Dean Reed was a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, to borrow from Winston Churchill. The Colorado native, a struggling singer on Capitol Records, moved from California to Chile in the early 1960s after his single “Our Summer Romance” became an unexpected hit there. The charismatic Reed moved to the left politically and became a music and film star in South America. He had similar success in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, where he became a state-sponsored star. He drowned under mysterious circumstances in East Germany in 1986 at age 47, while contemplating a return to America (where he was largely unknown until an appearance on “60 Minutes” shortly before his death).
Reggie Nadelson pulls Reed out of the historical shadows with Comrade Rockstar, a 1991 biography that she updated in 2004. She traces Reed’s rise to stardom through interviews with his mother, two of his three wives, and associates including Phil Everly, who attended acting classes with Reed in Los Angeles and sang “Bye Bye Love” in East Berlin with him.
“Ghost Riders In The Sky”, which he sang for Yasser Arafat, became Reed’s theme song in the Soviet Union. He mixed political originals alongside “My Yiddishe Momma” and 1950s U.S. hits such as “Heartbreak Hotel”. Though Reed disdained such nicknames as “Red Sinatra” and “the Johnny Cash of Communism,” Nadelson notes, it’s clear he and the Soviet leadership fulfilled each other’s needs. Reed got to be a star, while the Soviets got an American who toed the Communist Party line and was an acceptable alternative to western musicians.
Nadelson fleshes out Reed’s personal life, but his music and acting careers get short shrift. There is no discography or filmography; even a selective one combined with more artistic analysis would have resulted in a more rounded portrait.