Jimmy Dean, 1928–2010
The country star who got rich on sausage
He was a singer, songwriter, actor, and country music legend, but Jimmy Dean wasn’t content just to make music. In his spare time, Dean was also an early television pioneer and an entrepreneur who launched his own successful breakfast sausage company. “He had a lot of talents,” said his wife, Donna Meade Dean.
Born Seth Ward in Olton, Texas, Dean grew up poor in nearby Plainview. “His mother taught him how to play piano at age 10,” said MTV.com, “and along the way he picked up guitar, harmonica, and accordion, dropping out of school in the ninth grade.” Dean was stationed at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, D.C., in the 1940s. After leaving the Air Force in 1948, he and his band, the Texas Wildcats, developed a following in the Washington market, playing in taverns and appearing on local radio programs.
Dean’s debut single, “Bummin’ Around,” reached No. 5 on Billboard’s country chart in 1953. He began hosting Town and Country Time, a three-hour television show that aired in Washington on Saturday nights. Dean soon moved to New York, where he signed with Columbia Records and hosted The Morning Show, a variety program on CBS. And in 1961, he scored a No. 1 hit on the pop and country charts—“Big Bad John”—about a miner who rescues his co-workers after a mine roof collapses. The song, which Dean co-wrote with Roy Acuff, was a million-seller and won a Grammy. In addition to headlining concerts at Carnegie Hall and the Hollywood Bowl, Dean “became the first country star to play on the Las Vegas strip,” said the Associated Press, and “the first guest host on The Tonight Show.” Dean hosted the nationally televised Jimmy Dean Show in the early 1960s and acted in films, including the 1971 James Bond film, Diamonds Are Forever. Elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in February, he was scheduled to be inducted in October.
“As his music career began to wind down, Dean returned to the thing he knew best: hog,” said MTV.com. Dean, who had grown up grinding pork on his family’s farm, opened the Jimmy Dean Meat Co. in Plainview in 1969, and his sausage became a breakfast staple from coast to coast. He sold the company to the Sara Lee Corp. in 1984, and by the early 1990s Dean’s fortune was estimated at $75 million. Dean, who died on his 200-acre estate in Virginia, had vowed never to “get old and broke” like other musicians he’d known. No one, he said, is “going to play a benefit for Jimmy Dean.”