Texas Hot Country — July 2010
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A Country Music Legend Passes

Jimmy Dean has worn many hats in his 60-year country music career – singer, songwriter, TV star, actor, sausage king and businessman – but what laid the foundation of the Jimmy Dean phenomenon was a 1961 ballad called “Big Bad John.”

The tale of a drifter from New Orleans, who “got in a fight over a Cajun Queen” that “sent a Louisiana fella to the Promised Land,” carved the Texas singer/songwriter his own chapter in country music history. “Big Bad John” redeemed himself at the bottom of the mine by grabbing “a sagging timber” while “20 men scrambled from a would be grave.”

“Big Bad John” didn’t survive the mining disaster, but the song struck a nerve with radio and music fans and became Jimmy’s career record. The ballad was a No. 1 country and pop hit, and earned Jimmy a Grammy Award in ’62 for Best Country & Western Recording.

“I would have to say it was the song for me,” Jimmy says from his home on the outskirts of Richmond, Virginia. “It was by far the biggest thing I ever wrote and recorded.”

“Big Bad John” was not about a legendary folk hero that Jimmy paid tribute to in a song. The character of “Big Bad John” was based on a 6 ft. 5 actor that Jimmy met in summer stock. “I was in summer stock in a play called “Destry Rides Again,” Jimmy explains. “There was a guy in the play named John Minto who was 6 ft. 5. He was the only guy in the company that I had to look up to because I’m 6 ft. 3.

“I used to run into him in the halls, the theater and the hotel, and I’d say ‘BIG J-J-O-O-H-H-N-N,’” Jimmy says, stretching out the word. “That just had a powerful ring to it – so I put him in a mine and killed him. That’s all.”

“Where did Jimmy get the inspiration to write such a stirring ballad about “Big Bad John,” a Cajun Queen, heroism and disaster?

“I haven’t the foggiest idea. I hate to say this – but I’ve never even been in a mine.”

When the song exploded on radio and the charts, Jimmy says he was “shocked. I was totally flabbergasted. It was the No. 1 song in the world in ’61, and it had an affect on everybody.” The song was a “gigantic boon” to his career, and it landing him concert appearances at Carnegie Hall and the Palladium in London.

The appeal of the song was rather simple, Jimmy points out. “It made a hero out of a loser.”

And it also made a country music hero out of Jimmy, who was inducted into the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame in 2005. Jimmy followed up “Big Bad John” with an impressive string of hit records, including “PT 109,” “I.O.U,” “The First Thing Ev’ry Morning (And The Last Thing Ev’ry Night),” “A Thing Called Love,” “Dear Ivan,” “The Cajun Queen,” “To A Sleeping Beauty” and “Little Black Book.”

Jimmy, who was no stranger to TV with his own show on CBS in the ‘50s and on ABC in the ‘60s, turned to acting in the late ‘60s with the role of Josh Clements, Daniel Boone’s sidekick on The Daniel Boone Show, starring Fess Parker.

In ’71, Jimmy landed a role as a villain in the James Bond flick, Diamonds Are Forever, starring Sean Connery. Other acting roles include the TV movie The Ballad of Andy Crocker, Rolling Man, The City, Fantasy Island, J.J. Starbuck and Murder, She Wrote.

As far as tackling acting roles, Jimmy says, “I think we’re all actors to a certain degree.”

Jimmy was also a frequent guest over the years on several other television shows, including The Tonight Show, The Merv Griffin Show, The Dinah Shore Chevy Show, The Pat Boone-Chevy Showroom, The Andy Williams Show, Rowan & Martin’s Laugh In, The Mike Douglas Show, The Joey Bishop Show, The Ed Sullivan Show and The Patty Duke Show.

And on his own television shows, he introduced mainstream America to many of country music’s greatest stars and legends-in-the making, including Jim Reeves, Patsy Cline, Roy Clark, Buck Owens, Charlie Rich and George Jones, as well as introducing the Muppets on The Jimmy Dean Show.

