Country singer Jimmy Dean, whose career as a storyteller was equaled later in life by his success as a sausage pitchman, died at his home in Varina, Virginia, on Sunday night at the age of 81. According to CNN, the Country Music Hall of Famer apparently died of natural causes.
Though later in life his name was most familiar for his famous line of smoked sausages, Dean made his mark first in the world of country music, scoring a #1 hit on the pop and country charts in 1961 with the song “Big Bad John,” a tune about a mysterious, Paul Bunyan-esque coal miner who saves his fellow workers after a mine collapse. Written with country legend Roy Acuff, the million-selling song won a 1962 Grammy for Best Country & Western Recording and helped save Dean’s recording career, after his label, Columbia Records, was considering dropping him.
The tune and other story songs like “Little Black Book” and “P.T. 109″ helped Dean score an ABC variety show in 1963, “The Jimmy Dean Show,” which ran for three years. One of the show’s regular guests was the early Muppet character Rowlf, a piano-playing dog cooked up by master puppeteer Jim Henson.
Dean also acted in the late 1960s NBC series “Daniel Boone,” in which he played Boone’s friend, Josh Clements, and played the role of James Bond’s ally Willard Whyte in 1971’s “Diamonds Are Forever.”
As his music career began to wind down, Dean returned to the thing he knew best growing up: hogs. According to an Associated Press report, Dean grew up slaughtering pigs on his family’s farm by hitting them over the head with the blunt end of an ax and then grinding the meat alongside his brother Don. In 1969, he started the Jimmy Dean Meat Company, which was almost instantly profitable and eventually earned him more than $75 million.
With his just-folks appeal and kind face, Dean became a staple in ads for his sausage products, even after selling the company in 1984 to Sara Lee Foods, which dumped him as its pitchman in 2003.
The singer was born Seth Ward in Olton, Texas, on August 10, 1928, and raised in poverty in Plainview, Texas. His mother taught him how to play piano at age 10, and along the way he picked up guitar, harmonica and accordion, dropping out of school in the ninth grade. After leaving the Air Force in 1948, he formed a band, the Texas Wildcats, who became a strong local draw in Washington, D.C., and earned their first hit in the early 1950s with “Bummin’ Around.”