Elvis Presley: Where did the millions go?
by Sheldon Rocha Leal
Over the years, there have been many reports about the way in which many superstars have been taken advantage of, resulting in long-term financial woes. Stories about people like Toni Braxton or TLC who were declared bankrupt at the height of their recording success, or the financial woes suffered by the likes of Elton John or Willie Nelson. The music industry is vast and encompasses many different and varied interdependent structures, so it is no surprise that artists could get lost in this web we like to call the music business.
The story that has fascinated me the most is that of the King of Rock ‘n Roll, Elvis Presley. What initially peaked my interest was a story that claimed that Elvis Presley was almost broke when he passed away in 1977. Surely that could not be true?! He was, after all, the King of Rock ‘n Roll?! The story really messed with my mind. I had always thought that The King was invincible. But on further research I discovered that the latter story was actually true.
Elvis Presley was managed by an illegal immigrant, the Colonel Tom Parker. He was a Dutch immigrant that never got full residency in the USA. For that reason, Elvis Presley never toured outside the USA. The Colonel had a fear that if Elvis toured outside the USA, he may be denied reentry into the country.
Elvis was very loyal to The Colonel and used to give him all the credit for his success, claiming that he would have never become the international superstar he became had it not been for The Colonel.
What Elvis Presley didn’t know was that The Colonel was helping himself to millions of his dollars.
Elvis Presley sold anywhere between 600million to 1billion records (combined singles and album sales) in his career. The King was not a songwriter, but had a policy of buying out all the publishing rights of songs he recorded, from the original authors. This therefore meant that not only did he make money from the sale of his albums, but he would make money off the public performance of these songs. He also made money from versions of these songs recorded by other artists. For all intents and purposes, this should have made Elvis Presley a very wealthy man, yet when he passed away in 1977, the King was down to his last $1million and prior to his death The Colonel was forced to negotiate a $750,000 deal with a Las Vegas hotel, in which Elvis would be performing live, in order to generate much needed money.
Gambling, his over generous nature and drug addiction were all a part of his financial demise. That being said, the money he generated in his career would have been enough to sustain him through any of these addictions. The problem, however, was that his father, Vernon Presley, and manager, were enabling his problems, feeding on his weaknesses and profiting on the side.
After Elvis Presley’s passing in 1977, various court cases were initiated, exposing under handed dealings by the Colonel and Vernon Presley. One of these court cases was an investigation of Elvis Presley’s financial matters, which revealed the extent of the deception and unfair practices to which the King had been subjected to by his manager and dad.
One of the findings of the case was that the Colonel was initially taking a 25% commission for any work generated, at the beginning of Elvis’ career (which was considered exorbitant). Towards the end of his career, the Colonel was taking a 50% commission, which was considered completely exploitative.
The most astonishing revelation in this case was the sale of Elvis Presley’s publishing, in 1972, back to RCA (Elvis’ recording company). Elvis was forced to sell the publishing to generate much needed income. This was an ill informed decision, considering publishing generates consistent annual income, especially the publishing that was sold to RCA, which consisted of 700 songs, of which some were the top hits of the 1950s and 1960s. The publishing was sold to for $10.5million, which at the time was considered to be the biggest giveaway of all time. But there’s more…Out of the ridiculous $10.5million figure, Elvis received $4.5million and the Colonel received $6million.
Besides for being super generous, giving away cars, jewelry and houses, he was over reliant on his advisors. Whenever he ran into financial trouble he would approach his manager to negotiate a deal on his behalf. These deals generated a lot of money. Elvis would get $130,000 for a one night performance, he could received $1million for a movie deal and $250,000 to do a recording session. All financial decisions were made by the Colonel. It was found that the Colonel and Vernon Presley were in cahoots with each other and that toward the end of Elvis’ life, when they knew that he was at his worst, they plied him with drugs so that he could complete shows, for which they had booked him.
When considering the career of someone as legendary at Elvis Presley it makes me sad to think that there are so many opportunists in this industry (or any industry for that matter). Elvis was a teenager when he was originally discovered and relied on the wisdom of others to sustain his career. Artists are generally quite sensitive souls and to think that people, like the Colonel and Elvis’ own father, who should know better, take advantage and exploit these people for financial gain really saddens me. The reality is that if they had taken proper care of the King, he would still be alive today and would have generated so much more money, that would have benefited all the people around him and more. Instead short term gain was prioritized. People are greedy and this greed is like a cancer that eats away at the core of our society. Hopefully we are able to learn from these stories.
RIP Elvis Aaron Presley…