Dubbed the “Red Elvis” by the Western press, American-born vocalist Dean Reed was the most popular singer in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union throughout the 1970s and early 1980s. Millions of people bought his albums and saw his films. His concerts were sellouts and he was mobbed wherever he went, yet he was unknown in his native country.
Reed was born on September 22, 1938, in Wheat Ridge, Colorado, a suburb of Denver. He led a fairly average childhood; he was involved in the Boy Scouts, the 4-H Club, and the Future Farmers of America and was a high school track star. In 1958 he dropped out of the University of Colorado and went to Hollywood where he landed a screen test at Warner Bros., which thought enough of him to send him to “star school” on the studio lot. At acting school, which he attended with Jean Seberg and singer Phil Everly, Reed got his first taste of left-wing politics from instructor Paton Price. While some attribute Price with a Svengali-like influence over Reed, he certainly laid the foundation for Reed’s future radicalism. Meanwhile, Reed signed a recording contract with Capitol in 1958 and also appeared on television shows such as Bachelor Father.
Reed made the charts with his third single for Capitol, “Our Summer Romance,” released in 1959. While the song enjoyed success in the United States, it proved to be so popular in South America—especially Chile where it went gold—that Reed decided to tour the continent. When he arrived in Santiago in 1962 he was hailed as a teen idol, and quickly became more popular than Elvis Presley. More important, in Chile Reed’s burgeoning left-wing political consciousness increased during meetings with poet Pablo Neruda and folk singer Victor Jara. In Comrade Rockstar, Reed biographer Reggie Nadelson quoted Reed as saying that in South America: “I saw poor people crawling on their bellies with their last little bit of something for the church.”
Throughout South America Reed became known as “Mr. Simpatico” by leftist fans. From Chile he moved on to Argentina, where he again raised the socialist banner in a country dominated by the political right wing. While he enjoyed almost unprecedented success in South America, it was in Eastern Union and the USSR where Reed hit the apex of his career. During the Cold War he was a major pop star behind the Iron Curtain while a virtual unknown in the West.
Legend has it that in 1965, while attending the World Peace Conference in Helsinki, Finland, Soviet Komosol (Communist Youth League) director Nikolai Pastroukhov discovered Reed singing in a nearby park and brought him to the conference where Reed sang “We Shall Overcome” before the assembled delegation. Other accounts have Reed as a delegate from
For the Record…
Born Dean Cyril Reed on September 22, 1938, in Wheat Ridge, CO; died on June 12, 1986, in East Berlin, German Democratic Republic (GDR); son of Cyril Dale (a schoolteacher) and Ruth Anna (Hanson) Reed; married Patricia, 1964; marriage ended; married Wiebke, 1973; marriage ended; married Renate Blum (an actress), 1981; children: (first marriage) Ramona, (second marriage) Natasha. Education: Attended the University of Colorado.
Signed with Warner Bros, and Capitol Records, 1958; acted in television programs, late 1950s; released debut single “The Search,” 1959; “Our Summer Romance” went number one in Chile, 1959; traveled to South America, 1962; sang at the World Peace Conference in Helsinki, Finland, 1965; first Moscow performance, 1965; signed with Melodiya Records (USSR), 1966; acted in films produced in Mexico, Argentina, Italy, Spain, and GDR, 1964-84; recorded with Supraphon (Czechoslovakia) and Amiga (GDR) labels, 1972-86.
Awards: Lenin Prize, 1978.
Argentina. Either way, it was Pastroukhov who brought Reed to the Soviet Union where his rugged good looks, his passionate socialism, and his American music assured him of success. In 1966 Reed signed a contract with Soviet State-run record company Melodiya; he even appeared on Soviet television. Reed took Eastern Europe by storm the way the Beatles conquered the United States, and was even viewed by communist authorities as an antidote to the Beatles.
Reed relocated to Europe in 1966, living first in Spain then in Italy where he acted in B-movies—spaghetti westerns, thrillers, gangster movies, and even a pirate film—and costarred with Yul Brynner in Adios Sabata, Anita Ekberg in Death Knocks Twice, and Ringo Starr in II pistolero cieco. Reed continued to make films throughout his career, though after 1973 they were nearly all produced in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), where he had resettled.
Despite his work as an actor, it was his singing career that catapulted Reed to prominence and kept him there for two decades, idolized by millions of Russians and Eastern Europeans who thought him the most famous American in the world. So popular was he in the Eastern Bloc that by the 1980s Reed had come to refer to himself as “the Frank Sinatra of Russia.” Meanwhile, in the United States his career had gone stagnant. He was dropped from Columbia Records despite charting with “Our Summer Romance,” and his final American release was on the Imperial label. From then on he recorded in Mexico, Chile, Venezuela, Spain, and the Soviet Union, in Czechoslovakia for Supraphon, and in the GDR for the Amiga label. Reed sang 1950s and early 1960s rock ‘n’ roll such as “Tutti Frutti” and “Blue Suede Shoes,” country and western, and folk and protest songs. His albums sold millions of copies throughout the Eastern Bloc and allowed Reed to live a comfortable life. The privileges he received as a government-sanctioned music star were further enhanced by the fact that he never renounced his American citizenship. Because Reed maintained his United States passport and filed annual tax returns with the IRS (claiming zero income), he had freedom of travel to the West.
