Jimmy Dean (August 10, 1928 – June 13, 2010)
When Jimmy Dean died on Sunday, June 13, 2010, most people recalled him as the “Sausage King,” the founder of a very successful company that took the world of breakfast sausage to a national stage and raised the standards for consistency and quality control in a previously very regional industry. If he is remembered as a country music star, it is for the 1961 mega-hit “Big Bad John” or his perennial Mother’s Day favorite, “IOU.”
If country music can be said to have a true “Renaissance Man,” Jimmy Dean was that man. Singer, songwriter, actor, television host, business entrepreneur/innovator and philanthropist, Dean was a success at whatever he tried. This year, in an honor long overdue, he was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame. Although he did not live long enough to be formally inducted, at least he was aware that the honor had been accorded to him.
Jimmy Ray Dean was born in Plainview, Texas on August 10, 1928, to a poor family, often working on local farms as a boy to help make ends meet. He, as with so many country singers of his generation, developed his interest in music through his church–in his case the Seth Ward Baptist Church. His mother taught him piano starting at age 10; he later learned guitar, harmonica, and accordion.
In order to help support his mother, he dropped out of high school and joined the Merchant Marines at age 16. When Dean turned 18, he enlisted in the Air Force, where he first performed publicly with a band called the Tennessee Haymakers. The Haymakers played venues near the Washington, D.C. base where Dean was stationed. When he left the service in 1948, he remained in the area and formed a new group called the Texas Wildcats. After developing a following with his Texas Wildcats, he eventually landed a job hosting a popular Washington D.C. radio program called Town and Country Time on WARL. He also hosted a local television show where Roy Clark and Patsy Cline both got their start (Clark was eventually fired for habitual tardiness).
During this period, Dean signed his first record deal with Four Star Records and scored his first hit, “Bummin’ Around,” which reached the country Top 10 in 1953. This record did very well in some pop markets and although it never received RIAA certification, it is believed to have sold a million copies. There would not be a follow up hit for several years as Dean turned his attention to pursuits other than recording (not to mention that he never saw any money from his records on Four Star). A few singles were issued by Four Star and by Mercury (with whom he was associated from 1955-1957) but no promotional push was placed behind any of them, so none of them charted nationally.
He hosted a TV variety show for CBS in New York in the 1950s and for several years in the late ’50s–early ’60s, he was a host of the CBS News program The Morning Show.
In 1957, he signed with Columbia Records. The first 10 singles didn’t make much of an impact, but in 1961, the eleventh single, “Big Bad John“ (backed with “I Won’t Go Huntin‘ With You Jake“) flew to #1 on both the Country and Pop charts and won the 1962 Grammy Award for Best Country & Western Recording (there were no CMA or ACM awards back then).
This was followed by a number of hit singles (and some non-hit singles). “Dear Ivan“ (#9 C&W / #24 Pop) was a hit in late 1961. “PT. 109,” a song about president Kennedy’s exploits in WWII, was a substantial hit, reaching #3 C&W and #8 Pop in 1982. Other than 1965’s “First Thing Ev’ry Morning” (which reached #1), subsequent Columbia singles were not as successful, but by then he was to busy with other activities to promote his records. Starting in 1961, he occasionally guest-hosted the Tonight Show on NBC-TV and also made appearances on shows such as The Hollywood Palace and The Ed Sullivan Show.
Jimmy Dean’s popularity led to ABC-TV giving him his own show: The Jimmy Dean Show, which aired on ABC for three seasons from 1963–1966. It was the first nationally telecast show to feature country music entertainers to a mainstream audience. Such stars as Roger Miller, George Jones, Charlie Rich, Buck Owens, Joe Maphis and many others appeared on his show. On February 24, 1964, Dean introduced the American public to Jim Henson and the Muppets and “Rowlf the Dog” made recurring appearances on the show as his sidekick.
When his television show ended, Dean signed with RCA Records, where he scored hits with 1966’s “Stand Beside Me” (#10 Country) and 1967’s “Sweet Misery” (#16 Country). He continued to issue fine record throughout the 1960s, but after “A Thing Called Love” (#21 Country in 1968), none of his records came close to reaching the Top 20.
He continued to record for a few more years, but nothing clicked for him except for a surprise hit on the minor GRT/Casino label in 1976 when his salute to his mother “IOU” reached #9 Country/#35 Pop. The record would be released again in 1977, ’83 and ’84, with modest success each time.
Although his career as a recording artist was largely over, he stayed busy with television and film appearances and live dates in Las Vegas. His best-known film role was as reclusive Las Vegas billionaire Willard Whyte in the 1971 James Bond movie, Diamonds Are Forever. He also appeared as Josh Clements in six episodes of Daniel Boone (1967–70) and as Charlie Rowlands in two Fantasy Island episodes (1981–82). He also made various other television appearances.
More important to his lasting financial well-being was an enterprise he and his brother Don started in 1969. Using family recipes, the Jimmy Dean Sausage Company was introduced via a series of humorous, folksy commercials starring Jimmy Dean himself, extolling the virtues of his “no-gristle” sausage. The company was a huge success and was sold to Consolidated Foods in 1984 (now known as the Sara Lee Corporation). He remained involved in running the company for another 20 years, eventually being phased out when the company became part of the Sara Lee operation.
Having been a Virginia resident since 1990, Dean was inducted into the Virginia Country Music Hall of Fame in 1997. Former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore appointed him to the Virginia Board of Game and Inland Fisheries, which oversees the state’s wildlife efforts and boating laws. In 2004, he released his autobiography titled 30 Years of Sausage, 50 Years of Ham. On May 20, 2008, Dean made donation of $1 million to Wayland Baptist University in Plainview, the largest gift ever from one individual to the institution. On April 20, 2009, his home near Richmond, VA was damaged by a fire, although the Deans escaped injury. They rebuilt their home on the same foundation and returned early in 2010.
He is survived by his wife (since 1991) country singer Donna Meade Dean, three children from his first wife (Garry, Connie and Robert) and two granddaughters, Caroline Taylor (Connie’s daughter) and Brianna Dean (Robert’s daughter).
All vinyl is out of print. The albums issued on Columbia and RCA are all worthwhile. The Four Star recordings (mostly 45s) are generally plagued with poor sound quality. Post RCA albums are hit or miss affairs. Buy them if you find them in good condition and the songs appeal to you.
Jimmy Dean is not well represented on CD. Currently there are three very good but hugely overlapping collections covering the Columbia Years. Complete Columbia Hits & More issued by Collectors Choice Music has 24 tracks; the Bear Family Big Bad John has 26 tracks; and Columbia’s Big Bad John which has 12 tracks.
There is no coverage at all for the RCA years, although some of the song titles occasionally surface as remakes on miscellaneous other labels. Likewise for the Four Star recordings. There was available a CD of Four Star recordings but the sound quality on it was terrible.
The Ernest Tubb Record Shop has available all of the above recordings plus some other titles, including a few which contain remakes of “IOU.”
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- Barry Mazor: OK, Jim Z. That changes everything. I surrender.
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