(Image credit: Associated Press)
Jimmy Ray Dean was born August 10, 1928 to George Otto and Ruth Taylor Dean in Seth Ward, Hale, Texas which lies just outside of Plainview. At that time, the family was to be operating a farm. Ruth was Otto’s second wife, but by the time Jimmy was 11 or 12, Ruth was listed as a single parent, working as a seamstress out of her home in Seth Ward. From that point on, the family consisted of Ruth, her sons Jimmy and Don. Ruth later is said to have become a barber to support her family. At an early age, Jimmy learned to play the piano, accordion, harmonica and guitar as he worked around the family farm. He was active in the local Baptist church there in Seth Ward and attributed his interest in music to his mother and the music in church.
Jimmy dropped out of school at age 16. He enlisted and spent two years in the Merchant Marine. He left that service and then enlisted in the United States Air Force. One of his first musical engagements was at a bar outside Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, D. C. He is said to have filled in on his accordion for a fiddler who had gotten sick. He remembers that he made $4 in tips on this date. He began playing in local joints in the Washington, D. C. area.
After leaving the Air Force, he played in a band called the Tennessee Haymakers and a little later for a band called the Texas Wildcats, which played at county fairs and the like. In 1957, Jimmy and the Texas Wildcats were hired to appear on an early CBS television show that was scheduled to be slotted opposite the first hour of NBC’s “Today” show. This was Jimmy’s first exposure on national television and the show lasted about two years. His folksy, homespun banter and music was endearing to his followers.
Jimmy recorded a number of songs including “P. T. 109,” a ballad about President John F. Kennedy in World War II. He also recorded “I. O. U.” which was dedicated to his mother, Ruth. His best known hit was “Big Bad John,” a 1961 ballad about a miner who saves the lives of his fellow workers after a cave-in. Jimmy told of writing the song in an hour and a half while on an airplane flight to Nashville to do a recording session. It was a runaway hit, spending five weeks as number one and was a million selling single.
Jimmy was well known as a television performer. He first appeared on a made for television movie called “The Ballad of Andy Crocker” before appearing in fifteen episodes of Fess Parker’s series “Daniel Boone.” After one feature film (“Diamonds are Forever”) and two made for television movies, he appeared in nine episodes of a detective series called “J. J. Starbuck.” Jimmy appeared on many entertainment series including his own “Jimmy Dean Show” that aired 80-90 episodes from 1963 to 1966 and featured many country and popular artists. He is credited for advancing the careers of many artists and performers, including puppeteer Jim Henson, whose creation Rolf the dog was a recurring character on Jimmy’s variety show. Before, during and after his own show, Jimmy was a regular on many of the talk and variety shows including the “Tonight Show” with Jack Parr and Johnny Carson, Dinah Shore’s series, Joey Bishop’s show and many others.
In 1969, Jimmy, his brother Don and Troy Prichard formed a partnership that became the Jimmy Dean Meat Company, originally operating out of Plainview. Jimmy’s interest in the business dated back to his having grown up on a farm back in Texas. More recently, he had survived a failed investment in a hog farm. Not discouraged, this gave him the idea for the sausage venture. It quickly became one of the largest packing companies in the southwest. Jimmy did a number of the promotional spots himself and reportedly preferred to speak off the cuff rather than use cue cards or prompters. The operation was a success and was referred to as the largest sausage sellers in Texas.
The operation was not without its difficulties, however. Jimmy and his brother Don, who previously had served as president of the company, had conflicts. Jimmy had bought out Don around 1976 after which Don took issue with comments Jimmy had made about Don’s former management of the company. Newspaper reports state that Don sued Jimmy for slander and libel, though the suit was later settled. As part of the 1980 settlement, the brothers agreed to make no comments about the litigation, among other provisions. However the conflict was revived a few years later when Don alleged that Jimmy had breached the terms of the settlement. According to a UPI report, Jimmy was ordered to pay a certain sum to his brother. There were some later legal actions filed, but no other major litigation between the two. The brothers are said to have never reconciled before Don’s death in 1994.
Jimmy had remained active in the meat company until he sold all but one of his shares in 1984 to Consolidated Foods, which later became the Sara Lee Corporation. The company phased out his folksy commercials. Eventually, after his death, Sara Lee brought some of the video spots back. The meat company was later made part of a unit known as Hillshire Foods which was in turn acquired by Tyson Food Service. Jimmy’s name and image are still featured in product promotions. Here’s a link to one of his commercials.
After the sausage company was sold, Jimmy continued to make personal appearances and also appear on television. He was living in Virginia when he passed away unexpectedly in 2010 at the age of 81. His honors include a museum in Plainview on the campus of Wayland Baptist University. At the time of his death, Jimmy had been nominated for the Country Music Hall of Fame, and he was posthumously inducted later in 2010.
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