According to numerous reports, country music singer turned sausage impresario Jimmy Dean died yesterday at his Virginia home. He was 81. Dean got his start in country music when his band, The Texas Wildcats, became a popular local draw in Washington, D.C. and scored the 1953 hit, “Bummin’ Around.” That led to Dean hosting the D.C.-area radio (and eventually television) program Town And Country Time, which soon became famous for its showcase performances featuring a young singer named Patsy Cline. While Dean didn’t have another hit song for the rest of the ’50s, he continued developing as a TV personality with his work for CBS, where he hosted The Morning Show for several years. In 1961, Dean released what would prove to be his signature song: The No. 1 hit “Big Bad John,” a modern American folktale about a heroic coalminer that nabbed Dean a Grammy (and saved his contract at Columbia Records from falling apart).
The success of “Big Bad John” preceded a string of Top 40 hits in the ’60s—including the JFK-saluting “PT-109”—and soon Dean was guest-hosting The Tonight Show and being handed his very own primetime variety series on ABC, The Jimmy Dean Show, which became known both as a place where country stars like Roger Miller and George Jones were introduced to mainstream audiences, and as the show where America first met a Muppet, when a young puppeteer named Jim Henson debuted a piano-playing dog named Rowlf.
Dean was also an actor in movies and on TV shows such as Fantasy Island, most notably playing the Howard Hughes-like billionaire Willard Whyte in the James Bond film Diamonds Are Forever. And while Dean would continue to produce hits—most of them recitation songs along the lines of “Big Bad John”—up until the perennial Mother’s Day favorite “I.O.U.” in 1976, it was his founding of the Jimmy Dean Sausage Co. in 1969 that probably most defines his career to today’s generation. For decades, Dean was a comforting presence on American televisions, offering “country goodness” and folksy humor in commercials for his products until 2004, when Sara Lee—which has acquired the company some 20 years earlier—decided he was too old to continue as its spokesman and dropped him. (And anyway, it’s hard to imagine Jimmy Dean arguing for the “country goodness” of Chocolate-Chip Pancakes and Sausage On A Stick.)
In recent years, Dean wrote a typically self-deprecating autobiography, 2004’s 30 Years Of Sausage, 50 Years Of Ham, and lived in mostly quiet retirement in Virginia. Dean was inducted into the Country Music Hall Of Fame in February of this year.