Jimmy Ray Dean (August 10, 1928 – June 13, 2010) was an American country music singer, television host, actor and businessman. Although he may be best known today as the creator of the Jimmy Dean Sausage brand, he first rose to fame for his 1961 country crossover hit "Big Bad John"; and became a national television personality in the 1960s. His acting career included a supporting role in the 1971 James Bond movie, Diamonds Are Forever. He lived near Richmond, Virginia and was announced into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2010, though died before formally inducted.
Dean was born in Plainview, Texas, in 1928, the son of George Otto Dean and his second wife Ruth (nee Taylor) Dean. He attributed his interest in music to the Seth Ward Baptist Church. He dropped out of high school and became a professional entertainer after a stint in the U.S. Air Force in the late 1940s. According to his personal website, www.deancountry.com, he was the host of the popular Washington D.C. radio program Town and Country Time on WARL, and with his Texas Wildcats became popular in the Mid-Atlantic region.
Both Patsy Cline and Roy Clark got their starts with Dean. Clark, Dean's lead guitarist, was eventually fired by the singer for what was explained as his chronic tardiness. Dean replaced Clark with Billy Grammer. Cline and Dean became good friends during the run of Town and Country Time in the mid-50s. He had his first hit, "Bummin' Around", in 1953, but had no other hits for the rest of the decade.
Dean hosted another TV variety show for CBS in New York in the 1950s, where signed with Columbia Records. For several years in the late 1950s–early 1960s, he was a host of the CBS News program, The Morning Show.
Dean became best known for his 1961 recitation song about a heroic miner, "Big Bad John". Recorded in Nashville, the record went to number one on the Billboard pop charts and inspired many imitations and parodies. It sold over one million copies, and was awarded a gold disc. 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 John F. Kennedy's bravery in World War II.
In the early 1960s, he hosted the Tonight Show on occasion and one night introduced Roy Clark, with whom he had remained friendly. His mid-1960s ABC-TV variety series, The Jimmy Dean Show, was one of the few to regularly present country music entertainers to a mainstream audience, including Roger Miller, George Jones, Charlie Rich, Buck Owens and some, like Joe Maphis, who seldom received network exposure. He is also remembered for his sketches with one of Jim Henson's Muppets, Rowlf the Dog.
He appeared on several TV talk shows and game shows, as well as performed on variety programs, including The Ed Sullivan Show and The Hollywood Palace.
Dean turned to acting after his TV show ended in 1966. His best-known role was as reclusive Las Vegas billionaire Willard Whyte in the 1971 James Bond movie, Diamonds Are Forever. He also appeared as Josh Clements in six episodes of Daniel Boone (1967–70) and as Charlie Rowlands in two Fantasy Island episodes (1981–82), as well as on other TV shows.
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 a duet with Dottie West, "Slowly" (1971); and a solo hit with "The One You Say Good Morning To" (1972).
In 1976, Dean achieved a million-seller with a recitation song as a tribute to his mother and mothers everywhere called "I.O.U.". The song was released a few weeks before Mother's Day and quickly became a Top 10 country hit, his first one 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 1969, he founded the Jimmy Dean Sausage Company with his brother Don. The company did well, in part because of Dean's own extemporized, humor-themed commercials.
Its success led to its acquisition in 1984 by Consolidated Foods, later renamed the Sara Lee Corporation. Dean remained involved in running the company, but the new corporate parent eventually began phasing him out of any management duties, a period that took a toll on his health. In January 2004, Dean said that Sara Lee had dropped him as the spokesman for the sausage brand, saying that he was too old.
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 to 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 inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Dean had three children, Garry, Connie and Robert, with his first wife Mary Sue (nee Wittauer) Dean; and two granddaughters, Caroline Taylor (Connie's daughter) and Brianna Dean (Robert's daughter). Dean died on June 13, 2010, of natural causes at his Varina, Virginia, home at the age of 81. He is survived by his second wife Donna and his nephew, country music singer Billy Dean.