Twenty fabled moments in Denver music: #12: Denver's "Red Elvis" comes home, 1985
By Mark Sanders
Over the course of the next few weeks, Backbeat will be counting down the twenty most fabled moments in Denver music history. Today, a look back at when Dean Reed (aka "Red Elvis") came back to Denver and didn't receive the warmest of welcomes.
Dean Reed was more than a Denver-born, Wheat Ridge-bred pop star. He was the self-proclaimed Red Elvis, a communist to the core whose ideals and good looks brought him more fans in the Eastern bloc than it did enemies back in the States. When he returned to Denver in 1985 after a 23-year exile, Reed appeared on a local radio show, finding a hostile audience at home and getting booted off the air. Reed was dead just a year later, thus cementing his rock-star odyssey as one of the strangest in Colorado (if not American) history.
Born in 1938, Dean Reed seemed destined for extremes from a young age. As a high-school student in Wheat Ridge, he set the longstanding record for the one-and-a-half-mile cross-country run. At eighteen, he outdid himself by winning a 110-mile foot race in eastern Colorado, against a friend riding a mule named Speedy. Reed could never have been accused of half-assing anything he set his mind to.
He was more than a star athlete, though. Reed went to CU-Boulder to study geography while also pursuing a music career. He landed a record deal with Columbia [Capitol] in 1958 and began touring. This became his focus, and soon after, he dropped out of college.
Granted, he had good reason. As a charming, criminally handsome folk singer at the peak of Elvis-era teen fandom, Reed seemed a natural for the spotlight. This was around the time of Fabian and Frankie Avalon, singers born within two years of Reed (and with oddly similar pompadour haircuts in 1960). The labels had hit on a formula, and Reed fit into it perfectly. The former track start soon amassed a fan club of 6,000 members and was touring regularly.
This is where things got weird. Reed's song "Our Summer Romance" was getting some radio play in the U.S., but it really struck a chord in South America. His interest piqued, Reed asked Capitol to send him on a Latin American tour. When the label refused, he borrowed $1,200 from a friend, booked his own tour and flew to Lima, Peru. Upon arriving, he was mobbed at the Lima airport, and 58 cops were deployed to keep fans from tearing his clothes off. "Latins Riot for Dean Reed" reads the headline in an April 1961 Denver Post article. Reed played gigs in Buenos Aires and Rio before returning home, where he stayed only briefly before heading out on the road again.
By the following year, Reed was living in Argentina full-time, immersing himself in leftist politics and writing songs that referred more often to revolution than to summer romance. In 1966, this would get him in trouble with the military, which had just staged a coup and was unsympathetic to Reed's socialist cause. Kicked out of his adopted home and increasingly alienated from his original home, Reed fled to Europe.
He spent the next few years in Italy, scoring no fewer than eleven roles in spaghetti Westerns while living in Rome. He was developing into an even more outspoken activist as well, saying in Denver Post interviews, "I'm advancing the cause of socialism through my art," and "I want to get to millions of people, to convert them." By 1973, he was living in East Berlin, the town where he would spend the rest of his life.
Reed never renounced his U.S. citizenship, nor did he ever criticize his home town. He lamented in a 1981 interview that he missed Colorado and that he would like to one day return to the Centennial State. It was a matter of principle, though: He would not return to the States until the country began adhering to his socialist ideals. In 1985, he released a song called "Nobody Knows Me Back in My Hometown."
He was not gaining many converts or sympathy, however. Popular as the singer was in the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and East Germany, Americans had little patience for Reed's diatribes, especially at the height of the Cold War.
And then he came home. On October 16, 1985, Reed stepped off an airplane at Stapleton expecting the sort of reception he had grown accustomed to in Eastern Europe. There were no screaming fans, though. No police escort was needed. His family was gone, too: His father had committed suicide two years before, and his mother had long since moved to Hawaii to begin a new life. His brothers were in the Northwest and were ashamed of Reed for his politics.
The night after he arrived, Reed was interviewed by local KNUS radio-show host Peter Boyles (who is still on the air just down the dial at KHOW). Reed was in town to promote a documentary made about him, titled American Rebel, which was premiering that week. The interview quickly went south. "The callers called me a traitor," Reed reportedly said at the time. Boyles had just testified in a trial against ten neo-Nazis who had killed a friend of his, and he was in no mood to entertain communist rhetoric. "I don't know why I didn't hit the guy," Boyles said, after removing Reed's headphones and telling him to get out of the studio.
Verbally beaten and understandably let down at the lack of local support, Reed was also concerned for his own safety here. He hired bodyguards. The Denver police patrolled the streets near the Tivoli Center the night that American Rebel showed.
Reed would see a repeat of this incident, magnified exponentially, the following year. 60 Minutes patriarch Mike Wallace interviewed Reed for a segment that documented his transformation from teen idol to revolutionary. During the interview, Reed spoke of making a comeback in the U.S. and perhaps even running for Senate in Colorado. He also spoke of the need for regime change - here in the States - and compared President Reagan to Joseph Stalin.
The hostility the story generated, coming at the height of Reagan-era anti-Evil Empire pronouncements, was too much for the singer to take. There were hateful phone calls and letters. Reed took it hard. On June 13, 1986, he was found dead in a lake near his home in East Berlin. The official cause of death was accidental drowning, though it's widely believed now that his death was a suicide. Reed was buried in Boulder, in the same city where, at CU, a $1,000 peace prize was later named for him.
Westword's Robin Chotzinoff actually spoke with Reed during his 1985 visit. One quote from that interview, seems especially prophetic, considering the circumstances of his death: "You're in trouble when you start believing your own publicity."