frontline 19.

Dean Reed - Red Elvis

Neil Scott looks at a socialist musician who is little known in his homeland of the USA but remains a star from South America to Eastern Europe.

Dean Reed was a Rock’n’Roll star – perhaps, arguably, the most well known rock star in the world. He recorded for Capitol Records, the label who had such artists as Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Peggy Lee, The Beach Boys and the Beatles, amongst others.

Reed was friends with some of the icons we know from the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and 80’s – including Joan Baez, Pete Seeger and the Chilean singer Victor Jara who was murdered by the Pinochet regime. He had been making records as long as Cliff Richard and was much more “credible” than Richard became – he was still being mobbed by teenagers up until the mid-eighties.

Dean Reed was found dead in a lake near his home in June 1986– some say it was suicide and others – including his family – say he was murdered.

Dean Reed was no Elvis, eating his way into oblivion via greed and sitting in front of banks of TV’s watching crap programmes. Dean was known as “the Red Elvis”, but I feel this does not do justice to who and what he was.

Those who were mobbing Reed, tearing a little piece of him as a memento, were screaming and fainting in Red Square and East Berlin as well as Chile, Brazil, Argentina, Honduras and many other non-western countries.

Reed had travelled through South America in the 50’s whilst an up and coming star. He had had a huge hit in South America with “Our Summer Romance” and toured the continent. Like so many people possessed of social conscience at the time who visited the various barrios and indigenous settlements, he was tremendously affected by what he saw and pledged to change the world. He also toured prisons and became a voice against the various right wing military regimes. He promoted support for Cuba, was against American nuclear testing, and opposed the Vietnam War.

Action Hero

In 1966 the Argentinian military regime deported him and he wound up in Italy. There, he made various spaghetti westerns and then did a tour of the Soviet Union where he became a huge star and signed up to the soviet recording studio, Melodyia. He also made TV specials called “A Man From Colorado” in the GDR. He fought as a fedayeen in the Lebanon and had hobbies such as sky diving and motorcycle racing. He was a real Red Action Hero.

At the time of his death he was reportedly thinking of coming home to fight for socialist freedom in his birth country. He was thinking of helping to start a socialist party in the US – one that with the help of his celebrity, could have made some inroads.

Towards the end of his life, he criticised Stalinism in the Soviet Union, but advocated socialism – suggesting to the Soviet Authorities that they adopt a two party system like America, though instead of two capitalist parties, there should be two socialist parties. Until his death, Reed was a Marxist internationalist. He never gave up his citizenship of the country he loved, even though he hadn’t lived there for twenty-five years.

Back in the USA

On a return to the states in the ‘Seventies, he had taken part in a hunger strike after being arrested in Delano, Buffalo, after taking part in a protest in support of local farmers.

He had been thrown off a Denver talk show after an angry exchange over the causes of poverty in Ethiopia. During the argument, Reed had said that the host Peter Boyles sounded “just like the neo-Nazis that killed Berg.” Radio talk show host Alan Berg, one of Boyles’ close friends, had been shot dead in front of his Denver home 2 years previously.

Reed befriended those Americans who took part in the 1973 Sioux uprising in Wounded Knee, South Dakota . He never completed the movie about the uprising, “Bloody Heart,” but the theme song was eventually released with the title “Wounded Knee ’73.”


Some say the KGB killed him, others the CIA. Most who may know are not talking.

Reed physically fought for and was jailed and deported for his revolutionary beliefs. He was slandered and reviled by the right wing in the US and used his celebrity not to feed his face or ply himself with drugs, but to help free his fellow men from the slavery and oppression that is capitalism.


Unfortunately the rights to the movie of his life have been bought by none other than Tom Hanks. Again, I think the treatment of this icon of socialism will be harsh. Few of these self enriching stars and personalities criticise each other for greed and over indulgence (see the reverential treatment of the destructive, right-wing ‘patriot’ Elvis). However, prepare yourself to see a movie about a naïve and self promoting proponent of the crumbling Soviet system – something, in my opinion, that could not be further from the truth.

Reed said of himself, “South America changed my life because there one can see the justice and injustice, or poverty and wealth. They are so clear that you must take a stand. I was not a capitalist, nor was I blind. And there I became a revolutionary.’