If some toastmaster general on the other side were to throw a dinner party for all the not-very-well-remembered hitmakers of the post-Presley era who weren’t quite one-hit wonders, he’d have to be sure to set a place for Jimmy Dean. Dean scored big in 1961 with “Big Bad John,” a story song paying tribute to an oversized muscleman who dies in a collapsing mine, after using his great strength to prop up the fallen supporting timber until the other workers can make their escape. To hear this thing now is to be magically transported back to a time when a country musician’s best chance to cross over to the pop charts came with some gimmicky narrative yarn or cornpone joke that could be peddled as a novelty tune.
“Big Bad John” sort of straddled both categories. Dean was down home but not earthy, with a politician’s charm that made him seem like the brother Jimmy Carter must have wished he’d had. “Big Bad John” doesn’t tap into the kind of American folklore mythology that Johnny Cash made his own with songs about Casey Jones and John Henry. Dean, who co-wrote “Big Bad John” with Roy Acuff, may have been on the level, but his record felt a little spoofy just because his presence was so affably lightweight and his performance was so slick. He followed “Big Bad John” up with another hit, “P.T. 109,” a straight-faced tribute to President Kennedy’s wartime valor that confirmed his stature as the Jerry Reed who wasn’t in on the joke. Before the sixties crested, he would find his true niche as an entertainer with a successful TV variety series in which he co-starred with the Muppet dawg, Rowlf.
As a kid in Mississippi in the 1970s, I grew up with Jimmy Dean, and I didn’t know any of this. In 1969, he started the Jimmy Dean Meat Company and became a leading purveyor of breakfast sausage, a product for which he did his own TV commercials. These commercials were a mainstay of local TV programming, and for years I thought Dean was a Mississippi businessman with fond memories of his time in the high school drama club who insisted on doing his own ads. I didn’t find out differently until I was in college and saw him in his biggest “acting” role in the 1971 James Bond movie Diamonds Are Forever, in which, playing a fictionalized stand-in for Howard Hughes named Willard Whyte, he gave the kind of performance that the reviewer for the high school paper would have described as “adequate,” with his fingers crossed and good intentions in his heart.
Dean subsequently abandoned his acting career, such as it was, and put his musical career on the back burner, in order to concentrate on shilling sausage. (In 1984, he sold his company to Sara Lee, which kept him on as its official pitchman.) No doubt he was a nice man, though in a country where a significant number of people who voted for George W. Bush in 2000 would later tell pollsters that they thought they were voting for his father, I’ll always wonder how many people bought his records because they remembered thinking he was pretty cool in Rebel without a Cause. Jimmy Dean died this past weekend, of “natural causes,” at the ripe old age of 81, thus proving that he did not, in fact, consume his own product.