RICHMOND, Va. - Friends, fans and relatives yesterday were mourning Jimmy Dean, a country-music legend and an entrepreneur known for his sausage brand, who died on Sunday. He was 81.
Born in 1928, Dean was raised in poverty in Plainview, Texas, and dropped out of high school after the ninth grade. He went on to a successful entertainment career in the 1950s and '60s that included the nationally televised "The Jimmy Dean Show."
In 1969, Dean went into the sausage business, starting the Jimmy Dean Meat Co. in his hometown. He sold the company to Sara Lee Corp. in 1984.
Dean lived in semiretirement with his wife, Donna Meade Dean, who is a songwriter and recording artist, on their 200-acre estate just outside Richmond. He won fame and a Grammy with his song "Big Bad John."
With his drawled wisecracks and quick wit, Dean charmed many fans. But in both entertainment and business circles, he was also known for his tough hide. He fired bandmate Roy Clark, who went on to "Hee Haw" fame, for showing up late for gigs.
Dean grew up in a musical household. His mother showed him how to play his first chord on the piano. His father, who left the family, was a songwriter and singer. Dean taught himself to play the accordion and the harmonica.
His start in the music business came as an accordionist at a tavern near Bolling Air Force Base, in Washington, D.C., where he was stationed in the 1940s. After leaving the Air Force in 1948, he fronted his band, the Texas Wildcats, and drew a strong local following through appearances on Washington-area radio.
By the early 1950s, Dean's band had its first national hit in "Bummin' Around."
"Big Bad John," which is about a coal miner who saves fellow workers when a mine roof collapses, became a big hit in 1961. The star wrote it in less than two hours.
His fame led him to a string of television shows, including "The Jimmy Dean Show" on CBS. Dean's last big TV stint was ABC's version of "The Jimmy Dean Show" from 1963 to 1966.
Dean in February was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame. He was to be inducted in October and his wife said she thinks he was looking forward to it.
Dean became a headliner at venues like Carnegie Hall and the Hollywood Bowl and became the first country star to play on the Las Vegas strip. He was the first guest host on "The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson" and also was an actor with parts in television and the movies, including the role of James Bond's ally Willard Whyte in the 1971 film "Diamonds Are Forever."
Besides his wife, Dean is survived by three children and two grandchildren, Donna Meade Dean said. Arrangements have not been made, but it will be a private service, she said.
In the late '60s, Dean entered the hog business - something he knew well. His family had butchered hogs, with the young Dean whacking them over the head with the blunt end of an ax. The Dean brothers - Jimmy and Don - ground the meat and their mother seasoned it.
The Jimmy Dean Meat Co. opened with a plant in Plainview. After six months, the company was profitable.
His fortune was estimated at $75 million in the early '90s.
Having watched other stars fritter away their fortunes, Dean said he learned to be careful with his money.