Monday, June 14, 2010

Jimmy Dean 1928 - 2010

Jimmy Dean, a country music legend for his smash hit about a workingman hero, "Big Bad John," and an entrepreneur known for his sausage brand, died on Sunday. He was 81.

His wife, Donna Meade Dean, said her husband died at their Henrico County, Va., home.

After we were married in 1986, my wife and I lived in Plainview for a bit over two years. I was the advertising director for the Plainview Daily Herald and she was an assistant to the coordinator for special projects for Central Plains MH/MR.

Born in 1928, Dean was raised in poverty in Plainview, Texas, and dropped out of high school after the ninth grade. He went on to a successful entertainment career in the 1950s and '60s that included the nationally televised "The Jimmy Dean Show."

In 1969, Dean went into the sausage business, starting the Jimmy Dean Meat Co. in his hometown. He sold the company to Sara Lee Corp. in 1984.

I never met Dean but did meet many people in Plainview who knew him and his family well, and he was a big favorite of the country and western music fans in my household growing up. The facility that Dean and his family first opened to make sausage became a popcorn factory while I was there, churning out a variety of flavored popcorn in decorative tins.

In the late '60s, Dean entered the hog business — something he knew well. His family had butchered hogs, with the young Dean whacking them over the head with the blunt end of an ax. The Dean brothers — Jimmy and Don — ground the meat and their mother seasoned it.

The Jimmy Dean Meat Co. opened with a plant in Plainview. After six months, the company was profitable. His fortune was estimated at $75 million in the early '90s.

Don't forget that his biggest hit became something of a parody two years ago, thanks to John Cornyn.

More recently, a scrap with Sara Lee led to national headlines.

The Chicago-based company let him go as spokesman in 2003, inciting Dean's wrath. He issued a statement titled "Somebody doesn't like Sara Lee," claiming he was dumped because he got old.

"The company told me that they were trying to attract the younger housewife, and they didn't think I was the one to do that," Dean told The Associated Press in January 2004. "I think it's the dumbest thing. But you know, what do I know?"

Sara Lee has said that it chose not to renew Dean's contract because the "brand was going in a new direction" that demanded a shift in marketing.

Courtesy Erik Vidor, here's audio of a caller complaining to the Jimmy Dean Meat Company about the size of their sausage package (some profanity).

Update: Entertainment Weekly notes that Dean was the pioneer of country music television; before Hee Haw, and before even Johnny Cash, there was The Jimmy Dean Show. That link has some great videos, including one of Rowlf the Dog (the first Muppet to make it big on the country scene).

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