Have you seen the Academy Award-winning documentary Searching for Sugar Man about a long-forgotten folk singer named Sixto Rodriguez from Detroit, whose music became a hit during the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa? Did you know that Colorado has its own version of Sugar Man? Well, sort of. While their stories are not exactly the same, there are common threads: both were singers whose music resonated with people in foreign countries and whose tunes were used as unofficial anthems in political and social causes. Let me introduce you to Colorado’s “Red Elvis,” Mr. Dean Reed.
We’ll begin where the story ends. Dean Reed’s body was found in a lake in East Germany on June 17, 1986. His death was ruled an accidental drowning, but there was speculation that he may have committed suicide or that he was the victim of foul play. The singer, actor, director and social activist was a mega star (think today’s equivalent of Taylor Swift) in South American countries and in the Eastern Bloc of Europe in the 1950s through the early ’80s. Despite all his success abroad, however, he never achieved stardom and success in the United States.
Born in Wheat Ridge, Colorado, in 1938, Reed enrolled at the University of Colorado in Boulder in 1956 and majored in meteorology. He dropped out after his sophomore year and moved to Hollywood, California, to pursue an acting and singing career. In 1958, he received a seven-year recording contract with Capitol Records. When his 1962 single “Our Summer Romance” became a hit in South America, Capitol sent him on a tour of Brazil, Chile and Peru, where he experienced immense popularity and was ranked higher than Elvis Presley on the South American Hit Parade polls. Later that year, Reed moved to Santiago, Chile, where he was given his own television show. While there, he became politically active as a socialist and started writing peace songs and rallying for the poor and oppressed. He also openly protested U.S. foreign policy and its use of nuclear weapons.
By 1964, he was living in Buenos Aires, Argentina, with his first wife, Patricia. After his arrest in 1965 for his Marxist views, he moved to Spain and then Italy. In 1966, Reed performed a concert tour in the Soviet Union and got a recording contract with the Soviet label Melodiya Records. He was the first musician to release a rock and roll album behind the Iron Curtain. He toured countries in the Eastern Bloc, where he was considered a superstar and won numerous peace prizes.
Reed continued his political activism and was arrested a number of times for his protest demonstrations; he symbolically “cleansed” American foreign policy by washing an American flag outside the U.S. embassy in Santiago in 1970, and he protested new power lines on farmlands in Minnesota in 1978. Reed supported the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and visited Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat and PLO fighters in South Lebanon a number of times between 1976 and 1983. In addition to his singing career, Reed starred in 18 films throughout Europe and in Argentina, and acted in a number of “spaghetti westerns” in Italy. He wrote, directed and starred in the films El Cantor, a movie depicting the life of Chilean singer and political activist Victor Jara, who was shot after the Chilean coup in 1973, and Bloody Heart, a film about the Wounded Knee Massacre on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in 1890.
Reed’s popularity waned in the early 1980s. When he compared U.S. President Ronald Reagan to Joseph Stalin in a 1986 interview with the television news program “60 Minutes,” he gained negative publicity in the U.S. and started getting hate mail. The Western press nicknamed him the “Red Elvis” and the “Johnny Cash of Communism.” It was later that year that Reed’s body was found in a lake in Eastern Germany.
History Colorado has recently finished processing the Dean Reed collection, which contains thousands of photos, manuscripts, records and even some of Reed’s clothing!
Would you like to see some some items from the Dean Reed collection in person? Come to Colorado Day on August 1, 2015, from 10am to 3pm, where we’ll be hosting tables of artifacts that document the history of music in Colorado. In addition to Dean Reed photos and LPs, we’ll be displaying a show costume worn by John Denver circa 1975, a wooden flute made by Southern Ute leader Eddie Box, Jr., and a gold record presented to Colorado’s Caribou Ranch for its studio recording of Dan Fogelberg’s Windows and Walls album of 1984.
As a way to further celebrate our “Colorado Sound,” we’ll have our first-ever “Tiny Library Concert” in our Stephen H. Hart Library & Research Center during Colorado Day from 1 to 2pm! This inaugural concert will feature Boulder-based bluegrass band Boxcar 79. See you there!