A business entrepreneur, singer, and TV show host, Jimmy Dean has passed away of natural causes. He died yesterday in Virginia’s Henrico County at the age of 81.
Born in 1928, Dean became a star of country music in the 1950s and ’60s and ended up helping the careers of talents like Patsy Cline and Roy Clark. One of his biggest songs, “Big Bad John,” was released in 1961 and he won a Grammy for it.
In the early 1960s, Dean guest-hosted The Tonight Show. In 1963, he began hosting his own primetime variety program called The Jimmy Dean Show. The ABC series ran for three seasons. The show is most notable for Dean’s regular comedy sketches and songs with Rowlf the Dog, a Muppet performed by Jim Henson. The partnership was beneficial for both sides. The steady income helped a pre-Sesame Street Henson to finance and develop other projects.
In his autobiography, Thirty Years of Sausage, Fifty Years of Ham, Dean recalled working with Rowlf and Henson.
I treated Rowlf like he was real, but he was real to me, and I think that’s one of the reasons he made such an impression on everyone. Jim Henson himself said it was the reason Rowlf was such a hit… Rehearsals with Rowlf and his handlers were done in my office, and we’d always have a lot of fun clowning around. My secretary Willie loved Rowlf and would come in regularly to watch us work with the writers. Sometimes Rowlf and I would act like we were fighting, and on one occasion when we were joking and having one of our scuffles, I smacked his head and one of his eyeballs flew off. Well, when I did that, Willie screamed and ran out of the office, and you’d have thought that I’d mortally wounded somebody.
After the variety show went off the air, Dean continued to sing and worked as an actor, guesting on shows like Daniel Boone and Fantasy Island.
In 1969, he founded the Jimmy Dean Sausage Company with his brother. Dean performed in commercials for the company for many years but was eventually phased out after the company was acquired by the corporation that’s now known as Sara Lee.
Dean lived in semi-retirement with his second wife near Richmond. In 2009, a fire gutted their home but the Deans escaped and managed to save several valuables, including a puppet made by Henson and Dean’s Grammy for “Big Bad John.” The couple had recently moved back into their reconstructed home.
In February, Dean was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame with the induction ceremonies to be held in October. Dean is survived by his wife, three children and two grandchildren.