Country Music Hall of Fame Member Jimmy Dean Dies at Age 81

Best Known for "Big Bad John" and a Sausage Company, He Was Also a Television Pioneer

Country Music Hall of Fame member Jimmy Dean died Sunday night (June 13) at his home in Varina, Va., at age 81.

His wife, Donna Meade Dean, told The Associated Press her husband had health problems but was still functioning well and was looking forward to his formal induction into the Hall of Fame later this year in Nashville. She said he was watching television when she left the room for a short time. When she returned, he was unresponsive.

In February, Dean, record producer Billy Sherrill and singers Ferlin Husky and Don Williams were announced as this year’s Hall of Fame inductees. Husky and Sherrill were formally inducted last month during a private ceremony at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville. Dean was scheduled to be inducted alongside Williams during a similar ceremony on Oct. 24.

In addition to his status as a recording artist, Dean was a television pioneer who brought country music to a national audience. In later years, he attained an additional identity nationally as the founder and spokesperson for the Jimmy Dean sausage brand.

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.

Dean 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.