Denver Magazine, June 1985
Denver's Dean Reed may be a star in the Soviet Union, but nobody knows him in his hometown.
To Russia with Love
By Sally Katzman and Susan Dixon
Although he's a superstar in a fourth of the world, Dean Reed has less going for him in his hometown than the Denver Gold.
A spokesperson for Barry Fey's Feyline Presents Inc. characterizes the Soviet-bloc-entertainer as "a faded folk singer from the '50s," and efforts to interest the Mile High media in Reed's story have fallen on disinterested ears.
Nevertheless, he's made it big on the other side of the Berlin Wall. The film and recording star has been called the Frank Sinatra of Russia. He also has been characterized as better known in the Soviet bloc than Henry Kissinger. His concerts draw sell-out crowds of thousands and his fans wear iron-on badges pairing Reed with American singer Donna Summers.
But could he fill Red Rocks on a Saturday night in July?
There's nothing Reed would like better. "I miss the Rocky Mountains, the friendly openness of the people," says Reed, who left the United States in 1962 but still maintains his U.S. citizenship. "As one gets old, one fears dying in a country not his own. But I can't have everything. I am very, very lucky to have millions of people who respect me."
The only non-Soviet citizen to be awarded the Young Socialist League's Order of Lenin for Arts and Literature, Reed nevertheless fantasizes about an opportunity missed. "I really wanted to come back and help Gary Hart campaign, "he confesses. "I wanted to be his campaign manager."
The 46-year-old Roger Moore look-alike, Frankie Laine sound-alike and Leo Buscaglia love-alike lives in East Berlin with his wife, film star Renate Blume-Reed, and though he says he would love to tour America, so far there have been no offers. "I am not a wealthy man," he says. "I make 500 rubles an album (about $600) whether it sells one copy or four million." An American tour would have to be sponsored by someone, he says, adding that he's not interested in a Coca-Cola trip.
One opportunity for Reed to return hinges on a movie being produced about him by independent filmmaker Will Roberts, of Ohio River Films in Athens. Roberts first encountered Dean Reed in Moscow in 1975  as he was walking through Red Square.
"A man was being mobbed by hundreds of people seeking his autograph, an unusual sight in the Soviet Union. 'Oh my God!' exclaimed my interpreter. 'It's Dean Reed!' When I told her I had never heard of Dean Reed, she said, 'I cannot believe that you have never heard of him! Why, he is the most famous American in the whole world.'" Roberts plans an 85-minute documentary on Reed called American Rebel.
And if the film isn't enough to draw U.S. fans, Reed's new song could do the trick. His latest hit, Nobody Knows Me Back In My Hometown, was written for him by an old friend frome Loveland. John Rosenburg and Reed were roommates in the '60s, when they both recorded for Capitol Records. When Reed left Los Angeles in 1962, Rosenburg lost touch with him, and it was until last September, when NBC World News aired a special report on Reed, that the two got in touch again.
A native of Denver, Reed was graduated from Wheat Ridge High School in 1956. He studied meteorology at the University of Colorado and had launched a budding career in the recording business before he left the United States. He had three so-so hits on the Capitol lable. In 1959 The Search reached 96 on the charts, and later Reed appeared on American Bandstand singing Our Summer Romance. Although the tune never really took off in the States, Capitol sent Reed down to South America to promote it. The song and the singer caught on, and Reed never came home.
He spent four years in South America, singing, making a movie in Mexico and being arrested in Chile while symbolically laundering the American flag outside the U.S. Embassy. The conditions and poverty in much of South America appalled him and inspired his conversion to Marxism, he says.
His first splash on the European continent came in 1965 at a World Peace Council gathering in Helsinki, Finland. Asked to calm a confrontation brewing among the delegates angered over a Sino-Soviet split, he requested the Chinese and Soviet delegates to clasp hands and join him in We Shall Overcome.
"I was supposed to sing for 10 minutes but I sang for an hour," Reed says. It was there that a Soviet official approached him and said, "We need you in Moscow," the singer relates. Thus began a trip to stardom that might never have occured in the glare of Tinsel Town. The man from Colorado has become a Soviet star, a symbol of Americana in the world of communism.
Still, he is ignored in his hometown.
Reed calls it "a conspiracy of silence."
A pacifist turned independent Marxist, Reed is believed to be anti-American. In a telephone conversation from his stateowned rented home in East Berlin on the Zeuthener See, he says, "My enemies might say that, but I think that I am the good American. I'm one who truly believes in the revolutionary traditions of our country."
Called the "Johnny Cash of Communism" by the New York Times, he laughs. "You shouldn't label a human and an artist," he says. "Just call me a singer of love songs - romantic love, love for others, love for walking in the park, love for political ideas. I'm just a singer of love songs."
Filmmaker Roberts underscores Reed's self-portrait. "Dean has been called a rock singer, a country singer, but I would call him a love singer. All his songs are love songs, and if you love mankind, you must protest injustice."
The award-winning filmmaker has traveled with Reed throughout East Europe and South America filming the story of the singer's life. Roberts says the film is more than a biographical adventure. "It is a story of cross-cultural communication and misunderstandings, a film about audiences and the way they perceive America."
Reed has been outspoken about his feelings, often putting his politics into practice. In 1966 he was exiled from Chile, where he was labeled "dangerous to the security of the nation." He has been arrested six times including once in Minnesota on a trespassing charge in 1978. Last October in Uruguay, he was arrested and badly beaten. "I don't believe being famous makes you above beliefs," he said about his recent confrontation with the law.
