Jimmy Dean, 81

TV personality, country singer and sausage-maker Jimmy Dean dies at 81

Grammy winner Jimmy Dean prepares for a taping of
Grammy winner Jimmy Dean prepares for a taping of "The Jimmy Dean Show," a variety program he hosted from 1963 to 1966. (1964 Associated Press Photo)
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By Terence McArdle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Jimmy Dean, 81, a country singer and television personality who parlayed his show-business fame into a successful second career marketing breakfast sausages that bore his name, died June 13 at his Henrico County, Va., home. The cause of death was not reported.

Mr. Dean, a Texas native, came to the Washington area during an Air Force hitch in the 1940s and soon became a local country music star through his radio shows. By the late 1950s, he was a national television personality with his CBS program "Country Style," which began in the District at WTOP-TV.

His first hit as a singer came in the early 1950s with "Bummin' Around," but his signature song was "Big Bad John," a tear-jerking recitation about a heroic coal miner who stood "6-foot-6 and weighed 245, kinda broad at the shoulder and narrow at the hip." That record, which made country and pop charts, garnered Mr. Dean a Grammy award in 1961 for best country and western song.

But he is perhaps best known for his brand of sausages, which made their way onto American breakfast tables through a series of folksy advertisements in which Mr. Dean starred.

His sausage business began in the 1960s with the purchase of a failing Texas hog farm owned by the husband of one of his cousins. Mr. Dean's attorneys suggested he view the business as tax write-off. Instead, with brothers Troy and Don as partners, he decided to make sausage out of swine.

"I was losing about 20 dollars an animal every time I sold one," Mr. Dean told Esquire magazine. "I was having breakfast in a little old diner in my hometown. I pulled some gristle from between my teeth about the size of the end of your little finger and I said, 'Man, there's got to be room for quality sausage in this country.' "

As a television personality, Mr. Dean sold himself as the quintessential country bumpkin, an image that belied his shrewd business acumen. The Jimmy Dean Meat Co., which the brothers started in 1969, was profitable within six months. It was sold to Sara Lee Corp. in 1984 for $15 million. By the 1990s, the Associated Press estimated Mr. Dean's wealth from investments, music royalties and other business interests at $75 million.

"Poverty was the greatest motivating factor in my life," Mr. Dean said in 2001. "I made more money yesterday than I ever thought I'd make in a lifetime. But it's like somebody's going to take it all away from me and I'll be back in Texas, installing them damned irrigation wells."

Jimmy Ray Dean was born Aug. 10, 1928, on a farm near Plainview, Tex. His father abandoned the family when Mr. Dean was 11. His mother supported the family by running a barber shop and taught Mr. Dean piano.

Mr. Dean dropped out of high school to join the U.S. Merchant Marine and spent his 17th birthday in Lima, Peru. After a brief, unsuccessful career as an irrigation engineer in Texas, he enlisted in the Air Force.

While stationed at Bolling Air Force Base, he played accordion with Dub Howington and the Tennessee Haymakers at local honky-tonks. In 1949, Mr. Dean started a band, the Texas Wildcats, with three other airmen, securing regular gigs at local clubs.

"We played at every dive in Washington and dives is what they were," he wrote in his 2004 memoir, "Thirty Years of Sausage, Fifty Years of Ham," co-authored with his second wife. "One of the worst was the Homestretch with a whorehouse upstairs and the occasional thugs in the parking lot threatening people with knives and guns."

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