Today Jimmy Dean is best remembered for his brand of sausage, which he first started shilling in 1969 with folksy, often amusing commercials that made him an instantly recognizable figure to millions. Of course, millions more already knew him as a country singer.
Born in 1928 in Plainview, Texas, Dean placed enough material on the country music charts to ultimately earn induction to the Country Music Hall Of Fame in 2010, the same year as his death.
His greatest musical success came in late 1961/early ’62, when he released his biggest hit, “Big Bad John.” The second-biggest hit of ’61 and one of the top 15 of the decade overall, the song spent five weeks on top of the Billboard Pop Singles chart, two on top of the Country chart, and ten weeks at Number One on the Adult Contemporary chart.
Like a folklore tale, the song told the story of Big Bad John – all 6’ 6” of him – who was almost superhuman and saved the lives of the miner’s with whom he worked, losing his own life in the process. A stone was set up at the entrance of the collapsed mine that read, “Here lies one hell of a man.” Old John would be rescued/resurrected on a future release, “The Cajun Queen.”
Dean’s performance was part singing, part spoken-word. His bass voice was perfect for this type of song, and most of his biggest hits would be in the same vein. The instrumental backing was minimal and unobtrusive, just enough to provide a foundation for the lyrics.
His big hit would lead to his own television variety show, 1963-1966. Three years later he formed his famous sausage company with his brother. While he will always be associated with those little pork sausages, 50 years ago this week Jimmy Dean was on top of the music world.
He is buried in Varina, Virginia, overlooking the James River. On his tombstone it reads, “Here lies one hell of a man.”
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