Saturday, April 24, 2010

Dean Reed - The Red Elvis

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Virtually unknown in his homeland, Colorado native Dean Reed was an international rock star, actor, and leftist peace activist who enjoyed tremendous success in South America, East Germany, and the Soviet Union. Musically, Reed drew mainly from early rock & roll and country, as well as pop balladry and protest folk, a mixture that earned him the nickname "the Red Elvis." His outspoken political views were also a large part of his appeal, but it got him arrested in several countries, deported from Argentina, and kept him in perpetual hot water with the U.S. State Department. His socialist leanings, however, made him welcome behind the Iron Curtain, where he became one of the few Western rock & rollers to enjoy prominent exposure. Reed died in East Berlin in 1986 under mysterious circumstances, still anonymous in his native country; however, documentarian interest in his rather extraordinary life suggested that that might not be the case for all time.

Dean Reed was born in Denver on September 22, 1938, and later moved to Hollywood to pursue a show business career. At age 20, he signed with Capitol Records and began releasing rock & roll singles (nine total), none of which made much of an impact in America. However, one of the songs, "Our Summer Romance," was a runaway smash in South America, and Reed decided to embark on a tour. He proved so popular in countries like Chile, Argentina, Peru, and Venezuela that he wound up staying to pursue a career that eluded him in the States. Over the next few years, the newly christened Red Elvis released several singles and LPs that helped consolidate his status as one of the continent's most popular performers; he also began appearing in movies and became a regular presence on Buenos Aires television. Additionally, Reed became known for his willingness to perform for free in prisons, and was applauded for his stance against U.S. nuclear testing in the region. But his left-leaning, pro-peace politics eventually became problematic for the Argentinean government, who booted Reed out of the country in 1966.

Reed moved to Rome, where he carved out a career acting in spaghetti Westerns for a few years. More significantly, he embarked on his first tour of the Soviet Union that year as well, and became a wildly popular sensation. He also became a major headache for the U.S. State Department, as his visibility in Eastern Europe grew and as his criticism of U.S. involvement in Vietnam grew increasingly vocal. Reed began attending international peace conferences with regularity, met with Fidel Castro, and in 1973 officially moved to East Berlin. Reed continued both his singing and acting careers behind the Iron Curtain, and even periodically wrote and directed his own films, such as 1981's Sing, Cowboy, Sing. The new center of Reed's musical career became Czechoslovakia, where he usually recorded the albums that later made their way to the U.S.S.R. and East Germany.
In 1985, Reed returned to Denver for a screening of the biographical documentary American Rebel, for which Reed recorded the new song "Nobody Knows Me Back in My Hometown," written specifically about his life by John Rosenburg. The following year, Reed was slated to begin work on the self-penned film Bloody Heart. Just before production was to begin in June 1986, Reed's body was found in a lake near his East Berlin home. The cause of his death was never officially determined. In 1992, the BBC aired a documentary on Reed's life, titled Comrade Rockstar, which was written and narrated by Reggie Nadelson and later released in book form; the following year, German director Peter Gehrig put together Glamour and Protest, another chronicle of Reed's life. In late 2001, it was announced that Tom Hanks had signed with Dreamworks to star in a fictionalized account of Reed's life.

1. Dean Reed - Our Summer Romance (2:07)

2. Dean Reed - Hummingbird (2:07)

3. Dean Reed - I Ain't Got You (2:27)

4. Dean Reed - I Kissed A Queen (2:22)

5. Dean Reed - A pair of Scissors (take 18 ) (2:13)

6. Dean Reed - Donna Donna (2:21)

7. Dean Reed - Female Hercules (2:13)

8. Dean Reed - You By My Side ( La Novia) (2:51)

9. Dean Reed - Annabelle (2:05)

10. Dean Reed - The Search (2:05)

11. Dean Reed - Don't Let Her Go (2:30)

12. Dean Reed - Once Again (2:49)

13. Dean Reed - I Forgot More Than You'll Ever Know (2:27)

14. Dean Reed - La Novia ( You By My Side ) (2:50)

15. Dean Reed - Pistolero (2:09)

16. Dean Reed - I'll Be There (2:34)

17. Dean Reed - No Wonder (2:30)

18. Dean Reed - A Pais Of Scissors ( Take 17 ) (1:44)
 
Released to coincide with the German documentary Der Rote Elvis [The Red Elvis], The Very Strange Story of Dean Reed: The Red Elvis! reissues all of Dean Reed's Capitol and Imperial recordings from the late '50s and early '60s. Reed later became an international figure because of his left-wing political activism and relocation to East Germany in the '70s, but his early recordings are conventional teen idol pop sides that in no way reflect his later politics. "The Search" was a very minor U.S. hit in 1959, but that's as close as Reed came to finding success in his homeland. When "Our Summer Romance" became a huge hit in South America the following year, he followed his fame and moved to the Southern hemisphere to perform there not long after his Capitol contract ran out in 1961. Reed wrote a handful of his early songs, but most came from the pens of professional songsmiths such as Barry Mann, Barry de Vorzon, and Boudleaux Bryant. Although a few of his recordings are teen pop versions of country songs, like Bill Carlisle's "Female Hercules" and the Davis Sisters' "I Forgot More Than You'll Ever Know," and "Pistolero" is a Mexican-American story-song of the sort associated with Marty Robbins, Reed's style is pure pop. He is a capable vocalist, but sometimes goes overboard with his vocal stylings; his recording of "Donna Donna," for one, is markedly inferior to Kris Jensen's version because of Reed's overly dramatic performance. Reed's biography is fascinating, but his music will be of interest only to viewers of his documentary and the most avid collectors of teen music from the period
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