I am someone who is incredibly passionate about sausage. I have eaten Jimmy Dean sausage more times than I can count. However, I never stopped to ask myself, who was Jimmy Dean? Today’s episode is a deeper dive into the man behind this incredible brand and how he took it from nothing to something.
Who was Jimmy Dean in His Early Years?
Jimmy Ray Dean was born August 10, 1928 in Olton, Texas. The family moved to Plainview where Jimmy was raised. You have to remember that as Jimmy grew up, the depression was in full swing. He grew up in crushing poverty. His mother would sew clothes for him and his brother out of sugar sacks. Kids at school would make fun of him for this.
His father was in and out of his life during his early years. He slaughtered Jimmy’s pet goat to put food on the table. That sounds cruel, but times were tough. He credited growing up in poverty for his entrepreneurial mindset. He once said, “I think the kids in school that laughed at the clothes that we wore and the house that we lived in and then my mother had to cut hair … I think that was a good motivator. Every time they laughed at me, they just built a fire and there was only one way to put it out—to try and show ’em I was as good as they were.”
Jimmy and his family were devout southern baptists. You would find them in church every single week. This is where Jimmy Dean found a fantastic escape from the difficult life he was in. He fell head over heels in love with music. He sang in the church choir. Jimmy’s mom, Ruth Taylor, also taught Jimmy how to play the piano at a very young age. Along the way he picked up other instruments that helped further his musical career.
Music and Entertainment Career
Jimmy Dean dropped out of high school to help provide for the family. He started with the merchant marines when he was 16 and then later served in the Air Force.
After his time in the service, Jimmy decided to make an honest go at being a professional entertainer. He was just getting his start in show business when he married his first wife Mary Sue in 1950 at the age of 22.
In 1953, Jimmy Dean had his first hit, Bumming Around. It made it to number 5 on the billboard country charts. He hosted a popular radio show, Town and Country Time in Washington, D.C.
TV and Music Hits
In 1958 He was the host of the Jimmy Dean Show on CBS. That show aired for 9 months before being pulled. In 1961 Jimmy had his next major hit, Big Bad John.It was a recitation style song about a miner. The song was recorded in Nashville and went to number one on the Billboard pop chart. It sold over a million copies and was awarded a gold record. Jimmy Dean won a grammy for Best Country & Western Recording for the song in 1962.
In the 1960s Jimmy was a guest host on a number of occasions on The Tonight Show. ABC wanted him to do another show. Unsurprisingly it was called, The Jimmy Dean Show. This was a variety show that had a number of country music stars on. Jimmy Dean also made a point of having singers on who hadn’t had their big break yet. In 1964 he had Hank Williams Jr. on the show in his first TV appearance at the age of 14. He also had a few comedy sketches with Rolfe the Dog, one of Jim Henson’s muppets.
Jim Henson was so grateful for this big break that Jimmy Dean provided, that he offered Jimmy a 40% stake in his production company. Jimmy Dean declined the offer. He said that he had done nothing to earn it. When he’d speak about declining that offer later in life, Jimmy Dean would repeatedly say that he never regretted it.
Jimmy’s Next Act: Sausage!!
It’s often said that we are our own harshest critic. Jimmy Dean was no exception to this. Even though he enjoyed some success in music, television and film, he still felt he wasn’t the best actor or musician. In this mindset, Jimmy decided to diversify his professional life. In the 60s he started a pig butchering company with his brother in his hometown of Plainview, Texas. When people would ask why he started a meat company, Jimmy would joke, “if you had ever seen my act, you would’ve realized that diversification was imperative.”
They had quite the operation. They would grind the meat and their mom would season it. Jimmy Dean sausage was born. He used his clout in the entertainment industry to drive buzz for his company and product. He was the face of the brand and starred in all of their commercials. People loved it and the company was profitable after just a few months in business.
Business was so good that by the 1980s, they were making $75 million in profits. Jimmy Dean sold the company to Sara Lee foods in 1984. He remained the face of the business until 2003.
Hall of Fame and Death
In 2010, Jimmy Dean was nominated for the Country Music Hall of Fame. He was scheduled to be inducted in October of 2010. However, Jimmy Dean passed away before that could take place. His induction happened after his death.
Jimmy Dean lived a full life. He lived the life he wanted to live and brought passion and a willingness to work hard at whatever he did. He was buried in a piano shaped mausoleum overlooking the James River on his property in Virginia. The epitaph on his tomb reads, “Here lies one hell of a man.” This was an excerpt from his song Big Bad John.
I’ll leave you with one final pearl of wisdom from Jimmy Dean. He once said, “You can’t change the direction of the wind. But you can adjust your sails to always reach your destination.”
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