Jimmy Dean: Sausage Pitchman, Country Music Legend Dies at 81

Jimmy Dean, country music singer, actor and sausage pitchman died on Sunday at his home in Varina, Virginia. He was 81.

Despite a long and successful career as an entertainer, Dean was probably best known for his Jimmy Dean sausage and other breakfast foods. As the story goes, the decision to go into the sausage business came about when Dean was on the road. While eating breakfast in a small diner, he chomped down on a piece of gristle, leading him to wonder if there might be a healthy demand for a nationally-distributed and branded sausage.

Going Whole Hog

The business fit into Dean's plans for his own financial safety. A child of the depression, he had stark memories of poverty and would later describe the pain of watching his father slaughter his pet goat for food. In 1965, Dean invested in a hog farm in his hometown of Plainview, Texas that was owned by a relative named Troy Pritchard and put his brother Don in charge. As he put it at the time, "Well, back in Nashville, Ray Price is always talkin' about his racehorses and Eddie Arnold has his prize cattle. When I go back there to record, I think it's be a hell of a deal if I could talk about my hogs."

Before long, the J-D-T (Jimmy-Don-Troy) Products Corporation was a small conglomerate and included a feed mill, a pig farm, a sausage factory and a tannery. Dean became the spokesman for Jimmy Dean sausage and his extemporaneous, down-home commercials made sure that Jimmy Dean the singer and Jimmy Dean the brand were inextricably tied in the public imagination. Even after he sold the sausage company to Consolidated foods -- later renamed Sara Lee (SLE) -- he stayed on as pitchman until 2004, when Sara Lee pushed him out to pasture.

Musical Career

As a child, Dean learned to play piano from his mother, and performed at the Seth Ward Baptist church in Plainview. In the late 1940's, he enlisted in the Air Force and was posted to Bolling Air Force Base, near Washington, D.C. After being discharged in 1948, he put together a country music group called the Texas Wildcats. Dean would later recall "We played every dive in Washington at one time or another. And dives is what they were."

In 1961, Dean released his most popular song,the Grammy-winning "Big Bad John." Basically a spoken-word recitation about a heroic miner, it went to the top of the Billboard music charts, selling over one million copies. Following numerous imitations, parodies and cover versions, it even inspired a movie, 1990's Big Bad John. The recitation style worked well for Dean; many of his hits, including "IOU (to Mom)," "Dear Ivan," and "The Cajun Queen" were basically spoken-word songs.

Broadcasting Career

While Dean's music career heated up in Washington D.C., he also landed jobs as a broadcaster on WARL radio and WMAL TV. He hosted a syndicated show, Town and Country Time, which later became The Jimmy Dean Show, and Patsy Cline, Roger Miller and Roy Clark all became regulars. Dean also gave Jim Henson's Muppets their first big break, hiring Rowlf the dog for a recurring stint.

Dean also worked as a guest host, subbing in for Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show, as well as Dinah Shore, Mike Douglas, Joey Bishop and Merv Griffin on their respective programs. His regular appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show and other variety shows helped him transition into acting. One of the highlights of Dean's theatrical career was his portrayal of Willard Whyte, the Howard Hughes-inspired scourge of Sean Connery's James Bond in 1971's Diamonds Are Forever, but most of his acting work was on television. For a while, he appeared as Fess Parker's sidekick in Daniel Boone, and he also had guest-starring roles on Fantasy Island, Murder She Wrote and numerous other TV shows.

Since 1990, Dean lived in Henrico County, Virginia, near Richmond. In 1997, he was inducted to the Virginia Country Music Hall of Fame. Earlier this year, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.