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Jimmy Dean dies at 81; country music star and sausage king

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When the Country Music Assn. announced in February that Jimmy Dean would be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame later this year, Dean joked, "I thought I was already in there."

"Seriously, it brought a huge grin to my face," he said in a news release. "I am honored."

Dean already had been inducted into the Virginia Country Music Hall of Fame in 1997 and the Texas Music Hall of Fame in 2005.

That's not to mention his 2009 induction into the Meat Industry Hall of Fame.

Indeed, Dean, who died Sunday evening at his home in Henrico County, Va., at age 81, may be better known by some today as "the sausage king" of TV commercial fame than a hit-making country music star and one-time TV show host who helped bring country music into the mainstream in the 1960s.

The Texas-born entertainer and businessman, who began his recording career in the 1950s, scored a No. 1 hit on both the country and pop singles charts in 1961 with his spoken-narrative song about a coal miner — "a giant of a man" — who saves fellow workers from "a would-be grave" after their mine collapses.

"Big Bad John," which Dean said he wrote in an hour and a half on a flight from New York to Tennessee, earned a Grammy Award for best country and western recording.

The 1960s were the down-home entertainer's heyday.

He went on to record hits including "Dear Ivan," "Little Black Book," "P.T. 109" (inspired by the Naval vessel commanded by John F. Kennedy during World War II) and "The First Thing Ev'ry Morning (And the Last Thing Ev'ry Night)."

From 1963 to '66, he hosted "The Jimmy Dean Show," an hourlong TV musical variety show that ran on ABC and featured singers including Roger Miller, George Jones and Buck Owens. The show also regularly featured Dean's humorous banter with a "dog" named Rowlf, the first of Jim Henson's Muppets to attract national attention.

Along with headlining in Las Vegas and performing in venues such as Carnegie Hall and the London Palladium, Dean played fur trapper Josh Clements on Fess Parker's "Daniel Boone" series in the late '60s and had the supporting role of a reclusive billionaire in the 1971 James Bond film "Diamonds Are Forever."

He launched the Jimmy Dean Meat Co. in the late '60s, after previously buying a hog farm in his native Texas.

"Everything was fine and dandy until hog prices dropped out," he told the Richmond Times-Dispatch in 2004. "One morning I was having breakfast at a little old diner in Plainview — sausages and eggs — and reached up and plucked a [large] piece of gristle out of my teeth."

It was then, he said, that he became determined to produce a quality sausage.

"It was not something I just put my name on," he said. "It was my money and my sausage and my work — and those commercials that they think are so funny."

After selling his meat company to what later became known as the Sara Lee Corp. in 1984, he remained as chairman of the board and TV spokesman. After he was dropped as spokesman in 2003, Dean reportedly stopped eating the products that bear his name and changed his license plates that read SSG KING.

Dean was born Aug. 10, 1928, in Olton, Texas, and grew up in Plainview. He and his brother Don were raised on a farm by their mother after their father left when Dean was still a child. They were so poor, he once said, he wore shirts that his mother made out of sugar sacks.

Poverty, Dean told the Times-Dispatch, "was the greatest motivating factor in my life."

He began singing early on, and his mother taught him to play his first chord on the piano when he was 10. He later taught himself to play the harmonica, guitar and accordion.

Dropping out of high school at 16, he joined the Merchant Marine and later served in the Air Force. While stationed at a base in Washington, D.C., Dean and three other airmen formed a country music quartet that played local honkytonks.

After his discharge in 1948, Dean formed the Texas Wildcats. He began developing a following with a show on an Arlington, Va., radio station and had his first country top 10 hit, "Bumming Around," in 1953.

Dean and the Texas Wildcats moved to local television in 1955, and from 1957 to 1959 he hosted the first version of "The Jimmy Dean Show," a half-hour daily variety series on CBS.

"Thirty Years of Sausage, Fifty Years of Ham: Jimmy Dean's Own Story," a 2004 autobiography, was co-written with his second wife, Donna Meade Dean, a singer and songwriter he married in 1991.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by his children from his first marriage, Garry Dean, Connie Dean Taylor and Robert Dean; and two granddaughters.

dennis.mclellan@latimes.com

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