Jimmy Ray Dean (August 10, 1928 – June 13, 2010) was an American country music singer, television host, actor, and businessman, best known today as the creator of the Jimmy Dean sausage brand as well as its TV commercials' drawling spokesman.
He became a national television personality starting on CBS in 1957. He rose to fame for his 1961 country music crossover hit into rock and roll with "Big Bad John" and his 1963 television series The Jimmy Dean Show, which gave puppeteer Jim Henson his first national media exposure.
His acting career included appearing in the early seasons in the Daniel Boone TV series as the sidekick of the famous frontiersman played by star Fess Parker. Later he was on the big screen in a supporting role as billionaire Willard Whyte in the James Bond movie Diamonds Are Forever (1971).
Dean was born in Plainview in Hale County in West Texas in 1928, the son of George Otto Dean, and his second wife, the former Ruth Taylor. Ruth taught Jimmy how to play piano at a young age. He attributed his interest in music to the Seth Ward Baptist Church. He dropped out of high school and became a professional entertainer after serving in the United States Air Force in the late 1940s. Dean was 22 and just starting in show business when he married his first wife Mary Sue (Sue) in 1950.
He had minor pop hits, such as "Little Sandy Sleighfoot" (a Christmas novelty song) and "Sing Along", later used as the theme for TV's "Sing Along with Mitch", hosted by chorus leader Mitch Miller.
In 1954, Dean hosted the popular Washington, D.C. radio program Town and Country Time on WARL-AM, and with his Texas Wildcats became popular in the Mid-Atlantic region. Patsy Cline and Roy Clark got their starts on the show. Although Cline and Dean became good friends, Clark (Dean's lead guitarist) was fired by the singer for what was explained as his chronic tardiness. Dean replaced Clark with Billy Grammer. In 1955, Town and Country Time moved to WMAL-TV (Channel 7, today is WJLA-TV) on weekday afternoons. Dean and the Texas Wildcats also appeared during 1957 on Town and Country Jamboree on WMAL-TV on Saturdays, which was also carried by TV stations in neighboring Maryland and Virginia on a regional network.
Also during 1957 while he lived in Arlington, Virginia, Dean hosted Country Style on WTOP-TV (Channel 9, today is WUSA-TV). CBS picked up the show nationally from Washington for eight months in 1957 under the name The Morning Show. Then from September 14, 1958, to June 1959, CBS carried The Jimmy Dean Show on weekday and Saturday afternoons.
Dean became best known for "Big Bad John", his 1961 recitation song about a heroic miner. Recorded in Nashville, Tennessee, the record went to number one on the Billboard pop chart and inspired many imitations and parodies. It sold over one million copies, and was awarded a gold disc. The track peaked at no. 2 in the UK Singles Chart. The song won Dean the 1962 Grammy Award for Best Country & Western Recording. He had several more top 40 songs, including a top 10 in 1962 with "PT-109", a song in honor of President John F. Kennedy's bravery in World War II with the sinking of his PT-boat in the South Pacific Ocean by the Japanese.
In the early 1960s, he hosted The Tonight Show on occasion (he was the first guest host during Johnny Carson's tenure, hosting for the first time on January 14, 1963) and one night introduced country singer Roy Clark, with whom he had remained friendly. In the mid-1960s, Dean helped bring country music into the mainstream with his 1963-66 variety series The Jimmy Dean Show. It presented country music entertainers, including Roger Miller, George Jones, Charlie Rich, Buck Owens, and some (such as Joe Maphis) who seldom received network exposure. The program also featured comedy and a variety of popular music artists, and Dean's sketches with Rowlf the Dog, one of Jim Henson's Muppets. Henson was so grateful for this break that he offered Dean a 40% interest in his production company, but Dean declined on the basis that he did nothing to truly earn it and Henson deserved all the rewards for his own work. For the rest of his life, Dean made it clear that he never regretted this decision
Dean turned to acting after his television series ended in 1966. His best-known role was as a reclusive Las Vegas billionaire Willard Whyte, inspired by Howard Hughes, in the James Bond movie Diamonds Are Forever (1971). He also appeared in 14 episodes of Daniel Boone (1967-70) in three different roles (one episode as "Delo Jones", two as "Jeremiah", and 11 as "Josh Clements"), as Charlie Rowlands in two Fantasy Island episodes (1981-82), and on other television shows including a semi-regular role as Charlie Bullets on J.J. Starbuck starring Dale Robertson (1987-88).
