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Jimmy Dean
Photo: GAB Archive/Redferns

Jimmy Dean

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Jimmy Dean was a Grammy Award-winning country musician, actor, television host and entrepreneur. He owned a hog-butchering company that he sold to Sara Lee in 1984.

Who Was Jimmy Dean?

Famed country singer and entrepreneur Jimmy Dean first performed publicly with a band called the Tennessee Haymakers. While with the Texas Wildcats, he scored a record deal with Four Star records and, in 1953, his first single became a Top 10 hit. Dean became a co-star in several film and television vehicles. He likewise continued to pursue music, opening a hog-butchering business as well. 

Early Life

Jimmy Ray Dean was born on August 10, 1928, in Olton, Texas, to working-class parents. Raised in Plainview, Texas, Dean's Depression-era upbringing saw him experience abject poverty. His father floated in and out of Dean's early life, once slaughtering the young boy's pet goat in order to put food on the table. His mother sewed clothes for Dean and his siblings using sugar sacks—clothes that brought Dean heavy ridicule from his peers. Dean later credited this hard-knock upbringing with giving him his entrepreneurial spirit, and burning desire to succeed. "I think the kids in school that laughed at the clothes that we wore and the house that we lived in and then my mother had to cut hair ... I think that was a good motivator," Dean later told reporters. "Every time they laughed at me, they just built a fire and there was only one way to put it out—to try and show 'em I was as good as they were."

Dean's only refuge from his difficult life was music. Strict Southern Baptists, Dean's family attended church every week, where Jimmy began singing in the choir. His mother also taught him to play piano at the age of 10, and Dean picked up other instruments along the way, including accordion, guitar and harmonica.

Dean dropped out of high school to help provide for the family. He joined the Merchant Marines at age 16, and two years later he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force. During his time as a serviceman, Dean was stationed at Bolling Air Force Base. There he also continued to perform music in Washington, D.C., nightclubs. He first performed publicly with a band called the Tennessee Haymakers and, after his discharge from the military in 1948, remained in the area to form the band the Texas Wildcats. He eventually scored a record deal with Four Star records and, in 1953, his first single, "Bummin' Around," became a Top 10 hit. His charming, folksy personality and business-savvy then helped him land his own radio show on WARL, in Arlington, Virginia, where he performed music and interviewed music stars.

'The Jimmy Dean Show'

Dean turned his successful radio hour into a CBS television show in 1957. Called The Jimmy Dean Show, Dean helped give exposure to then-unknown country stars including Patsy Cline and Roy Clark. Dean continued to experience his own musical successes, as well. In 1961, he released the single "Big Bad John," a song about a brave coal miner who saves his fellow workers during a mine tragedy. The single hit No. 1 on both the country and pop charts, earned Dean a Grammy Award, and put the singer firmly into the mainstream music business.

In 1963, after the cancelation of his CBS show, Dean struck a deal with ABC to launch a new variety show—also called The Jimmy Dean Show. During its three years on the air, The Jimmy Dean Show launched the career of musician Roger Miller, and was also credited with introducing Jim Henson's Muppets to mainstream audiences. In particular, Dean loved the character of Rowlf, a piano-playing canine that often accompanied Dean. During this time, Dean had the opportunity to buy a large stake in what would become a multimillion-dollar Muppets fortune, but the star turned it down for moral reasons, saying that he hadn't "earned it."

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TV and Film Roles

After Dean's second variety show ended in 1966, Dean became a co-star in several film and TV vehicles, including a role as Daniel Boone's friend in the popular Daniel Boone series (1967–70), and a role in the James Bond movie Diamonds are Forever (1971), starring Sean Connery.

Dean continued to pursue his music career as well. In 1976, Dean achieved another hit with his single "I.O.U.", a tribute to his mother. The song, which was released a few weeks before Mother's Day, quickly reached the Top 10 on the country charts.

Food Business

But Dean, a heavy critic of his own performances, believed he was a terrible actor and musician, and began pursuing other ventures. In the late 1960s, Dean started a hog butchering company with his brother, Don, in his hometown of Plainview. The brothers ground the meat, while their mother seasoned it. Within six months, The Jimmy Dean Meat Co. was already a profitable business. By the late 80s, the Deans were making more than $75 million in profits. Dean sold his company to Sara Lee Foods in 1984, remaining its spokesperson until 2003.

Later Years and Death

In 2004, while living in semi-retirement, Dean released his autobiography, 30 Years of Sausage, 50 Years of Ham. In February 2010, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Dean resided in Varina, Virginia, with his wife, singer/songwriter Donna Meade Dean, until their house was destroyed in a fire. Many of Dean's legendary artifacts, including pieces of Elvis and Henson memorabilia, were burned in the tragedy. The couple rebuilt their house on their 200-acre estate shortly before Dean's death on June 13, 2010, at the age of 81. 

Dean, who suffered health problems in the last few years of his life, died while eating dinner in front of the television. He was survived by his wife, Donna, as well as three children and two grandchildren.

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