Spencer Leigh remembers a popular singer and actor best known for the hit 'Big Bad John'
Published 20/06/2010 | 05:00
ONE of the most distinctive and imitated hit songs of the Sixties was Jimmy Dean's country-music narration, Big Bad John. The 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 August 10, 1928, in Plainview, Texas. His father, G O Dean, a Baptist preacher left the family in 1939, leaving his mother Ruth to raise Jimmy and his brother Don.
As a boy, 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 he acquired was how to butcher hogs -- 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, says, "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."
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 number two in the UK.
President Kennedy had seen action in the Second World War and Jimmy Dean told of the president's exploits in the song 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 became a top 10 hit in America at the same time as another wartime saga, Johnny Horton's Sink The Bismarck!
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 on the series and he would talk with Rowlf the dog. 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.
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, Mary Sue Wittauer, with whom he had two sons and one daughter.
Dean divorced and married the singer, Donna Meade, and wrote a disarming autobiography, 30 Years Of Sausage, 50 Years Of Ham, in 2004.