Col. Tom Parker, the strict, unorthodox and controversial manager who orchestrated Elvis Presley's career from 1955 until the singer's death in 1977, died yesterday at Valley Hospital in Las Vegas, Nev. He was 87.
The cause was complications from a stroke, said Bruce Banke, a longtime friend and a former executive at the Las Vegas Hilton.
Perhaps the best-known manager in show business, Mr. Parker -- universally known by the honorary title Colonel -- oversaw Presley's rise from a phenomenon in the South to a worldwide superstar. Yet many of Presley's fans resented Mr. Parker, accusing him of urging the singer to embrace shlock instead of substance, of charging the singer exorbitant commissions and of keeping Presley from touring outside of the United States.
Mr. Parker was widely reported to have come to the United States as an illegal immigrant from the Netherlands and to have feared that he would not be allowed back into the country if he went abroad with Presley. Still, Presley called Mr. Parker and his first wife, Marie, ''the finest people in the world.''
A rough-spoken, imposing, cigar-chomping businessman, Mr. Parker rarely gave interviews and was known for fabricating his background. He claimed to be a native of West Virginia and said he ran away from an orphanage to join the Great Parker Pony Circus, which he said was run by his uncle.
A more likely story is that he immigrated to the United States around the age of 20 and traveled with circuses, settling down in Tampa, Fla., and marrying Marie Mott in 1935. Among his many early jobs, he spent time as a dog catcher in Tampa, and he founded a pet cemetery. Meanwhile, he started working as a local promoter for appearances by the country singers Gene Austin and Roy Acuff and the film cowboy Tom Mix.
Mr. Parker began his management career with the singer Eddy Arnold, establishing a reputation as an all-consuming patriarch by moving in with the singer and his family in Nashville. In 1948, he wangled the honorary colonel's title from Louisiana's Governor, Jimmie Davis, and henceforth asked to be addressed as ''Colonel.'' Almost foreshadowing the route he was to take with Presley, Mr. Parker landed Mr. Arnold roles in several Hollywood movies and booked him in Las Vegas. In 1953, Mr. Arnold fired him, and Mr. Parker went on to start his own promotion company and to manage the singer Hank Snow.
He discovered Presley through the recommendation of Oscar Davis, who worked for Mr. Parker. He booked Presley as an opening act on a Hank Snow tour and began trying to persuade Presley, his parents and his manager, Bob Neal, to let him provide professional guidance.
In 1955, Presley agreed to accept Mr. Parker as an adviser. He promptly orchestrated Presley's departure from Sun, the small label where he had started recording, and arranged for him to sign a contract with RCA Records. His first single at RCA, ''Heartbreak Hotel,'' became the top-selling record of 1956, and by the end of the year Mr. Parker was his ''sole and exclusive adviser, personal representative and manager,'' their contract said.
Mr. Parker devoted his life to Presley. He sold programs and counted tickets at his shows. He arranged everything from Presley's career-making appearances on ''The Ed Sullivan Show'' to his profitable but bland Hollywood films. He persuaded Presley to abandon performing and public appearances in the mid-1960's and masterminded his comeback in Las Vegas in 1969.
Colleagues said Mr. Parker's carnival experience made him an excellent judge of character and a fearless negotiator who was able to extract unprecedented sums for Presley's appearances and interviews, building the singer into a commercial empire that was worth $35 million by 1964. The manager also gave himself good deals, taking commissions as high as 50 percent.
After Presley's death, he was sued by the singer's heirs for fraud and mismanagement, and a Memphis court ruled that he had no legal rights to the Presley estate. To settle litigation with RCA, he sold his Presley master recordings to the company for $2 million.
After his wife died in 1980, he remarried and moved to Las Vegas, where he lent his experience to entertainers and served as an entertainment adviser to the Hilton Hotel chain.
He is survived by his wife, Loanne, of Las Vegas.