make Love Me Tender. Then I believe his second picture,
which was Loving You, was for Hal Wallis. It was just a freak accident
that Colonel Parker happened to be standing outside his office, because
as a mail boy for William Morris, my job was not to talk to anybody.
I would just deliver the letter and leave.
Q - Colonel Parker told you "Tell your bosses you're going to work
for me" and made you a spy at the Morris and Elvis camp. Did Colonel
Parker offer to pay you? Did you tell your boss at the William Morris
office "I'm working for Colonel Parker now"?
A - I never did. What I should've realized was that...of course I knew
Elvis Presley was a client of William Morris; I was making $40 a week
and Elvis Presley was bringing in millions of dollars or he would've
been soon. So it was no great shakes for William Morris to pay me $40
a week and lend me out to Colonel Parker and Elvis Presley, as their
gofer or flunky or whatever they thought I was gonna be. Just make him
happy. What's the difference if he's in the mailroom? He's better off
if he can make the Colonel happy and make Elvis happy...we don't mind
paying him $40 a week. So obviously the Colonel went and said "I
want Byron to work for me." Now why he did, I don't know. I was
just the type of guy, personality-wise, that he wanted. Colonel Parker
was a very dominating, frightening kind of man, even though I loved him
as a father. He had tremendous power and he dominated not only me, but
he dominated Elvis all his life. I said to him "I want to work for
you, but I just got my job at William Morris." He said "Well,
never mind that. They'll pay you." One of the great tragedies of
that is that as time went on, it was obvious that the Colonel didn't
want any agents from William Morris around Elvis, because he feared they
would try to take Elvis away from him. An agent's philosophy is; try
to get around the manager. Get to the client. Don't deal with the manager.
And we did that as agents. As it turned out, a very unusual thing happened.
This little flunky, who happened to be me, became the contact for Elvis
Presley. His sole contact. Even though I was just an errand-boy. Each
agent, big agent, had certain clients that they were the contact for.
Like Bob Braun had Sinatra. Someone else had Marilyn. Someone had Rita
Hayworth. But these were all older men. I was just a twenty-one year
old kid. I became a contact for Elvis Presley. The terrible mistake that
I made is that it went to my head. The only time I ever went back to
the William Morris office was on Fridays to pick my check and run back
to the studio. I stopped and forgot I was working for William Morris.
I was really working for William Morris. So, on my way out of the office,
the older agents would come up to me and say "Tell me, what is Elvis
like?" After all, he was a freak and he was this huge star now.
And nobody really knew him. I would say, unfortunately, "Hey fella,
too busy to talk to you. I gotta get back." Not realizing that in
a few years I would have to come back to the Morris office to work for
these same men I was treating so shabbily. When I would tell Colonel
Parker about that, he had kind of a devil in him and he sensed that I
was getting this kind of ego an as kind of a practical joke, instead
of saying "Byron, don't do that. These guys are gonna be your bosses." He
encouraged me to act even bigger and more egotistical. And of course
it ruined my career at William Morris. It was never the same. But, I
was too young and too impressionable to know the difference. I thought
for a while that I was managing Elvis. At night, I was the one with him.
The Colonel never socialized with Elvis. I never remember him coming
to the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. He was strictly business. He would say "Elvis,
this is the way we do it." He never asked Elvis' opinion. Elvis
just said "If we make money, let's do it." I just didn't realize
that when I went back to William Morris, I would be a Junior Agent. There
was a No Smoking rule at William Morris and the Colonel would say "You
go in smoking a cigar." So, I would go through the halls of William
Morris with this big cigar. I remember Abe Lastfogel, who was the president
of William Morris and probably the most important man in show business,
he would walk up to me and say "What did you do, lose a bet?" And
I'd say "No, no, no" and go on smoking it. It was horrible.
How I could do that, but you see, Colonel Parker put me up to those things.
I admired him so much I did a lot of stupid things. I stayed on at William
Morris for another seven years, but they never really liked me.
Q - How did the Colonel treat other people around him?
A - He had an assistant by the name of Tom Diskin. Ever hear that name?
Q - Sure have.
A - OK. Well, Tom Diskin was a meek little man. I liked Tom very, very
much. But, the Colonel used to make him do humiliating things. He used
to make him dance in front of people. Tom got this terrible ulcer.
The Colonel was a powerful guy and you had to be with him twenty-four
hours a day. My marriage ended 'cause the Colonel said "I don't
want you being married anymore, because you can't spend enough time
with Elvis and me." And there was a divorce. All of a sudden,
I got divorce papers. I never even went to court. I never paid a lawyer.
The Colonel paid all the fees and all of a sudden my wife was gone.
