Jimmy Dean: Singer and actor best known for the Sixties hit 'Big Bad John' - Obituaries - News - The Independent

Jimmy Dean: Singer and actor best known for the Sixties hit 'Big Bad John'

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.

News
John Travolta is a qualified airline captain and employed the pilot with his company, Alto
people'That was the lowest I’d ever felt'
Life and Style
healthIt isn’t greasy. It doesn’t smell. And moreover, it costs nothing
News
peopleThe report and photo dedicated to the actress’s decolletage has, unsurprisingly, provoked anger
Property
Home body: Badger stays safe indoors
property
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
The programme sees four specialists creating what they believe are three perfect couples, based on scientific matchmaking. The couples will not meet until they walk down the aisle together
tvUK wedding show jilted
Arts and Entertainment
US pop diva Jennifer Lopez sang “Happy Birthday” to Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, president of Turkmenistan
musicCorporate gigs become key source of musicians' income
Arts and Entertainment
You've been framed: Henri Matisse's colourful cut-outs at Tate Modern
artWhat makes a smash-hit art show
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
filmsDaniel Craig believed to be donning skis as 007 for first time
Sport
Mikel Arteta pictured during Borussia Dortmund vs Arsenal
champions league
Voices
Yes supporters gather outside the Usher Hall, which is hosting a Night for Scotland in Edinburgh
voicesBen Judah: Is there a third option for England and Scotland that keeps everyone happy?
Arts and Entertainment
Pulp-fiction lover: Jarvis Cocker
booksJarvis Cocker on Richard Brautigan
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke and Pharell Williams in the video of the song, which has been accused of justifying rape
music...and he had 'almost no part' in writing it
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior QA Engineer - Agile, SCRUM

£35000 - £50000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior QA Engineer (Agil...

Marketing Executive - West Midlands - £28,000

£26000 - £28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Digital Marketing Executive (SEO, PP...

Retail Business Analyst

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our retail client ...

Senior C++ Developer

£400 - £450 Per Annum possibly more for the right candidate: Clearwater People...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week