Twenty fabled moments in Denver music: #12: Denver's "Red Elvis" comes home, 1985
Rainer Mittelstädt Dean Reed in Germany in 1978.
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.
• #20: Beatlemania at Red Rocks
• #19: Michael Jackson's secretive stay in Denver
• #18: Black Flag openers Nig-Heist get arrested for nudity 1984
• #17: Einsturzende Neubauten play '86 junkyard show
• #16: Radiohead's gear gets jacked in 1995
• #15: Grateful Dead's first time at Red Rocks in 1978
• #14: Marc Cohn gets shot in downtown Denver, 2005
• #13: Ray Charles causes a ruckus at Red Rocks, 1962
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 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.
Robin Chotzinoff's October 23, 1985 Westword article on Dean Reed.
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.