So, I was afraid I would become another Tom Diskin. As it turned out,
I would've been better off and I would've become very wealthy. But,
I don't know if I would've been able to take the kind of life where
you have to be with somebody twenty-four hours a day. At that time,
the social part of the business with Elvis was gone. We would not have
been allowed to socialize with him. So that fun part would be over.
I would've been a real flunky, not even a flunky...I don't know what
it would've been. I had to be a slave. Pick him up. Hand him his towel
when he washed. That's what it would've been. But, I didn't want to
be that. I thought I wanted to be a Colonel Parker. I wanted to be
a big agent or a big manager. I went back to William Morris. The Colonel
never forgave me for that. He became angry at me. And of course, the
Morris office was ready to be angry at me. I played it all wrong, but
I just was too young. It happened too quick and I wasn't smart or old
enough to understand what I was doing. He really should've helped me.
He should've said to me "These are the guys you're gonna have
to work for. You gotta be nice to them also, instead of having me play
practical jokes on them.
Q - I'm quoting from Alanna Nash's book; "The Colonel got a lot
of perks from the William Morris agency. The Colonel had three residences.
One was this house in Palm Springs. The Colonel said William Morris bought
that house and he rented it from them. No wonder. He provided them with
their biggest star." Bigger than Marilyn Monroe? Bigger than Frank
A - Well, they lost Marilyn before she really was a big star. She was
there when Johnny Hyde was her agent. She left before she was a big star.
I would say that he made more money for the Morris office than Sinatra.
Now Sinatra lived longer. Elvis died when he was forty-two. Sinatra was
a money maker until he was seventy-something. But for the time Elvis
was alive until he died, the Colonel gave them, for some reason, ten
per cent of his record earnings, ten per cent of his publishing. He didn't
have to do that. Why he did it, as close as I was to the Colonel, and
I was very close to him, I don't know. Unless there was maybe a kick-back
thing possibly, under the table. I don't know why he did it. But, if
you can imagine, they still get 10% today. They did twenty-seven years
ago when he passed away. You can imagine 10% of his record sales. He's
sold over $1 billion worth of records just since he died. $1 million
a picture. Nobody was making that in those days. And they didn't have
to do anything. The Colonel did everything. The Colonel wouldn't allow
them to do anything. He wouldn't allow anybody but me to come near Elvis
and I was just a pawn. I was like the hypnotized kid. If he told me to
jump off a bridge, I would. But the guys who were older and smarter,
he wouldn't allow them around Elvis.
Q - Isn't there a law against a manager also acting as an agent for
his / her act?
A - There is a law that you can't negotiate. A manager cannot negotiate
because they're not licensed by the Screen Actors Guild. However, the
manager can and if fact does negotiate. But, the person who goes to finalize
the deal, in other words just says this is what the manager did, so I'll
just go and say it, this is OK...this is OK...this is OK. But in essence,
the Colonel negotiated the deal. Then he would bring in Abe Lastfogel.
See, he wouldn't trust Abe Lastfogel. Here's what the situation is, if
you're William Morris and if you're working for William Morris as I did,
you've got four hundred and eighty clients, which is what we had on the
West coast. If you go back to 20th Century Fox and try to make a killer
deal for every one of those clients, you can't do it. Somewhere along
the line, somebody's gotta pay the price. Somewhere along the line, you
gotta make a deal that's in favor of the studio instead of the client.
Well, the Colonel wanted to make sure they didn't sell out Elvis, so
he would not allow anybody to make any deals. He made all the deals and
then he told Mr. Lastfogel, "just go ahead and close it up." The
first deal the Morris office made for Elvis was for $10,000. The Colonel
re-negotiated it to $100,000, because he only had one client and he didn't
have to worry about going back to that studio with anybody else, and
the Morris office did. There were some clients we had that were tougher
to sell, and so we wanted to stay in good with the studios. First of
all, the 10% he paid to the Morris office was tax deductible. It really
wasn't costing him anything. But, he liked the fact that he had these
very, kind of pompous, wealthy Jewish men kissing it up to him. And that's
really the main reason why he had William Morris as an agency, 'cause
he didn't need it. He also felt some sort of gratitude toward Abe Lastfogel
because years before, when he was managing Eddie Arnold, who was a famous
country singer, the Morris office made a small deal for Eddy Arnold to
make a movie. And, in those days, not many people would listen to the
Colonel in Hollywood. They didn't want to see him. It was tough to get
in to see the head of a studio. And somebody at William Morris helped
him. He remembered that. But basically he liked the fact that these wealthy
Hollywood agents would take him to dinner. They'd never take Elvis to
dinner 'cause he wouldn't allow it and Elvis wouldn't have wanted it
anyway. The reason Elvis liked me is I didn't come to him with a tie
and a suit. I was just a kid his own age. We just got along as friends,
whereas these other guys would've come in as agents trying to discuss
who he should work with. He couldn't identify with older men. He was
just a kid.
