Jimmy Ray Dean, singer, instrumentalist, songwriter, television host, and businessman, was born on August 10, 1928, in Olton, Lamb County, Texas. His family soon moved to the community of Seth Ward just outside of Plainview, Texas. He was the son of George Otto Dean and Ruth (Taylor) Dean. Dean is best-known as a country music artist and as the face and voice of the Jimmy Dean Meat Company, which he started in 1969. Some of Dean’s major contributions include his variety series, The Jimmy Dean Show, and his award-winning single “Big Bad John.”
Born and raised in the Panhandle of Texas, Dean was influenced by music from an early age. His absentee father, George Otto Dean, was a singer and songwriter, but it was his mother who taught him to play an instrument. Dean’s mother, Ruth, ran a barbershop to help support her family while learning to play the piano by correspondence, then went on to teach Dean how to play when he was ten years old. Dean used his knowledge of music to teach himself to play the guitar, harmonica, and accordion. Dean dropped out of high school after ninth grade and tried irrigation farming when he was just sixteen. By the time he was seventeen, he had joined the Merchant Marine. His one-year term included service aboard the S. S. Heigara that sailed to Lima, Peru. At the age of eighteen, Dean joined the United States Army Air Forces and took his training at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Sheppard Field in Wichita Falls, and in San Antonio (at what became Lackland Air Force Base).
While stationed at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, D.C., Dean stepped in playing the accordion for a band known as the Tennessee Haymakers after their fiddle player fell ill, and when the fiddle player returned, the band kept Dean instead. In 1949 Dean left the Air Force. He married Mary Sue Wittauer on July 11, 1950. Eventually they had three children. Changes in band personnel led him to form Jimmy Dean and the Texas Wildcats, which he fronted. In 1952, while performing with the band, Dean was discovered by disc jockey Connie B. Gay, who asked to represent him. Dean and the Texas Wildcats signed their first professional recording contract, and in 1953 the band had its first national hit on the 4 Star label with the single “Bumming Around,” Dean’s first recorded song. He made his first appearance on the Grand Ole Opry on May 16, 1953. In January 1955 Dean and the Wildcats began a daily half-hour afternoon program called Town and Country Time on WMAL-TV in Washington, D.C. Later a Saturday night program, Town and Country Jamboree, was added. Dean’s show provided important early exposure to budding country legends such as Patsy Cline (a regular on the program) and Roy Clark (Dean’s guitarist in the Texas Wildcats until he was fired for habitual tardiness). The regional success of the program led the CBS network to carry a national program called The Morning Show and hosted by Jimmy Dean beginning in April 1957. The success of that show bested rival NBC’s Today and eventually led to Dean’s move from Washington, D.C. to New York City for his own Jimmy Dean Show, broadcast on weekdays and Saturdays. Unfortunately the move spelled the end for the Texas Wildcats. That same year, Dean signed with Columbia Records. His television program was cancelled in 1959.
He bounced back with the enormously successful single “Big Bad John,” which debuted at Number 1 on Billboard on November 6, 1961, and remained in that spot for five weeks. Written in an hour-and-a-half while on a plane ride to Nashville, Tennessee, “Big Bad John” told the story of a heroic miner who sacrificed his life in order to save the lives of his fellow workers. Dean’s song reached Number 1 on both the country and pop charts and helped to launch a public craze for saga songs—songs which typically told ballads of larger-than-life characters that performed heroic deeds. In 1962 Dean won a Grammy for “Big Bad John” for Best Country and Western Performance Recording.
Dean went on to record several more hits, including “Dear Ivan,” “The Cajun Queen,” “Gonna Raise a Ruckus Tonight,” and “P.T. 109” in 1962. In 1963 The Jimmy Dean Show premiered on ABC and became a primetime staple and pioneering program for country variety shows. Through “The Jimmy Dean Show,” Dean not only featured country music, dancing, and comic banter, but also introduced many country stars to the nation on his weekly television series. Entertainers such as Roger Miller, George Jones, and Buck Owens all had their big break on Dean’s television program. Dean also gave exposure to the Muppet hound Rowlf, created by a young Jim Henson. Rowlf, a regular guest on the show, was a dog puppet who later went on to join The Muppet Show. Dean’s show ran until 1966.
In 1965 Dean’s song “The First Thing Ev’ry Morning (And the Last Thing Ev’ry Night)” scored Number 1 on the country charts. The following year Dean, with the label RCA, provided another hit with “Stand Beside Me” and again in 1967 with “I’m A Swinger.” He recorded the duet “Slowly” with Dottie West in 1971. Over the years, Dean made personal appearances all over the country and appeared as a guest star on most major television networks, including The Ed Sullivan Show, The Hollywood Palace, regular appearances on the Daniel Boone Show, and occasionally as guest host on the Tonight Show. He also starred in the James Bond film Diamonds Are Forever (1971).
In 1969 Dean went into the sausage business, starting the Jimmy Dean Sausage Company in his hometown of Plainview, Texas. Dean represented the product in commercials for more than thirty years, even after Consolidated Foods Corporation (later known as Sara Lee Corporation) bought the company in 1984. By early 2004 Sara Lee had let Dean go as the spokesman for Jimmy Dean Sausage. The action drew criticism and made national headlines.
Dean and his first wife had divorced in 1990, and on October 27, 1991, he married recording artist Donna Meade. Dean was inducted into Virginia’s Country Music Hall of Fame in 1997, where he and his wife Donna took residence. Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore appointed Dean to Virginia’s Board of Game and Inland Fisheries, something considered to be an honor. In 2005 Dean was inducted into the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame. That year he had released his autobiography, Thirty Years of Sausage, Fifty Years of Ham: Jimmy Dean’s Own Story, which he co-wrote with his wife Donna.
Jimmy Dean died on Sunday, June 13, 2010, at the age of eighty-one. According to his wife, Dean died suddenly while watching television at their Varina, Virginia, home. He was survived by his wife Donna, three children, and two grandchildren. He was buried on the grounds of his estate. In February 2010 Dean was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame and was inducted in October of the same year. Groundbreaking for the Jimmy Dean Museum on the campus of Wayland Baptist University in Plainview, Texas, took place on June 24, 2014.