A lifetime dedicated to hamming it up
Jimmy Dean was a singer who couldn’t stop talking. First on radio programs, and then on television shows, he small-talked his way onto big screens and radio speakers; even his songs came to sound more like speaking than singing. In 1952, Dean convinced a disc jockey in Virginia to let him have the microphone, and within a few years his happy-clappy, knee-slappy radio banter had earned him a regional television show. A decade later, Dean was so popular that he was hosting The Tonight Show when Johnny Carson couldn’t, and anchoring his own national variety show that bounced between mornings and afternoons on ABC and CBS. “Network, Sweatwork,” Dean called it in his autobiography, and all that television work did more than pay the bills—it funded the top-hog, warm-packed sausage empire for which he’s still famous.
But Jimmy Dean wasn’t always a sausage shill or a variety showboat. He was born the year before the Great Depression started, and his part of West Texas, Plainview, had been poor for a long time before the market crashed. His family’s house was wired for electricity, but they couldn’t afford it; the only running water was what fell through holes in the ceiling when it rained. The wind blew so hard, Dean used to say, that a hen could lay the same egg three times, and when it snowed, folks around Plainview said that the drifts piled high enough to bury a man and the horse he was riding. Dean’s mother made him shirts from used sugar sacks, and she refused to let him take nicer clothes from the W.P.A. when it came to town; his father abandoned the family when Dean was eleven, and so he went to work pulling cotton, milking cows, and cleaning chicken houses. Wednesdays and weekends were when he learned music, singing hymns at the local Baptist church during night prayer meetings and morning worship.
At sixteen, Dean left for boot camp on Santa Catalina Island, California. He joined the Merchant Marines, and later the Air Force. One night, when he was stationed near Washington, D.C., the fiddle player of a local band got sick, and Dean got the chance to substitute. Four dollars in tips was all he earned the first time he performed, but he’d spend the rest of his life looking for an audience. He and the band played bars and tobacco barns around the country before finally getting the chance to record an album that got national radio play; a few records later, a solo Dean was performing at country fairs, rodeos, and casinos, singing wherever he could find a crowd.
His hits spanned from his first, the freewheeling, bachelor-extolling “Bummin’ Around” to his last, the meandering, mother-applauding “I.O.U.” He sang every kind of story song: recounting the generic valor of a Marine named “Oklahoma Bill,” revisiting the specific heroism of JFK aboard “P.T. 109.” even begging for peace from a Russian everyman he addressed as “Dear Ivan.”
There was a single song, though, that made Jimmy Dean’s career. The way he told it, he was flying to Nashville in 1961 when he realized he needed another track for a four-pack. Desperate for an idea, he kept thinking of an actor he knew named John Mento. At six-five, Mento was taller than most men, including Dean, and he had a name that just wanted a few extra syllables: Big Johhnn, at least, but maybe even Big Johhhhnnnn. Dean pulled an airplane advertisement from the seat back in front of him, and by the time he landed, he’d written “Big Bad John,” giving his pal Mento an extra inch and a few extra pounds, not to mention an alternate career as a miner and the kind of death worth singing about.
“Every morning at the mine you could see him arrive,” the song begins, and hammer strikes steel steadily in the background as Dean narrates John’s bigness and badness. John killed a man before coming to town, but then saves twenty other men when a mineshaft collapses. Big, Bad, John: it’s all one, two, and three every time Dean hammers the hero’s name. It’s a saga-and-a-half song: bigger and badder than Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “Sixteen Tons”; louder and sadder than any version of “John Henry.” Within a few weeks of its release, “Big Bad John” topped the country and pop charts, and the next year it won Dean a Grammy. He released two sequels—one about John’s lover Queenie, who kisses him back to life at the bottom of the mine, the other about his size-thirteen-shoe-wearing son who carries on the family legacy—but neither did quite as well as the original.
Dean took all the money he made from his lyrical and televised mines and invested in everything he could: banks, real estate, racehorses, restaurants, limousines, a lime grove, even a Christmas tree farm. But it was four years after his biggest hit, on Christmas Day in 1965, that a cousin offered him the investment that shaped his legacy. Dean bought into a hog farm, and the jokes wrote themselves faster than the paychecks. The Jimmy Dean Pig Parlor made a little money at first, but then the meat market failed, and the country star started to go broke one hog at a time: “It was like attaching a twenty dollar bill to his tail and saying, ‘Bye.’”
Dean thought it over, and decided he could make his own market. He already had the hogs, he just needed to turn them into something he could market directly to consumers. One ad-libbed ad at a time, Dean started begging Americans to give his sausage a try, and soon enough he was doing more selling than singing. He was a tag-line factory, a sayings machine. He hated focus groups, refused scripts of any kind, and wouldn’t even use cue cards; he liked to sit down in front of the camera and start talking. The advertisements were homegrown, homespun, and home runs: the sausage sold so well that Dean began driving a “SSG KING” vanity plate and said every day of his life was “ground hog day.”
Jimmy Dean became more brand than band, and eventually the Sara Lee Corporation bought both. For three decades, Dean remained the company spokesman, though in 30 Years of Sausage, 50 Years of Ham, he explains how the company decided to keep his name but not him. It was the second time he’d found himself besieged by the business: this time forced out entirely, but years earlier forced to buy his way back in after a family dispute he detailed publicly, poetically in a spoken word number called “Don’t Go into Business with Kinfolks.”
It was a bitter end to a saccharine career, and the man who’d done more to promote country music on mainstream television than almost anyone somehow couldn’t find his way back to the genre that had started and sustained him. Other country artists kicked and screamed their way out of the sixties and seventies, rough and tumbling their cornpone songs into country rock and an outlaw sound, but Dean never did. There weren’t any more chart-toppers after the talky he wrote his mother, that chatty “I.O.U.” number recorded in 1976 that is still today a staple of Mother’s Day radio play, but there was one more song. Dean wrote it with his wife, and although it started as an unassuming alma mater for the high school near where they retired, “Varina” became “Virginia,” and the Deans tried to have their work declared the state song for the Old Dominion. Jimmy Dean might’ve stopped singing, but he never gave up trying to talk his way into something bigger.