His mother, Ruth Anna Brown, who lives in Honolulu, says her son has always been a fighter, a champion of the underdog. She recalls a statement Reed once made. "I really have to be in there with the people," he said. "I can't enjoy my life if they are left to die."
Reed and his two brothers grew up on a chicken farm near Wheat Ridge. His interest in 4-H found him riding in the Western Stock Show at age 10, where he placed first in the jumping category. Two years later he got his first guitar. Thinking the guitar would help him overcome his shyness with girls, Reed made his first public appearance at the age of 12 at the One-Shot Antelope Hunt in Wyoming. An opera singer, also on the bill, told him not to take singing lessons and ruin the nice voice he had. The young man took her advice.
Reed enjoyed a typical boyhood, fighting with his brothers, skiing, playing basketball, running cross country in track and working out with gymnastics. He put himself through two years at the University of Colorado, playing ballads in small restaurants. In the summers, he wrangled horses and worked as a lifeguard at the Harmony Guest Ranch outside in Estes Park. In the evenings, he picked up his guitar and sang folk music.
Not afraid of challenge, Reed once won a quarter when he raced a mule from Lake City to Gunnison. The bet came about as the result of an argument one night in a Lake City bar. Reed said he could run to Gunnison and back in less than 24 hours. "I did it, too. For 25 cents I ran 110 miles in 22 hours. I must have been in great shape then."
Reed's mother remembers the story well. "I was working at the May Company selling gloves at that time. I went into the lunch room and there in Rocky Mountain News was a story of 'Boy Beats Mule In Run.' Dean, of course, never mentioned the incident to me, thinking I would worry. Although his feet were terribly torn up from the run, he had program to play at that next night and he had to go on."
So did his life. On the spur of the moment in 1958, he decided to drive to Hollywood for a visit. On the way he picked up a hitchhiker and listened to the man's story. It was a "good sad-sack case with a long history of family problems, drinking and divorce," Reed remembers. "The man said he used to be a big-time hillbilly band leader." Reed was fascinated by the story, and they made a trade. If Reed would put the fellow up for the night, the stranger would introduce him to a music publisher.
The man was true to his word. In less than a week, Reed had a contract with Capitol Records. He was put in Warner Brothers acting school, where he met Phil Everly, half of the famous duo. The two are still friends, and Everly has appeared twice as a guest on Reed's TV show.
Reed's career in Hollywood was cut short when he left for South America. He never returned. After South America, he went to Italy, arriving just in time to join the "spaghetti western" revolution in filmmaking. With his cowboy good looks, his singing talent, the ability to speak Spanish, German, Russian and Italian, and his experience as an actor in a 1965 movie made in Mexico, he easily adapted to the Italian screen. He made eight westerns. "My type was easy," he says. "The film business was easy."
In 1970 he returned to Chile on the invitation of Salvador Allende, who was campaigning for office. The people of Chile, says Reed, "changed their lives without a revolution. The socialists won power." Reed enjoyed his popularity and his involvement with politics there. He is still fond of quoting Che Guevara, who said that "a true revolutionary is guided by feelings of great love."
Revolutionary? Balladeer of love? Who is the man from Colorado?
When Allende was assassinated in 1973, it was a real tragedy for Reed. He says he also felt a great loss when his hero, Chilean martyr Victor Jara, died.
Returning to Europe, he made a film in Bulgaria in 1975 called Blood brothers, which he produced and wrote. The subject matter was the Colorado Sand Creek Indian Massacre. The film was successful, allowing Reed the freedom to make El Cantor, a movie about Victor Jara.
Eventually, Reed settled in East Berlin. Previously married, he has a 17-years-old daughter, Ramona Guevarra, living in San Diego. He and his second wife have an 8-year-old daughter, Natasha, and a 16-year-old son, Alexander.
Currently Reed is working on a Soviet-German cooperative film venture, Bloody Heart, which is about the 1973 Wounded Knee incident in South Dakota. There's much interest, he says, in the role and treatment of the U.S. Indian. "Nobody here wants to play cowboy," he says. "They all want to be Indians." Reed wrote the screenplay and also is producing the movie. In it, he will play a journalist and his wife will play a photographer.
On concert tours, Reed travels with a 30-piece orchestra, a sound he says he prefers to computerized music. Apparently his Soviet fans agree. Every other year he plays to sell-out crowds of about 16,000, and no promotion is necessary. "I like real strings, real pianos, real guitars - the human element," he says.
Although Reed's name isn't exactly a household word in Denver, there's one man here who remembers him. Ray Durkee, a syndicated radio programmer currently with KHOW Radio, was with KOSI when Reed left his country. "He sent me a postcard in 1958 frome somewhere in South America telling me how well he was doing. Nice boy. Lots of strings and things. Nice singer."
More than two decades have passed since Reed left his native land, but he still misses the familiar sourroindings of his childhood. Prior to a visit with Reed, filmmaker Roberts asked what he could bring from the United States. He suggested records or peanut butter, perhaps. "No, a tree from Colorado," Reed answered.
A 5-foot Colorado Blue Spruce now grows in East Germany on the banks of the Zeuthener See.
To some, Dean Reed is a political figure, a two-bit singer who left America to capitalize on his cowboy image and become a Red Star. To others, such as Roberts and Rosenburg, he is siply a singer of love songs, a country singer who likes strings and things. "He's a rare breed, one of a kind, a gold mine," says Rosenburg.
One of Reed's favorite singers is John Denver. "Not because of his name," he says. "But because I think he is trying to do something for world peace, too."
Making peace takes many forms. And while Gorbachev and Reagan spar, Reed just keeps on singing love songs and hoping that someday someone in his hometown will remember who he is.