The country singer-turned-entrepreneur launched an American breakfast favorite that saw $663 million in sales last year
Jimmy Dean, who died on June 13 at age 81, liked to say he had ad-libbed his life. That was partly true: He was at various times a country singer, a television host, and, of course, an entrepreneur who relentlessly promoted his multimillion-dollar brand of sausages. ("I'm Jimmy Dean and I'd like you to try my Pure Pork Sausages.") He could be charming and witty. He also had a shrewd instinct for opportunity and, to some, an unexpected prickliness when he thought he had been wronged.
Dean was raised by his mother on an impoverished farm outside the West Texas town of Plainview and later would say that the fear of poverty motivated him more than anything else. He dropped out of high school and joined the military, where he entertained servicemen at a Washington (D.C.) base. After he was discharged in 1948, he got a band together, the Texas Wildcats, and began playing in local clubs.
Soon he was the star of a popular syndicated variety show, and by 1957, he was on CBS (CBS), hosting The Jimmy Dean Show. Four years later, his ballad about a heroic coal miner, Big Bad John, won a Grammy; Dean said he wrote the song in 90 minutes on a plane to Nashville.
In the mid-1960s, he bought a pig farm in Plainview and later started the Jimmy Dean Meat Co. with his brother, Don. Jimmy was always looking for ways to protect himself from the vagaries of the entertainment business. The company became profitable in just six months, and the brothers later fought over who would control it. Jimmy prevailed; he and Don never reconciled. During an appearance on The Mike Douglas Show in 1977, Jimmy read a poem that concluded: "When you make your brother a partner, you start ills for which there are no cures. You'll find he'll develop eye trouble, and he can't tell his money from yours."
Dean sold the company to the conglomerate that would become Sara Lee (SLE) in 1984, and for almost two decades he happily pitched his sausage on TV. Then, in 2003, Sara Lee dumped him as spokesman, saying that the brand was moving in a different direction. Dean was livid. He sold all of his stock except one share, which he held onto so he could attend the annual meetings. In an interview with bankrate.com in 2004, he said: "I would not come back if they asked me. I don't use the product anymore." Daryl Gormley, a Sara Lee executive, said in an e-mail: "We have always held Mr. Dean in the highest regard. His charm and charisma were unmatched."
Dean spent the last years of his life with his second wife, Donna Meade Dean, on their 200-acre estate near Richmond, Va. When he found out in February that he had been elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame, he joked: "I thought I was already in there."
Abandoned by father, high school dropout
Frequently said a fear of poverty drove him
A breakfast brand with $663 million in sales