Patsy Cline (left), Ted Mack (host of the popular TV show, Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour, and Jimmy Dean, circa 1955. Appearing on Dean’s Town and Country Time radio show helped launch Cline’s career.
A Hell Of A Man Himself
August 10, 1928-June 13, 2010
Jimmy Dean became so successful as a pitchman for his Jimmy Dean Sausage Company, founded in 1969 with his brother Don, that he became more identified with breakfast foods than with music. This coming October he will be inducted posthumously into the Country Music Hall of Fame, following his election to the Hall this past February, and it’s a fitting final salute to an artist whose every hit was a well-crafted record replete with the X-factor of Dean’s warm, folksy personality. When he sang or recited a song—he had big hits doing both—fans believed him, and that’s that.
Born in Plainview, TX, and raised on the hymns of the Seth Ward Baptist Church, Dean dropped out of high school to help his mother, served a stint in the U.S. Air Force, where he performed with a band called the Tennessee Haymakers around the Washington, D.C. area where he was stationed. After leaving the service in 1948, he remained in the area, performing with a new group, the Texas Wildcats. Signed to the 4 Star label, he made his country debut on record in 1953 with a Top 10 single, “Bummin’ Around.” It was his only hit of the ‘50s, even after signing with Columbia Records in 1957.
‘You Are My Sunshine,’ Jimmy Dean and Rowlf the Muppet dog on The Jimmy Dean Show, January 1964
The most overlooked aspect of Dean’s career is his role as a pioneering host of country music television shows, which broadened the audience for country music by featuring not only artists having big hits in the country market, but lower profile artists who were making exceptional music but rarely getting widespread attention for their efforts (Joe Maphis, for example). Starting with Town and Country Time on Washington, D.C.’s WARL-AM radio in 1954, Dean launched the careers of both Patsy Cline, from nearby Winchester, VA, and his band’s lead guitarist, Roy Clark, whom Dean fired for chronic tardiness, replacing him with Billy Grammer, who would go on to have hits of his own as a solo artist later in the decade (“Gotta Travel On,” most memorably). In 1957 Town and Country Time was featured on WMAL-TV and carried to Maryland and Virginia on a regional network. Dean’s weekday morning show, Country Style (later The Morning Show), launched in 1957, became its host's springboard to national recognition when it was picked up by CBS, renamed The Jimmy Dean Show, and broadcast coast to coast on weekday and Saturday afternoons. From 1963-1966 his ABC-TV variety series, The Jimmy Dean Show, predated the same network’s The Johnny Cash Show in bringing major country artists to a broad, mainstream audience—Carl Smith, Buck Owens, Hank Snow, Charlie Rich, Hank Thompson, Roger Miller, and George Jones were among his favored guests; also, the program’s comedy sketches introduced a new puppeteer, Jim Henson, and his piano-playing Muppet dog, Rowlf. So grateful was Henson to Dean for the national exposure for his Muppet that he offered Dean a 40 percent stake in the Muppets. Dean turned him down. “I couldn’t have done that to save my life,” Dean told interviewer Craig McDonald in a 2004 interview with the Australian website www.elvispresley.com. “I didn’t do anything to earn that. If I had done something to earn it I would have said, ‘Alright, fine.’ But I didn’t. A lot of people have said, ‘Well, I’ll be you’re sorry now.’ No, I am not. Because I couldn’t have lived with me. I’ve got to do things that let me live with me and shave my face in the morning.” He also had an abbreviated career as an TV and film actor, his biggest part being that of a Howard Hughes-type reclusive billionaire, Willard Whyte, in the 1971 entry in the James Bond franchise, Diamonds Are Forever.
Dean’s singing career didn’t move into high gear until 1961, when his dramatic recitation of a ballad about a larger-than-life heroic miner, “Big Bad John,” topped the charts, sold more than one million copies and won Dean a Grammy in 1962 for Best Country & Western Recording. (As per the temper of the times, Dean originally recorded the song with the spoken epitaph, “At the bottom of this mine lies one hell of a man,” but objections to the language prompted a rush re-recording in which he replaced the offending lyric with “At the bottom of this mine lies a big, big man.”) Since Big Bad John himself was no longer around for a sequel, Dean came back in 1962 with a prequel to “Big Bad John” in the form of “The Cajun Queen,” a story referenced in “Big Bad John” in a verse about a Louisiana woman whose ill-fated love affair with the big man ended with John killing a man in a fist fight and fleeing town, only to meet his fate rescuing trapped miners and losing his life (but reclaiming his reputation) in the process. Before 1961 was out, however, Dean returned to upper reaches of the singles chart with a tribute to President John F. Kennedy’s wartime heroics in “PT-109” (which played upon the “Big Bad John” fervor with its last line: “It’s hard to get the best/of a man named John," as a background chorus hums a familiar melody and coos, “Big John…”). Another #1 came in 1964 with an ingratiating love song given a pop gloss with strings and chorus, “The First Thing Ev’ry Morning (And The Last Thing Ev’ry Night),” brought home in a honeyed croon by Dean’s mellow tenor. He also had a top 40 hit in ’64 with “Harvest of Sunshine.” Moving to the RCA label in 1966, he had a Top 10 country hit with “Stand Beside Me,” and continued racking up hits into the early ‘70s. His last big hit was 1976’s “I.O.U.,” a sentimental recitation in tribute to mothers everywhere, including his own. Released shortly before Mother’s Day that year, the single became his first Top 10 country hit in a decade, his first pop Top 40 in 14 years and sold a million copies.
Jimmy Dean and Buck Opens and the Buckaroos work out on ‘Foolin’ Around’ on The Jimmy Dean Show
The success of Jimmy Dean Sausage led to the company’s acquisition in 1984 by Consolidated Foods, which became the Sara Lee Company. Although Dean remained involved in the company’s management, he was eventually phased out of his corporate duties, leading to his 2004 claim of having been dropped as a Sara Lee spokesperson due to his age. Dean filed suit. In the aforementioned interview with Craig McDonald, Dean claimed a “whole new management team came in and it was like, ‘We’re going to show you country boy, and all your people, how to run a company.’” That same year he also released a blunt autobiography, 30 Years of Sausage, 50 Years of Ham. In 2008 the high school dropout made a donation of $1 million to Wayland Baptist University in Plainview. It remains the largest gift ever given to the University. To an AP reporter Dean said: “I’ve been so blessed, and it makes me proud to give back, especially to my hometown.”
Jimmy Dean is survived by his second wife Donna; three children (Gary, Connie and Robert, from his first marriage to Mary Sue (nee Wittauer) Dean; two granddaughters (Caroline Taylor (Connie’s daughter) and Brianna Dean (Robert’s daughter); and his nephew, country artist Billy Dean. He will be entombed in a nine-foot-tall piano-shaped mausoleum overlooking the James River on the grounds of his estate near Richmond, Virginia.
His epitaph? “Here Lies One Hell of a Man.”