But while venturing into acting and television, Jimmy stayed true to his music, and was an indemand concert performer, working with and meeting some of the biggest names in the music industry, including Elvis Presley.

“Elvis worked at the Hilton Hotel in Las Vegas while I was at the Desert Inn,” Jimmy recalls.

“He used to call me up before we’d do the last show and say, ‘Hey, Dean, why don’t you hang around a little bit after the second show and we’ll sing a few? I’ll cut a couple of numbers from mine and I’ll be there.’” Several times, Jimmy says, Elvis would wait backstage for him while he finished his show. Elvis and Jimmy would go back to Jimmy’s dressing room, and while Joe Moscheo played the piano, Elvis, backed by the Imperials, would sing. “All he ever sang were just good old gospel songs. That’s all. And it was great to listen to.” The Imperials, who worked with both Elvis and Jimmy, “were Elvis’ favorite vocal group in the world.”

Jimmy and Elvis were “good friends, and I say this with all due respect – I don’t think he had the mentality to cope with the degree of success that he attained. And I don’t think I would have either because it was humungous. It was unbelievably big.”

What was Elvis’ appeal to his fans?

“He was dynamic. I hate to use the word charisma, but he had an unbelievable amount Of it. The women were just crazy about him -- and he was a pretty good old boy.”

Jimmy changed gears somewhat in ’68 when he started the Jimmy Dean Meat Company, best known for its top seller, Jimmy Dean Pork Sausage. He sold the company to the Sara Lee Corporation in 1984, and continued as spokesperson for the company until 2004.

That same year, Jimmy and his wife, Donna Meade, wrote a book about his life in music and sausage – Thirty Years of Sausage, Fifty Years Of Ham: Jimmy Dean’s Own Story.

There’s been an interest in Jimmy Dean’s story for about 30 years, and a writer was assigned to write the book at one time. But it was not what Jimmy wanted. “The stuff just never left the page,” Jimmy says of that earlier attempt to write his life story. “There was no life in it. Donna said, ‘Why don’t we try it?’ So we did.

“She would sit here at the kitchen table with her little tape recorder and say, ‘Tell me about Washington, D.C.; tell me about Carnegie Hall.’ So, I would go into that. And then she put it all together.”

Reflecting back on his career while writing the book, Jimmy says he “found it very interesting because I started to remember things I had long since forgotten, and it was very interesting. I did a lot of things, not very well, but I did a lot of things.”

Highlights of his career include the early morning show on CBS in the ‘50s, “which started a lot of balls rolling for us, and then the ABC show in the ‘60s was certainly a plus. There have been so many things that were wonderful additions to what I had done.”

Jimmy has seen many changes in country music over the years, and the major change that he sees today is that “I seldom know who’s singing. They all sound alike to me. Thank God we’ve got XM Radio, and we listen to Willie’s Place. They play music from my era – and I know who’s singing.

“I’m not saying that Ernest Tubb, Red Foley, Hank Thompson and Hank Snow were the greatest singers in the world because they weren’t. But when they opened their mouths to sing – you knew who was singing. And I did like that.”

Born in Plainview, Texas, in 1928, Jimmy started playing piano at 10, and later learned guitar, harmonica and accordion. Some bios report that Jimmy Dean is a distant cousin to actor James Dean, which he is quick to point out, is wrong. But his father, he says, was a distant second cousin to the legendary baseball pitcher Dizzy Dean, who is a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Jimmy recalls listening to the likes of Red Foley and Ernest Tubb growing up in Plainview. And while he was in the Air Force in the mid-to-late ‘40s, he “started entertaining at those little old dives around Washington, D.C. That’s where it started. And when I got out of the Air Force, I could still get work in those dives.

“I figured that was easier and a little more lucrative than installing irrigation wells in the Texas Panhandle.”