Book Review: “Elvis and The Colonel: An Insider’s Look at the Most Legendary Partnership in Show Business” by Greg McDonald and Marshall Terrill

The King has left the building.

Before he left, he swiveled and stood on his tiptoes. He teased a guitar, sneered and shimmied, and left a tide of swooning females in his wake. Yes, he’s gone, but The King meant a lot to people who still cherish his life and mourn his departure. Look past him, though, and you’ll see the man behind him, inside the new book “Elvis and The Colonel” by Greg McDonald and Marshall Terrill.

Almost from the moment he could walk, Andreas Cornelius Van Kuijk knew how to hustle.

When he was small, he helped his father care for the barge horses along the canals in their native Holland. His youth was spent as a baker, an odd-jobs handyman, a cheese-maker, and a roustabout. He immigrated to America, where he was a hobo, a circus promoter, the manager for several country-western performers, and he spent time in the Merchant Marines and the U.S. Army.

In the midst of all these jobs, he was adopted by a family in America who owned a carnival. At that time Andreas, wanting a fresh start, renamed himself Tom Parker; he later received the title of “Colonel,” which is an honorary custom in the South.

These are the stories Parker told McDonald, who was just a teenager when he met the Colonel. Many things, McDonald admits, weren’t fully-detailed or explained. No matter; obviously, the Colonel was a big man who made big things happen and he knew how to manipulate people to do what he needed to do, even if it meant some truth-stretching or a bit of scamming.

Says McDonald, the Colonel knew a good thing when he saw it. And when he met and penned a contract with twenty-year-old singer Elvis Presley, he “hadn’t just signed a deal with the Next Big Thing. He was present at the formation of the entire rock ‘n’ roll universe.”

On one hand, there’s a lot of “Elvis and The Colonel” that will make you shake your head – beginning with the propensity of authors Greg McDonald and Marshall Terrill to make Tom Parker seem eighteen feet tall and bulletproof, a veritable whirlwind of opportunistic activity. Add to that a large amount of created dialogue and things become almost comic-bookish. 

Fortunately, the story itself comes to its own rescue. McDonald acknowledges and then refutes all the negative myths you’ve heard about Parker, explaining what he knew and observed about the businessman’s shrewdness, while also admitting that the Colonel sometimes bent the rules. He shows readers the depth of Parker’s loyalty to the King, and the delayed pain Parker felt when Elvis died. These and other experiences McDonald had and the memories he shares give readers a good behind-the-scenes peek that nicely overcomes his tornado-like saga of Parker’s early life.

This is a no-brainer for anyone who counts themselves among the legions of Elvis fans, who’s been to Graceland multiple times, and has a lifetime pass to impersonator festivals. Get “Elvis and The Colonel” the next time you leave the building.


St. Martin’s Press $32.00

384 pages