Jimmy Dean, a country music legend for his smash hit about a workingman hero, “Big Bad John,” and an entrepreneur known for his sausage brand, died June 13 in Henrico County, Va. He was 81.
His wife, Donna Meade Dean, told the Associated Press that he was eating in front of the television. She left the room for a time and came back and he was unresponsive.
Dean had a successful entertainment career in the 1950s and ’60s that included the nationally televised “The Jimmy Dean Show.” With his drawled wisecracks and quick wit, Dean charmed many fans. But in both entertainment and business circles, he was also known for his tough hide. He fired bandmate Roy Clark, who went onto “Hee Haw” fame, for showing up late for gigs.
Dean grew up in a musical household. His start in the music business came as an accordionist at a tavern near Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, D.C., where he was stationed in the 1940s. After leaving the Air Force in 1948, he fronted his band, the Texas Wildcats, and drew a strong local following through appearances on Washington-area radio. By the early 1950s, Dean’s band had its first national hit in “Bummin’ Around.”
“Big Bad John,” which is about a coal miner who saves fellow workers when a mine roof collapses, became a big hit in 1961 and won a Grammy. He wrote it in less than two hours.
His fame led him to a string of television shows, including “The Jimmy Dean Show” on CBS. Dean’s last big TV stint was ABC’s version of “The Jimmy Dean Show” from 1963 to 1966.
Dean became a headliner at venues like Carnegie Hall and the Hollywood Bowl and became the first country star to play on the Las Vegas strip. He was the first guest host on “The Tonight Show,” and also was an actor with parts in television and the movies, including the role of James Bond’s ally Willard Whyte in the 1971 film “Diamonds Are Forever.”
In 1969, Dean went into the sausage business, starting the Jimmy Dean Meat Co. in his hometown. He sold the company to Sara Lee Corp. in 1984.
Dean lived in semiretirement with his wife, who is a songwriter and recording artist, on their 200-acre estate just outside Richmond, where he enjoyed investing, boating and watching the sun set over the James River.
Dean was to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in October.
Besides his wife, Dean is survived by three children and two grandchildren.