In addition to his status as a recording artist, Jimmy Dean was a television pioneer who brought country music to a national audience. Born Aug. 10, 1928, in Olton, Texas, he was playing piano, harmonica and accordion by the time he was a teenager.
Dropping out of high school at age 16, he served in the Merchant Marines and U.S. Air Force. Stationed in Washington, D.C., he began performing at area clubs. Signed to Four Star Records, Dean's debut single, "Bummin' Around," reached No. 5 on Billboard's country chart in 1953. The success led broadcaster Connie B. Gay to offer him the opportunity to host Town and Country Time, a three-hour television show that aired Saturday nights in Washington, D.C. In 1957, he moved to New York, signed with Columbia Records and hosted The Morning Show, an early morning television variety show for CBS.
In 1961, Dean wrote and recorded his signature song, "Big Bad John," in Nashville. The song reached No. 1 on Billboard's pop and country charts and earned him a Grammy for best country & western recording. He topped the chart again in 1965 with "The First Thing Ev'ry Morning (And the Last Thing Ev'ry Night)" and scored five more Top 10 hits during his tenures on Columbia, RCA Victor and Casino Records.
With his success during the early '60s, Dean became the first guest host of The Tonight Show. From 1963-1966 on ABC, The Jimmy Dean Show introduced mainstream America to artists such as George Jones, Roger Miller, Buck Owens and Charlie Rich. He headlined concerts at the Hollywood Bowl, Carnegie Hall and the London Palladium and was the first country performer to play the Las Vegas strip.
During the late '60s, Dean expanded his business interests after buying a Texas hog farm and transforming it into the Jimmy Dean Meat Company. He sold the company to Sara Lee Corporation in 1984 and continued to be the company's spokesperson and chairman of the board for nearly 20 years.
He died June 13, 2010, at his home in Varina, Va., at age 81.
Ferlin Husky was born Dec. 3, 1925, in Cantwell, Mo., and raised on a farm where he learned to play guitar as a child. After serving in the Merchant Marines, U.S. Army and Coast Guard, he moved to California in 1949.
He gained small roles as an actor in several Western movies before becoming a disc jockey in Bakersfield, Calif., and performing in the area. He signed with Four Star Records in 1950 but found little success on the label. He was later signed to Capitol Records by A&R executive Cliffie Stone, a performer, artist manager and Los Angeles TV personality.
Working with producer Ken Nelson, Husky released his first Capitol singles under the assumed name of Terry Preston. The singles were not successful, either, and he reverted to using his birth name around the time he moved to Springfield, Mo., where he often performed on the Ozark Jubilee.
In 1952, he moved to Nashville and soon found himself recording a recitation for Jean Shepard's single, "A Dear John Letter," which eventually reached No. 1 on Billboard's country chart. As a solo artist, Husky's first chart success came in 1955 with "I Feel Better All Over (More Than Anywhere's Else)," which peaked at No. 4.
He also charted singles under the name of his comic alter-ego, Simon Crum, but Husky is best known for his dramatic performance of "Gone" (which spent 10 weeks at No. 1 in 1957) and the inspirational "Wings of a Dove" (which spent 10 weeks at No. 1 in 1960). In all, Husky enjoyed 11 Top 10 hits during his career at Capitol.
As a country star, he appeared in several films, including Country Music Holiday, Country Music on Broadway, The Las Vegas Hillbillys and Hillbillys in a Haunted House. In 1960, he became one of the first country artists inducted into the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Billy Sherrill was born Nov. 5, 1936, in Phil Campbell, Ala., the son of an evangelist preacher. Playing saxophone and working in his own band, he drew upon rock 'n' roll and R&B influences in his songwriting.
He joined Epic Records' Nashville operation in 1964 as an in-house producer, recording artists the label's other producers declined. Inspired by Phil Spector's famous "wall of sound" production technique, with string sections and background harmonies, his extensive credits as both a producer and songwriter include David Houston's "Almost Persuaded," Charlie Rich's "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World" and Tammy Wynette's "Stand by Your Man." (Sherrill discovered Wynette when she was a hairdresser who arrived at his office unexpectedly and asked for an audition.)
He also produced some of George Jones' most significant hits, including "The Grand Tour" and "He Stopped Loving Her Today," as well as Tanya Tucker's "Delta Dawn" and Johnny Paycheck's "She's All I Got." He signed Barbara Mandrell to her first record deal in 1968 and worked with artists such as Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, David Allan Coe, Elvis Costello, Janie Fricke, Shelby Lynne, Marty Robbins and Johnny Rodriguez.
He left the label in 1985 and mostly retired from the music business in the '90s.
Don Williams, born May 27, 1939, in Floydada, Texas, lent his rich baritone to a long string of country hits between 1974 through 1991. He also took country music to the world and established an international fan base through his frequent overseas tours.
He played in a variety of bands as a teenager and charted pop singles in the '60s as a member of the Pozo-Seco Singers. He moved to Nashville when the group disbanded to work as a songwriter for Jack Clement's publishing company. Williams charted five Top 40 country singles for JMI Records before moving to Dot (later ABC/Dot). His first release, "I Wouldn't Want to Live If You Didn't Love Me," topped the chart in 1974. His 17 No. 1 hits include "You're My Best Friend," "(Turn Out the Light and) Love Me Tonight," "Till the Rivers All Run Dry," "Say It Again," "Some Broken Hearts Never Mend" and "I'm Just a Country Boy."
In 1978, he won the CMA Award for male vocalist and released one of his most enduring hits, "Tulsa Time." His hits continued on MCA Records: "It Must Be Love," "Love Me Over Again," "I Believe in You," "Lord, I Hope This Day Is Good," "If Hollywood Don't Need You," "Love Is on a Roll," "Stay Young" and "That's the Thing About Love." He earned his final No. 1 hit, "Heartbeat in the Darkness," on Capitol in 1986 and his last Top 10 hit with "Lord Have Mercy on a Country Boy" on RCA in 1991.
Known as the "Gentle Giant," he retired from touring in 2006 but returned to an active performance schedule in 2010.