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Jimmy Dean, the Sausage King of Country Music: Biography And Facts

Music | November 6, 2020

Some may recognize the name Jimmy Dean from the hearty sausages they use to fuel their day. The name may also ring a bell for others as the country star most famous for his 1961 novelty song "Big Bad John."  Did you know the sausage king and the singer are the one and the same? That’s correct, the famous Jimmy Dean breakfasts were created by the country celebrity Jimmy Dean himself. Dean was a man of many talents who not only paved his own way into fame, but he also established multiple platforms for other country musicians to get their start as well.

Jimmy Dean Was Born Into Severe Poverty During The Great Depression

Dean was born in Lamb Country in West Texas in 1928, but was raised in Plainview, Texas. The Great Depression struck Dean’s family hard as they could not afford electricity, and their only running water was the rain they collected in buckets. Times became even more difficult when Dean’s singer/songwriter father, George Otto Dean, abandoned the family leaving Jimmy’s mother, Ruth Taylor, to raise the children on her own. To assist his mother, Jimmy dropped out of high school after ninth grade to work on the farms. During this tough time, Dean became captivated by music especially at the local Baptist church where he always looked forward to signing hymns. Dean began learning how to play music through the church and with the help of his mother who taught him piano. As an adult, Dean joined the Airforce in the late 1940s, and surprisingly it was here where he discovered his calling. One night while stationed near Washington D.C., Dean made his first performance ever when he filled in for a sick fiddle player of a local band. Although they made a whopping $4 in tips, Dean was hooked on performing and realized he was meant to be an entertainer. 

When he returned home from the Air Force in 1948, Dean began a band The Texas Wildcats and they released the 1953 moderate hit Bumming Around. Dean later signed to Columbia Records in 1957 and released his first hit on the US pop charts with the Christmas tune Little Sandy Sleighfoot, which reached no. 32 in 1958. Along with singing, Dean loved to talk and he was able to fulfill this love as the radio host of D.C. program Town And Country Time on WARL-AM in 1954. The Texas Wildcats performed on this segment, and other country stars including Patsy Cline and Roy Clark were discovered through the show as Dean was passionate about helping fellow country musicians. The radio show became so popular that it eventually migrated into a television special in 1955 on WMAL-TV. Dean continued his love of hosting and promoting country bands through various programs. In 1957, Dean hosted the show Country Style on WTOP-TV, which CBS eventually picked up under the name The Morning Show and it eventually was played on weekday and Saturday afternoons. Dean was a true pioneer as he was even the first guest host of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, which he hosted frequently, and was the first country star to play in Las Vegas, a city usually dominated by more glamorous acts. 

Dean Makes Country Popular On His Own Television Series

From 1963 to 1966, Jimmy Dean hosted a popular variety show called The Jimmy Dean Show. Dean’s goal of the program was to branch country music out of the South and into the mainstream world. Through The Jimmy Dean Show future country legends such as Roger Miller, George Jones, Buck Owens, and Charlie Rich were introduced to the public. The show was a perfect source of entertainment as it involved interviews, comedy sketches, musicians, Dean’s own singing, and live performances from the best country acts of the day, including Johnny Cash. Some of Dean’s most iconic guests included The Muppets who made their first regular TV appearances on The Jimmy Dean Show. Dean was a huge admirer of Rowlf The Dog who frequently joined him on the show. 

Jimmy Dean Takes His Career To A New Level With 'Big Bad John'

During a flight to Nashville in 1961, an idea sparked into Dean’s mind that would completely transform his status as a country musician. For some odd reason Dean could not stop thinking about actor John Mento, known for his soaring 6’5 height, so Dean wrote a song based upon a similar character. The tune Big Bad John told the story of a man named John who killed a man, but also saved twenty other men after a mine shaft collapsed. The comical recitation song that involves Dean’s speaking voice over music was very innovative for its time as most narrative tunes were centered around dark and sad themes. Big Bad John was an immediate hit topping the American charts and reaching no.2 in the UK, inspiring many future imitations and parodies such as Phil McLain’s Small Sad Sam and Marvin Rainwater’s Tough Top Cat. Dean continued to release successful country tunes throughout the rest of the ‘60s and the ‘70s such as his tribute to John F. Kennedy PT-109, The First Thing Ev’ry Morning (And The Last Thing Ev’ry Night), Harvest Of Sunshine, and the Mother’s Day classic I.O.U.   

From Country Star To Sausage King

When the Jimmy Dean Show said its final goodbye, Dean decided to take his life in an entirely new direction. Always a businessman, Dean invested all his earnings in banks, real estate, restaurants, tree farms, and wherever he could see possible profit. In 1969, Dean and his brother Don founded the Jimmy Dean Meat Company out of a plant in their hometown of Plainview where they made and distributed pork sausages. The company flourished and soon Dean was making more money selling sausages than he ever had singing. Part of the reason the company was so successful was because of the renowned commercials that usually took place in nature with Dean improvising a humorous script. After acquiring $60 million in sales, the brothers sold the business to Sara Lee Corp. in 1984. The company continued to use Dean as their spokesperson featured in commercials until 2003 when they felt he was too old at that point. 

Dean Passed Away Right Before His Induction Ceremony

Dean experimented with acting for a brief period after his television series ended in 1966 and was most known for his part as billionaire Willard Whyte in the James Bond film Diamonds Are Forever in 1971. He also appeared as different characters in fourteen episodes of the series Daniel Boone from 1967-1970 and a couple of episodes in Fantasy Island as Charlie Rowlands form 1981-1982, but he did not pursue much more in the acting field after this. After being married to Mary Sue Wittauer for 40 years, they divorced and Dean married Donna Meade in 1991. In February 2010, Dean was nominated into the Country Music Hall of Fame, but unfortunately he did not get to celebrate as he passed away on June 13, 2010 at the age of 81, just a few months before the induction ceremony was scheduled.  

Tags: Country Music | Jimmy Dean

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Emily Morenz

Author

Despite her younger age, Emily Morenz (Emo) is a serious 1960s/1970s enthusiast who is pretty much the Austin Powers of this decade. Through her all-vintage wardrobe, obsession with old time rock 'n' roll, and her mid century bedroom and 1,200+ vinyl collection you might think she just stepped out of a time machine. Emo plays the rare gems of the ‘60s and ‘70s on her radio show on OC’s 101.5 KOCI and teaches rock ‘n’ roll history on her podcast “The Rock & Roll Sweetheart.” When there's not a pandemic, she's rockin’ out with all the middle aged-men at every single classic rock concert happening around the town, and she will battle her away to front row and dance hard. Paul McCartney even once brought her up on stage to dance...while she was in a walrus costume. You also might find Emo surfing waves, skateboarding through a neighborhood, groovin' '60s gogo style, and pretending like she can play bass. And she's obsessed with peanut butter and corgis.