Rocky Mountain News, October 27, 1985
To Dean Reed, popularity depends on the country
By Justin Mitchell
In the Eastern bloc there are no music videos. Not a surprising fact, but after Dean Reed explained there is only one video camera in East Germany, it became even clearer why the comrades cannot produce their MTV.
Reed is the former Coloradan and current socialist who is the (pick one) Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra or Johnny Cash of communism. Despite those labels and whatever radio personality Peter Boyles calls him, a radical John Davidson is probably closer to the mark.
"IF I had stayed in Hollywood I'd probably have a series by now," Reed said last week. He now lives in East Germany with his third wife, actress Renate Blume-Reed. "All the guys in my (1960) acting class, Robert Conrad, Roger Smith ("77 Sunset Strip") and Phil Everly all have a series or careers. I'd be a very normal, liberal man with his work in Hollywood."
As it is, Reed, 47, seems to be a very normal, self-described "revolutionary artist" with film, recording and concert work in the Soviet Union, southern Lebanon, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Latin America, Bulgaria and wherever else his conscience takes him. He was in town after a 25-year absence in connection with a documentary about him called "American Rebel," which premiered at the Denver International Film Festival.
Reed, who has retained his american citizenship, is really not a rebel - at least not in the traditional sense. He said his odd life has been dictated as much - or more - by chance than by choice.
A graduate of Wheat Ridge High School, Reed's first brush with national fame came in 1957 when, on foot, he won a 110-mile race against a mule and rider. He did it on impulse after being bet 25 cents that he couldn't. His mother still has the quarter.
IMPULSE SEEMS to be a driving force. An acquaintance who knew Reed as an 18-year-old tells a story of a Lake City, Colo., dude ranch where the two entertained for the summer. Someone mentioned that it might be nice to go deer hunting. Reed left and returned later with a small dead doe that he claimed to have physically run down and clubbed to death.
"He almost practiced keeping this child-like behavior alive," said the man, who asked to remain anonymous. "He was just am impulsive guy, like a teen-ager who has never changed."
But music, not racing mules or killing deer, was his real interest. With his Martin guitar Reed played dude ranches, clubs and gigs around the University of Colorado in Boulder, where he studied meteorology for two years.
It was the early 1960s and folk music and the pop pap of Paul Anka, Neil Sedaka and Fabian were popular. Again, on impulse, Reed decided to go to Hollywood.
A hitchhiker he picked up on the way hooked Reed up with Voyle Gilmer, the Capitol Records executive and producer who signed him. Reed also enrolled in acting classes taught by the late Paton Price, a conscientious objector in World War II and drama coach for Columbia and Warner Bros. studios.
PRICE'S INFLUENCE remains strong. "Paton used to tell me something that Dante once said, that the worst part of hell is reserved for those who do nothing in times of great moral crisis," Reed said.
With appearances on TV shows such as "Bachelor Father" (where he performed a tune called "Twirly, Twirly"), Reed's acting and singing career remained thoroughly second rate - at least in the United States.
In Latin America, however, Reedmania was inexplicably rampant. A Latin American chart from 1962 shows Reed topping a list of 20 popular singers. Presley is No. 2, Paul Anka is No. 3 and Ray Charles is No. 4. Sinatra is No. 10. Bobby Vee brings up the rear.
"Voyle called me in 1961 and said, 'Dean you're getting more mail from South America than the Kingston Trio are getting from the whole world.'"
Sent by Capitol Records to tour, Reed was met at his first Latin American stop by 50,000 screaming teen-agers and needed a 58-man guard to escape. Except for a five-month stay in the United States shortly thereafter (and a brief visit in 1978), he hasn't been home since.
"Why was my third record ('The Search') so successful there. I don't know? Why did that happen?" Reed asked, apparently still bewildered. He has a vague European accent now and frequently apologized for not knowing the correct English word. "In Hollywood I wasn't having success. Roger was doing '77 Sunset Strip,' Phil and Don (Everly) were doing well. For me in South America the offers were all there. So, I decided to go for career reasons."
The political change came a short time later, something Reed said was sparked by the extreme social and economic differences of Latin America and by a 1966 concert tour of the Soviet Union. Since then he has lived in Italy, Chile, Argentina, the Soviet Union and East Germany. He has recorded 13 albums (none available here), performed in 32 countries and starred in 18 films, three of which he directed. The only glimpse the United States has had of his movie work was a forgettable spaghetti Western with Yul Brynner, "Adios Zapata."
Reed, who is mobbed whenever he appears publicly in Moscow or East Berlin, seemed both delighted and somewhat uneasy about his obscurity in the United States.
He is not rich by Western standards. Excluding composing royalties, Reed makes a flat 600 rubles, or $108 per LP. But he admits to "privileged" status in the Soviet bloc. "It is as it is in any society. In the United States, Frank Sinatra is privileged. Although I am not a millionaire, I have no financial problems."
Based on one LP that Reed gave me, I would describe his recording style as unremarkable, dated by current standards. The album (recorded in Czechoslovakia) is a quirky musical collage that runs the gamut from John Denver's "For Bobbi" to a truly bad "Blue Suede Shoes" and Beethoven's Ode to Joy with Spanish lyrics. The rest is in English, with Reed often sounding like Bob Shane, the original lead singer of the Kingston Trio.
REED WOULD like to return home but is worried about his career and for the happiness and career of his wife, who speaks no English.
"I would like very much to be creative and productive here, but I have a feeling it would be very difficult to find a studio to give me any backing. My records, I don't know either. I'm going to try and talk with Phil (Everly, with whom he still corresponds) to see if he can talk with people about making a long play (LP) for the States.
"After 25 years I can more or less live in any country I choose, but as I get older I have a great fear of growing old in a country that is not my own."