Jimmy Dean: Singer and actor best known for the Sixties hit 'Big Bad John'
Wednesday 16 June 2010
One of the most distinctive and imitated hit songs of the 1960s was Jimmy Dean's country-music narration, "Big Bad John". Its protagonist in this well-written song was a bar-room brawler who gave his life to save others and the phrase "Big John, big bad John" has passed into the language.
Jimmy Ray Dean was born on 10 August 1928 in Plainview, Texas. His father, G O Dean, was a Baptist preacher, who left the family in 1939, leaving his mother, Ruth, to raise him and his brother Don. From a young age, Jimmy and Don were working on farms and picking cotton. Jimmy acquired two skills that would stand him in good stead: he learnt basic piano chords from his mother and played guitar and accordion once he had access to them. The second skill was how to butcher hogs and ground their meat, as he was to become one of the country's leading sausage manufacturers.
At 16 Dean joined the merchant marines and then served in the air force. By the time he was demobbed in 1948 he wanted to be a professional entertainer. He worked on various radio stations and had a country hit with "Bumming Around" in 1953. His popularity increased when he hosted a breakfast TV show in 1957, which led to the LP, Jimmy Dean Sings Television Favourites.
When Dean was signed to Columbia Records, his producer Mitch Miller talked him out of recording a sentimental song for his mother, "IOU". He never forgot this song and it eventually became a country hit in 1976. He had his first hit on the US pop charts with a Christmas song, "Little Sandy Sleighfoot", which made No 32 in 1958.
Three years later, Jimmy Dean and the vocal group the Jordanaires were travelling on the same plane to a recording session in Nashville. Ray Walker, who supplied the deep bass voice on "Big Bad John", told me, "Jimmy had written this poem coming in on the plane and he wanted to do it at the session. We had to find some way to make it into a record. One of our members, Neal Matthews, came up with the idea of a deep voice going 'Big John, big bad John', and he asked Jimmy to lower his voice so that he was talking differently. Once we had that, it didn't take long to make the record."
The producer Don Law decided that it would sound better without a piano and so Floyd Cramer provided the clanking instead. Before this record, most narrations had been tear-jerkers and so this was something new. Dean had been friendly with a large muscular actor, John Mento, who was called Big John and this had inspired his story. "Big Bad John" topped the American charts and also went to No 2 in the UK. It was helped by an entertaining and spirited hoedown on the B-side, "I Won't Go Huntin' With You, Jake", which was also performed by the British group Houston Wells and the Marksmen.
"Big Bad John" was ripe for parody and comedy versions included Phil McLain's "Small Sad Sam", Marvin Rainwater's "Tough Top Cat" ("If you spoke at all, you just said meow to Big Tom.") and Des O'Connor's "Thin Chow Mein", which would be politically incorrect today. In 1969, "Big Bad Bruce" by Steve Greenberg was the first openly gay record to make the US Top 100. There has been a TV ad for Domestos featuring "Big Bad Dom". Somewhat reluctantly, Dean recorded two sequels, "The Cajun Queen" (in which Big John was miraculously, restored to life) and "Little Bitty Big John", a pointless song about their child's hero worship.
President Kennedy had seen action in the Second World War and Jimmy Dean told of his exploits in "PT 109", based on the French tune "Sur Le Pont D'Avignon". With a reference to his former hit, he concluded that it was "hard to get the best of a man named John". This heroic tale was a Top 10 hit in America at the same time as another wartime saga, Johnny Horton's "Sink The Bismarck!" Also, in 1962, Dean recorded a peace-making letter to a Russian citizen, "Dear Ivan", and a narration for his own daughter, "To A Sleeping Beauty".
Dean was better when he moved away from mawkish sentiment and scored in both Britain and America with the cheerful "Little Black Book" (1962), which he wrote. Again, it was covered by a local act, this time the Lorne Gibson Trio.
From 1963 to 1967 he starred in the TV series The Jimmy Dean Show in which he would interview guests, often country stars, and sing. The Muppets made their first regular appearances in the series and he would talk with Rowlf the dog. Dean was fond of homilies like, "You can tell a Texan but you can't tell him much." Dean became the first country star to play Las Vegas and he had a US hit with "A Thing Called Love" in 1968, some four years before Johnny Cash.
Dean appeared as the billionaire Willard Whyte in the James Bond film Diamonds Are Forever (1971) but his film appearances were rare. He did have a cameo in Big Bad John (1990) which featured Doug English in the title role.
When his career slowed down, he and his brother Don started making and supplying pork sausages as the Jimmy Dean Meat Company with its plant in Plainview. They topped $60m in retail sales in 1975 and sold the business to Sara Lee in 1984. Sara Lee retained Dean for advertising purposes until 2003 when he was dropped for being too old.
Until 1991, Dean's public life had been untainted by scandal but then the National Enquirer wrote of his drunkenness and his cruelty to his wife. Dean divorced and married the singer, Donna Meade, and wrote a disarming autobiography, 30 Years Of Sausage, 50 Years Of Ham, in 2004. They lived on a farm near Richmond, Virginia but Dean lost much of his memorabilia in a fire in 2009.
His home had just been restored and he was looking forward to being inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in October
Jimmy Ray Dean, entertainer and food manufacturer: born Olton, Texas 10 August 1928; married 1950 Mary Sue Wittauer (divorced 1991; two sons, one daughter), 1991 Donna Meade; died Varina, Virginia 13 June 2010.
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