Q - If William Morris was getting 10%...
A - of everything.
Q - What was Colonel Parker getting ? Was it as high as 50%?
A - Absolutely. I know that as a fact. I'll tell you why. Elvis had a
contract with All Star Shows. All Star Shows was Colonel Parker's company.
A copy of that contract was on Colonel Parker's desk. It called for
50% of all of Elvis Presley's earnings, and this is very important,
in perpetuity. That's not legal. James Garner found out, you can only
sign somebody for seven years. There is no such thing as slavery anymore.
So that contract was illegal. His first contract was for a year, because
Mrs. Presley still had to sign it. Elvis was only seventeen. But this
contract said half of everything he earned forever. There was a disagreement
between the Colonel and Elvis. Elvis used to call him the Admiral instead
of the Colonel. I was sitting in the Colonel's office, I don't know
what I was doing, writing a letter for him or something. He said, "You
know Admiral, so and so said to me I should be doing this picture." And
he mentioned some movie. "More like a James Dean instead of this
new picture you got me, Jailhouse Rock." And the Colonel said "c'mon
Elvis, I want to talk to you." So Elvis came in. I was sitting
there. He brought Tom Diskin in. He brought in Trudy, his secretary.
That was the group that was all around Elvis. He said, "Now Elvis,
you said to me on the phone, somebody said to you that you should be
doing something different than the picture you're doing. Well, if that's
the case, here's the contract that you signed with me", and he
tore it right up. He said "Elvis, you can walk out of here. You're
a free man. You don't own me a penny." Now that's pretty tough
if you're the manager of one of the biggest stars in the world. He
wasn't the biggest, he was going to become the biggest. And Elvis was
just stunned. Elvis said, "I, I didn't mean I wanted to leave
you Colonel." The Colonel said "It's not a question of what
you want. If you think someone is doing something better, then I don't
want you. Either you do it my way and you'll make money or you do it
another way and you won't make money." So he said "Here's
your contract back." From that point on, he never had a contract.
As a matter of fact, William Morris never had a contract, the Colonel
never signed a contract with William Morris. Yet, he paid them a commission
on everything, even after Elvis died. By the way, Elvis made more money
when he was dead than when he was alive. It was amazing. The Colonel's
tenacity and nerve was unbelievable.
Q - He knew how to read people.
A - Yeah. He would've been a great poker player today. (laughs) One of
the best. He knew how to play people. He knew their weaknesses. He
knew their strengths. He was an amazing man. If you ever get a chance
to read Alanna Nash's book about the Colonel, here's this man who was
living a double life, who was not a Kentucky Colonel. He was from Holland.
His name wasn't Tom Parker. It was Andrais.* He probably had committed
murder. Never had a passport. Elvis Presley, as you know, never played
outside the United States. Why? 'Cause the Colonel never had a passport
and he couldn't have gotten back. Untold millions were lost. Elvis
could've played Japan, where he was huge. Great Britain, where he was
bigger than The Beatles. Yet the Colonel wouldn't allow him to do it,
probably because he couldn't. Elvis couldn't understand. There's fans
over there. Elvis loved to perform and the Colonel would never answer.
He'd say, "Elvis, you do it my way or I'm not your manager any
more." And Elvis never, never had another manager. They wound
up hating each other or at lease Elvis hated the Colonel and wouldn't
talk to him for the last four years of his life, even through intermediaries,
but still never left him.
Q - When did you last see Elvis?
A - It was about six or seven years before he died. In Las Vegas.
Q - Physically, what kind of shape was he in?
A - Oh, I thought he looked great.
Q - Was he still performing?
A - Absolutely. You see, it took a long time to break Elvis down, until
he said "I'm getting too old. What am I doing? I want to do something
different." In 1970, he was thrilling audiences. It was a sophisticated
performance, but still very exciting. He was electric with his karate
moves that he picked up. And also singing better songs. Not that there's
anything wrong with "Don't Be Cruel" or "Hound Dog",
but when he was doing "Bridge Over Troubled Waters", he was
able to act them out more dramatically. In fact, he would even do some
Gospel songs in Vegas. He had a great voice.
Q - I read somewhere that when Elvis was in Las Vegas, he was paid $125,000
a week for two shows a night. Tom Jones, who was down the street, was
paid $250,000 a week for one show a night. How could that be?