On a trip to the United States in 1978 Reed was arrested for trespassing on a nuclear power plant in Minnesota during a protest. After he chose jail time rather than post bail, his case became a cause celebre in the USSR. Several prominent Soviet artists, including ballerina Maya Plisetskaya and conductor Maxim Shostakovich, sent a telegram to then-President Jimmy Carter asking for Reed’s freedom as a “courageous fighter for human rights.” The Minnesota protest was one of a series of similar actions on Reed’s part. These included protests against right-wing regimes in South America and anti-Vietnam War protests at United States embassies in Santiago and Rome.
In 1983 Reed returned to Chile to show his support for the workers and students during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. The police immediately detained him, and though he was soon released, he was denied a work permit. One of the victims of the Pinochet terror was Victor Jara, whom Reed had portrayed in the 1977 film El Cantor. Reed returned to Chile in part to honor his friend by singing protest songs such as the revolutionary anthem “Venceremos.” Without a work permit he sang for free at crowded union halls and campuses until Chile’s rulers tired of him and had Reed arrested and deported.
By the mid-1980 Western musical influences had begun to seep through the Iron Curtain, which eroded the fan base of the aging Reed. His music, always outdated by Western standards, now seemed old-fashioned in the East, too. Reed also began feeling homesick, confiding that he did not want to end his days in East Germany. To that end he began laying the groundwork for a return to the United States that would also revive his career. In 1985 Reed attended the Denver Film Festival, which premiered American Rebel, a documentary film about Reed by Will Roberts. While in Denver he reestablished connections with old friends, then toured the United States with the film. Reed planned to eventually tour colleges and universities where he expected to find audiences sympathetic to his political views.
In February 1986 Reed was interviewed by Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes; the interview was broadcast the following April. While Reed had hoped to use the interview as a springboard for his American comeback, his plan backfired when he compared President Ronald Reagan with Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. Reed appeared politically naive and a puppet of the Soviet regime, something he usually took pains to deny. The almost universally negative response to the interview was forwarded to Reed in May and June 1986, daunting his plans for a successful American homecoming.
The months following the 60 Minutes broadcast were stressful ones for Reed, and by early June of 1986 he began to show signs of emotional instability. His third marriage was coming apart and the official backing for his latest film, Bloody Heart, was not as enthusiastic as his earlier ventures had been. Following an argument with his wife on the evening of June 12, Reed set out in his car to the home of Gerrit List, producer of Bloody Heart. Reed never made it. Five days later his body was discovered in a lake near his home. While the official word was accidental death, within days rumors began flying that Reed had been murdered by the Stasi, the KGB, or the CIA. Some believed Reed had committed suicide, and while circumstantial evidence points to this, the true cause of death was never established.
Reed was married three times, fathering daughters Ramona and Natasha by his first two wives: Patricia, whom he married in Hollywood in 1964, and Wiebke, whom he met in Leipzig in 1971 and married two years later. Reed’s third wife was the actress Renate Blum, whom he married in 1981. Blum and Reed had worked together in 1974 on the film Kit & Co. and were set to star in Bloody Heart. However, Reed died less than two weeks before production of the film was scheduled to begin.
During his career Reed recorded more than 30 singles and 14 albums and performed in more than 30 countries. He even gave a performance for Palestinian Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat, singing “Ghost Riders in the Sky” and “Yiddishe Momma” for the rebel leader and his bodyguards. In 1978 Reed was awarded the Lenin Prize for Art and Literature, the Soviet Union’s highest civilian award.
Evaluations of Reed’s talent run the full gamut. Most Western critics who are aware of him, as well as younger Russian critics, tend to dismiss him as a second-or third-rate talent, a product of the Soviet regime. Certainly Reed compromised himself by relying too heavily on the formulaic in both his films and his music, and by mouthing the platitudes of the Soviet government. However the crowds drawn to his performances by his enormous popularity were undeniable; as his old friend Phil Everly was quoted as saying in Comrade Rockstar: “You can’t fool crowds that size, not anywhere.”
“The Search”/“Annabelle,” Capitol, 1959.
“Our Summer Romance”/“I Ain’t Got You,” Capitol, 1959.
“Don’t Let Her Go”/“No Wonder,” Capitol, 1960.
“Female Hercules,”/“La Novia,” Capitol, 1961.
“I Forgot More than You’ll Ever Know”/“Once Again,” Imperial, 1961.
Dean Reed, Melodiya, 1972.
Dean Reed a jeho svet, Supraphon, 1977.
Dean Reed Sings Rock ‘n’ Roll, Country & Romance, Melodiya; reissued, Amiga, 1980.
We Will Say Yes, Melodiya, 1981.
Country, Amiga, 1982.
Es gibt eine Liebe, die bleibt, Amiga, 1984.
Country Songs, Amiga, 1986.
Nadelson, Reggie, Comrade Rockstar: The Search for Dean Reed, Chatto & Windus, 1991.
Ryback, Timothy W., Rock around the Bloc, Oxford University Press, 1990.
Independent, March 9, 1991, p. 27.
Los Angeles Times, June 18, 1986, sec. 2, p. 6.
Newsweek, June 8, 1981, p. 71.
New York Times, January 10, 1984, p. C11; June 19, 1986, p. B9.
Times (London, England), February 22, 1992; February 29, 1992.
Washington Post, November 12, 1978, p. A20; November 15, 1978, p. A29.
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