Jimmy talks about everything from show politics and education. 

Citizen Dean

I looked at it and I said, 'You know, that's kind of neat. There's no message there. It's a bunch of wild, crazy bulls— that's just a lot of fun and it's extremely entertaining."

Jimmy Dean is talking. Right now it's about the 1971 James Bond flick, "Diamonds are Forever," in which he plays a Vegas-billionaire sidekick to Sean Connery's 007, but he might as well be telling any of his anecdotes, or summarizing all of them, even his own extremely entertaining life story.

It's a wild, crazy, only-in-America story that ranges from the dusty sun of Depression-era Texas to the bright lights of the Big Apple; from the neon glow of Nashville and the flashing rapture of Sin City to wine-colored sunsets on the James.

For the last 10 years, in fact, Dean's story has been set in Richmond, which may constitute the strangest turn of all in his staggeringly successful show-and-sausage-business career. And since settling in eastern Henrico County in 1990 with a second and much younger wife, Dean, 71, has made his mark on the local community and, increasingly, the commonwealth's political scene.

There's a whole lot more to Dean's public aspirations than getting his and wife Donna's "Virginia" named state song. Yet how much does Richmond really know about its richest and most famous celebrity citizen? How on God's green earth did he end up on a riverfront estate in Varina, anyway, and where does he go from here?

Just who is Citizen Jimmy Dean?

A straight-shooting and quick-witted character who's hung out with everyone from Elvis to George Bush, Dean is easy to get to know quickly but difficult to penetrate to any real depth. It's what he chooses to talk about, and how he talks about it, that illuminates the impressive dimensions and interesting directions of his still-sharp mind.

"Diamonds are Forever" is one of the five forgettable films and made-for-TV movies he's been in, but it's as good a place to start as any in getting at what makes him tick — to understand how each of the seemingly disparate pieces of his life may rise above more than trivia and point the way toward his next move.

Even if they don't, it's all still a bunch of wild, crazy b.s. that's a lot of fun and extremely entertaining. And it's narrated in a chipper drawl you can listen to for hours on end. Listen.

Jimmy Dean is talking.

"He did more for my golf game than any golf pro I ever went to." Dean says Connery, a Scot who reportedly revels in the sport his nation invented, apparently was quite a coach as well. "He had a net behind every set and a piece of that artificial turf, and he had a bag of shag balls, and he would stand there and coach me."

For the always-money-conscious Dean, moviemaking seemed an extravagant and wasteful process, especially compared to his experiences on TV and in the recording studio, and in his then-new sausage-making venture. "They wasted money and time like you wouldn't believe on that picture. Of course, when you got Sean Connery in there you're going to get it all back."

But here's the twist — with Dean, there's always a comic or touching twist to his tales — high-flying Connery could be a bit of a jerk, and a know-it-all. While Dean whacked a few into the net, Connery peppered him with pointers bordering on the pompous. Both in their early 40s, the two strapping-tall, fighting-trim men nearly came to blows, it seems, after Connery smacked him on the hand with a golf club to punctuate his instruction: "'Good God, no. We know you're strong! Get your bleeding right hand out of there!'" Dean says in his best Scottish accent, then growls: "Just gave me a fit."

But by 1971 — 10 years after a hit song and TV show had made him a household name — Dean knew enough about show biz not to make a name for himself in the movies by slugging James Bond. Instead, by the end of the shooting, he and Connery were old pals, and "I was hitting irons the best I ever hit 'em when I finished that picture."

A consummate people-pleaser, Dean learned early and hard how to make the best of a bad situation. He's learned to use to the utmost whatever gifts God and his mother gave him. And he's still got the cachet — and more than enough cash — to make things happen.

Got an old slouch hat;
Got my roll on my shoulder;
I'm as free as a breeze,
And I'll do as I please;
Just a' bummin' around.

