A while back, I wrote a piece about T. Texas Tyler, who specialized in ‘spoken’ or ‘recitation’ songs. I was reminded of that today when I saw the news of the death of sausage king Jimmy Dean, who was once the master of the spoken song. In fact, his biggest hit — “Big Bad John” — was a genre-crossing chart topper and Grammy winner.
It didn’t come easily. Dean learned the value of hard work while growing up poor in rural Texas, but he found time in the midst of farm chores to learn piano, harmonica, guitar, and accordion. Too young to serve in combat in World War II, he joined the Merchant Marine near the end and later followed up by enlisting in the Air Force.
Dean spent most of his post-war service years in the Washington area, where he often played and sang in local groups. When he became a civilian he continued his musical career, forming the Texas Playboys. Within a few years he’d managed to land a recording contract, have some moderately successful records, and even host his own local TV show. Although it wasn’t a big ratings success, it did advance his career and also gave exposure to future greats like Roy Clark and Patsy Cline.
Throughout the Fifties Dean kept performing and making records, but with limited success. However, when he wrote and recorded “Big Bad John” in 1961, it rocketed to the top of the charts in both country and pop, and it made him a star. For the rest of the decade he continued to churn out hits, including”Cajun Queen,” an ‘answer song’ to his previous mega-hit. He also cleverly saluted his earlier hit in the tag line of his popular tribute to JFK, “P.T. 109.”
Dean was able to triumphantly return to TV with a much bigger and glitzier show, this time on the ABC network, and it did very well. It also helped introduce new stars like Roger Miller, and even gave a boost to the popularity of the Muppets.
Dean continued to stretch himself, and even tried acting for a while, showing up in the regular cast of TV’s Daniel Boone and making the occasional movie appearance. He also continued to make good-selling records, but he had his eye on a different goal. He’d begun to invest in farm operations — specifically hog-farming — and he soon founded the Jimmy Dean Meat Company.
He turned out to be a good businessman, and over the last three decades of his life gradually left music behind, although he did perform on special occasions. He eventually sold his meat company but stayed on as a spokesman, and was still widely recognized when he died at age 81.