Monday, June 14, 2010

“At the bottom of this mine lies one hell of a man…”

Country music legend Jimmy Dean passed away yesterday at his Henrico County, Virginia home at the age of 81. Achieving musical immortality for his 1961 country-pop smash Big Bad John, he would also go on to conquer television, film…and become a major business entrepreneur with a popular brand of breakfast sausage.

Dean was born in 1928 and spent his childhood in poverty in Plainview, Texas where he was also exposed to music at an early age, thanks to his mother. Dean taught himself to play both the harmonica and accordion, and that instrument got him his first “gig” playing at a tavern near Washington, DC’s Bolling Air Force Base (where he was stationed there) in the 1940s. Leaving the Air Force in 1948, he formed a band called the Texas Wildcats—and in 1953 scored his first Top 10 Country hit (as “Jimmie Dean”) with a cover of T. Texas Tyler’s Bumming Around.

In 1961, Dean released Big Bad John, a song that told the story of a mine cave-in and a larger-than-life coal miner who saved the lives of several co-workers by sacrificing his own. Written by Dean in a two-hour time span, it would become the singer’s biggest record, hitting not only the #1 spot on the country charts but becoming a pop smash as well. He followed John with a successful string of Top Tens that included P.T. 109 (also a pop hit), Dear Ivan, Little Black Book (one of my favorites), The First Thing Ev’ry Morning (And the Last Thing Ev’ry Night) (his last country chart-topper) and Stand Beside Me. His last record to hit the Country Top Ten was I.O.U. in 1976, a paean to motherhood that later became a Mother’s Day standard.

The success of John landed Dean an hour-long country music variety show over ABC in the fall of 1963 (he previously had both a daytime and prime-time show on CBS in 1957) that ran for three seasons, ending in 1966. Among the regulars on the show was a puppet hound created by Muppeteer Jim Henson who answered to “Rowlf”…and whom Dean often referred to jokingly as “my ol’ buddy.” (Rowlf later made his show business comeback on Henson’s The Muppet Show in the 1970s.) After the show’s run, Dean became a semi-regular on NBC’s dramatic adventure series Daniel Boone, playing the role of Josh Clements. He later spoofed his businessman image as “Willard Whyte” in the James Bond film Diamonds Are Forever (1971).

Dean began his entrepreneurial foray into the sausage business in 1969, launching the Jimmy Dean Meat Company in his hometown of Plainview. By the 1990s, he was estimated to be worth $75 million. Jimmy sold the company to Sara Lee in 1984, but by that time he had cut back on his appearances in the public eye apart from touting his product in television commercials. One of his post-sausage jobs was landing another semi-regular boob tube role as “Charlie Bullets” on the short-lived J.J. Starbuck series in 1987-88 that starred former Tales of Wells Fargo actor Dale Robertson. Sara Lee removed Jimmy as sausage spokesman in 2003, claiming he was “too old”—which prompted the singer to strike back the following year in which he informed the breakfast meat-buying public: “Somebody doesn’t like Sara Lee.”

In February of this year, it was announced that Jimmy Dean would be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in October. It will be a posthumous honor—but well-deserved nevertheless.

R.I.P, Jimmy. The P.T. 109 is gone, but you and your music will live on.

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Toby O'B said...

Apparently, Dean was jealous of Rowlf - my favorite Muppet got a lot more fan mail than he did each week.....

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

Dean had a reputation for being a bit of a hardass...the L.A. Times obit included the story about how he fired Roy Clark (several years before Clark hit it big with Hee Haw) because Roy couldn't make it to gigs on time.

Tom's Vacations said...

I forgot he was in "JJ Starbuck"!

Great tribute. My mouth is watering for one of those chocolate chip sausage-on-a-sticks - gotta pick some up and enjoy one in his honor this week.

And another song of his I like is "The Cajun Queen."


Jeff Overturf said...

I still have my Rowlf puppet from back in the day...apparently the fist piece of Muppet merchandise.

And I still have my brothers 45 RPM of "PT109".

I once saw Jimmy Dean at the Montana State a small boy I don't remember much of the concert, just my impatience that he didn't sing "Big, Bad John" till the end...I'd love to see the concert nowadays, it must have been great.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

I still have my Rowlf puppet from back in the day...apparently the fist piece of Muppet merchandise.

Satisfy my curiosity--did your Mom move out of the house when you were twelve or something? Because I can't quite wrap my mind around the concept of a mother not throwing things out.

Scott C. said...

I wasn't a fan of his music (which was fine, growing up around truckers I was abused by country & western, so I'm a little bitter) but even as a kid I thought he was the most entertaining thing in Diamonds Are Forever.

Then I got a little older, and somehow Lana Wood bumped Jimmy out of the spotlight. Still thought he was good, though.