[image-1]photo by Stephen Salpukas / Style WeeklyJimmy didn't run into many kodiak bears growing up in Texas, but somehow the Florida room of his James River home wouldn't seem complete without one.His old cowboy voice still warbles with a sweet, soft prairie yodel, and when the white Stetson dips low over his tan lips and white teeth, you can almost see and hear for the first time the handsome, fresh-faced 24-year-old singing and smiling on the 1953 broadcast of The Steve Allen Show, his first big break.

Lord knows what the folks back in Plainview were thinking, seeing him there on national television. He looked so bright and famous already, just one big continuous smile, but his native west Texans knew Jimmy Dean came from a broken family and one poorer than just about any.

His father left when Dean was 11; there was no electricity until he was 13; he and his siblings worked in the fields and slaughtered their uncle's hogs to help support the family. For shirts they wore sugar sacks their mother dyed when she wasn't busy cutting hair for a few cents, or otherwise struggling to keep the family together.

"Only place you can stand up to your ass in mud and dust'll blow in your eyes" is how he recalls Plainview. Dean doesn't have too many fond memories of childhood, other than his mother teaching him at age 10 to play piano. Because the other kids in town picked on him and his sack-cloth shirts. Picked on his mother for losing his father and being too proud and stubborn to accept charity. Picked on him 'cause he'd never amount to nothing, just like his old man.

"It lit a fire in me," he says, his bright blue eyes a blaze brighter. In his late teens he joined the Merchant Marine, and two years later, entered the Air Force. He got the hell out of Plainview.

In uniform, Jimmy Dean wasn't the poor kid from the poor family everybody looked down on. He was just himself, a tall, good-looking boy among strangers, a born entertainer intent on getting laughs and smiles instead of curses and sneers. Getting people to like him through songs and stories.

Out of the Air Force in 1948, he put together the Texas Wildcats, a band whose alumni include Roy Clark, and for the next few years they performed regularly on Washington, D.C.-area radio and television stations. In 1952 it got them a gig touring U.S. bases abroad, and later that year Dean recorded "Bumming Around," which reached No. 5 on the country singles chart and went gold in 1953.

Singing it on The Steve Allen Show, Jimmy Dean showed he wasn't just another country kid with a catchy tune, but someone with the pleasing presence and wholesome personality to bring country music finally out of the backwoods and into America's living rooms. Entertainment industry executives leaped, and so did Dean's recording and television career. In 1957, having signed with Columbia Records, he was hosting his own morning show on CBS between cutting tracks in Nashville, and in 1961, his breakthrough hit "Big Bad John" secured him star status and made Jimmy Dean a household name.

More a recitation (the narrative song style for which he would become famous) or a country rap than a traditional song, "Big Bad John" proved his crossover appeal. While it topped the country chart for two weeks, it held on for five at No. 1 on the U.S. top-40 chart (No. 2 in the UK) and sold more than 8 million copies by the end of 1962.

It also won him a Grammy. In 1963, Dean began hosting another morning show, on ABC, adding a prime-time version in 1964 and further marketing country music to the masses. "The Jimmy Dean Show" ran for four years, and in 1968 he made the jump to acting as a regular on "Daniel Boone."

By 1970, Jimmy Dean had just about done it all. He had opened the door for country music on morning, prime-time and late-night television. He had built a respectable repertoire of music, with seven top-40 hits. He had been the first country performer to headline in Las Vegas, and the movie offers, including "Diamonds are Forever," were starting to roll in.

People liked Jimmy Dean. But inside, Jimmy Dean could still recall what it was like not to be liked. And during his run, he had seen enough fellow stars squander their fortunes to know that neither his nor the public's adoration would last forever.

That's why all along he had been putting some of his money into a Plainview hog-breeding operation.

By 1970, Jimmy Dean was making sausage.

Got a million friends;
Don't feel any older;
I got nothing to lose,
Not even the blues;
Just a' bummin' around.

Jump to Part 1, 2,Part 2: Hey J.D.

Latest in Miscellany


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Connect with Style Weekly

Most Popular Stories

Copyright © 2021 Style Weekly
Richmond's alternative for news, arts, culture and opinion
All rights reserved
Powered by Foundation