A - My feeling about that, knowing the Colonel, is that being Vegas,
'cause I don't know about this, but I believe there was another $250,000
in cash coming to Elvis that was below the surface. I believe Elvis was
getting something like $350,000 to $400,000 a week. In Vegas, there was
cash in those days, right from the tables. Whatever was in the contract
was taxable. There were two things that were wrong with that - whatever
they gave Elvis, Colonel Parker was going to lose at the tables. They
could've given him a million a week and the Colonel was going to lose
a million dollars at the table. The Colonel lost everything he had. The
only one who wound up with any money, outside of Elvis daughter, was
Tom Diskin. Tom Diskin was very conservative. He was cut in on everything.
You know what happened to him? After the Colonel died, he bought himself
a big ranch in Texas and got married and was driving along and was killed
in a terrible automobile accident.
Q - When did this happen?
A - Not too long ago. Five years ago.
Q - So, that was Colonel Parker's weakness...gambling?
A - Yeah. When he died, he owed 30 million dollars to the Hilton. Basically,
he lost almost everything. His will showed almost nothing. A few thousand
dollars. So, who knows who much of Elvis' salary that was $100,000
or $300,000 or whatever it was, was actually getting to Elvis.
Q - Do you realize that for twenty years, Elvis made anywhere from five
to ten million dollars a year. Yet, in 1977, the I.R.S. was ready go
foreclose on Graceland?
A - In the early days, the Colonel would be so afraid of the I.R.S. that
instead of having lawyers do Elvis' taxes, or William Morris, 'cause
the Morris office always said "let us handle his taxes so you don't
get in any trouble", the Colonel said "no, I'm gonna go to
the I.R.S. and have them do my taxes and Elvis' taxes." They said "But,
you won't get any tax breaks that way." He said, "Yeah, but
they won't come after me either." So, he would go to the Internal
Revenue Service and say "Here's what we made. Take whatever you
want." And it cost Elvis a lot of money in shelters. But a lot of
those shelters were overturned and a lot of actors wound up losing a
lot of money. Certainly he never got audited. (laughs) He got audited
from the beginning. Later on, those things changed and Elvis started
taking on accountants. I don't know how much the Colonel was taking,
but my belief is over the last five or six years, it wasn't 50%, but
more like 80% or 90%. Certainly in those gambling days, Elvis couldn't
have been getting anything. Elvis never balanced a checkbook. He never
learned to do that. But, as long as Elvis had enough money to buy some
cars, buy some jewelry and things that he liked, he didn't care what
was in the bank. After Elvis died is when most of the money was made.
The day of Elvis' funeral, Colonel Parker went to the funeral, never
looked in the coffin, turned to Vernon Presley, his father, and said "Let's
go to work." Poor Elvis had been with him since he was seventeen
years old and those were his only words - "Let's go to work."
Q - It must've been sheer hell to have been Elvis Presley.
A - It was hell because the Colonel was making him play every two-bit
town night after night after night, doing show after show after show.
Working him to death. He could barely get up in the morning. Couldn't
sleep at night. Taking so many prescription drugs. They found when
he died, he had eighty or ninety pounds of fecal material inside.
Q - As crazy as this may sound, you could almost make the case that
Elvis faked his death, based on some of the things you've told me in
this interview. Do you believe he could've faked his death or do you
believe he's really dead?
A - I believe he's really dead, because the amounts of prescription drugs
he was taking was enough to surely kill him sooner or later. He couldn't
have lived much longer. He was constipated to the point where he would
go weeks without going to the bathroom. No amount of laxative would help.
I know that from some of the guys around him, and even from the last
time I talked to Tom Diskin. But, I don't think he would've lived much
longer. His body was literally shutting down. He felt invulnerable. He
felt nothing could kill him. I didn't think anything could ever kill
him. I thought he would live forever. He seemed so big and powerful.
Q - Is it your intention to write a book about your time with Elvis
and the Colonel?
A - If I had my druthers, I'd like t see it made into a movie, because
I think there's a story there. You see, nobody knew what happened in
1956, because unfortunately everybody's dead. Trudy is gone. Tom Diskin
is gone. The Colonel is gone. Gene Smith is gone. There's nobody that
was close to Elvis in 1956, and that was the year that he came to Hollywood,
that's around today. So, when guys like Marty Lacker say they doubt my
story, they weren't even there. Elvis didn't even know they were alive.
Elvis wouldn't even know they were alive. Elvis wouldn't even meet Joe
Esposito 'til the Army days. But, they're very territorial and would
like people to think they were always with Elvis from the day he came
to Hollywood. But, it's just not true.
© Gary James All Rights Reserved