Dean's singing career remained strong into the mid-1960s; in 1965, he achieved a second number one country hit with the ballad "The First Thing Ev'ry Morning (and the Last Thing Ev'ry Night)", and he had a top 40 hit that year with "Harvest of Sunshine". In 1966, Dean signed with RCA Records and immediately had a top 10 hit with "Stand Beside Me". His other major hits during this time included "Sweet Misery" (1967) and "A Thing Called Love" (1968). He continued charting into the early 1970s with his major hits, including "Slowly" (1971), a duet with Dottie West, and a solo hit with "The One You Say Good Morning To" (1972).
In 1976, Dean achieved a million-seller with another recitation song called "I.O.U.," a tribute to his mother and mothers everywhere. The song was released a few weeks before Mother's Day and quickly became a top 10 country hit, his first in a decade, and a top 40 pop hit, his first in 14 years. The song was re-released in 1977, 1983, and 1984, but with minor success each time.
In January 1978, Dean hosted an all-star tribute to Elvis Presley titled Nashville Remembers Elvis on His Birthday, during which he reminisced about his friendship with the recently deceased singer and performed his own hit "Big Bad John" and "Peace in the Valley".
The success of the company led to its acquisition in 1984 by Consolidated Foods, later renamed the Sara Lee Corporation. Dean remained involved as spokesman for the company, but the new corporate parent immediately began phasing him out of any management duties. In January 2004, Dean said that Sara Lee had dropped him as the spokesman for the sausage brand because he was too old. In 2018, several years after his death, the sausage company began re-airing some classic commercials featuring the voice of Dean introducing himself and praising the product.
A Virginia resident since 1990, Dean was inducted into the Virginia Country Music Hall of Fame in 1997. Former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore appointed Dean to the Virginia Board of Game and Inland Fisheries, which oversees the state's wildlife efforts and boating laws.
In the fall of 2004, he released his blunt, straight-talking autobiography 30 Years of Sausage, 50 Years of Ham. Dean lived in semi-retirement with second wife, Donna Meade Dean, a singer, songwriter, and recording artist he married in 1991, who helped him write his book. The couple lived on their property at Chaffin's Bluff overlooking the James River in Henrico County, on the outskirts of Richmond, Virginia. On April 20, 2009, the main house was largely gutted by a fire, although the Deans escaped injury. The Deans rebuilt their home on the same foundation and returned early in 2010.
Dean, who dropped out of high school in 1946 to work and help his mother, announced on May 20, 2008, a donation of $1 million to Wayland Baptist University in Plainview, the largest gift ever from one individual to the institution. Dean said: "I've been so blessed, and it makes me proud to give back, especially to my hometown."
On February 23, 2010, Dean was nominated for the Country Music Hall of Fame; he was scheduled to be inducted in October 2010, but this occurred after his death.
Dean had three children, Garry, Connie and Robert, with his first wife Mary Sue (Sue) (ne;e Wittauer) Dean, and two granddaughters, Caroline Taylor (Connie's daughter) and Brianna Dean (Robert's daughter).
Dean died at the age of 81, on June 13, 2010 at his home in Varina, Virginia. He was survived by his second wife Donna. She told The Associated Press that her husband had some health problems but was still functioning well, so his death came as a shock. She said he was eating in front of the television; she left the room for a time and came back and he was unresponsive. He was pronounced dead at 7:54 p.m.
He was entombed in a 9-foot-tall (2.7 m) piano-shaped mausoleum overlooking the James River on the grounds of his estate. His epitaph reads "Here Lies One Hell of a Man", which is a paraphrased lyric from his uncensored version of the song "Big Bad John".
On June 24, 2014, a groundbreaking was held for the Jimmy Dean Museum, which opened in 2016 on the grounds of Wayland Baptist University in his hometown of Plainview, Texas. Dean's widow, Donna Dean Stevens, was present for the ceremony. The museum houses much of Jimmy Dean's memorabilia as well as a larger-than-life-size bronze created by Richmond sculptor Paul DiPasquale and funded by Hillshire Brands, owner of the Jimmy Dean sausage brand. The museum is funded by a gift from the Dean Family Foundation.