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Big Bad John
“I really didn’t know how well it (Big Bad John) had been received until one day when I was driving into New York in my purple ’57 Oldsmobile convertible, and the song came on the radio while I was crossing the George Washington Bridge. Never wanting to hear myself sing, I reached over to change the radio to another station and there it was again. And then before I could get across the bridge I turned the dial and heard it playing for the third time. I realized then and there that I had a pretty big hit record on my hands. It literally put me on the map.” (1) Jimmy Dean on Big, Bad John.
Born in the west Texas town of Olton on August 10, 1928, Dean grew up in the outskirts of Plainview in an area called Seth Ward. His father left the family when Jimmy was eleven. G.O. Dean was a man of many talents – songwriter, inventor, singer, preacher and author – but never held a job. His mother held the family of Jimmy and his younger brother, Don and half-brother, Chester together with a fierce sense of pride. She refused to accept free clothing from a government program. “If we take that, it says were charity, and if we’re charity, that says we give up. And we don’t give up.” (2)
That sense of pride stuck with Dean during his years growing up in Seth Ward. Odd jobs to contribute to the family funds and attending the Baptist Church were the most prominent memories of growing up. “I’ve always maintained that being a Baptist won’t keep you from sinnin’, but it’ll sure keep you from enjoyin’ it.” Church is also where he became acquainted with church hymns. “They bring back fond memories of friends and family when we’d gather and sing in our living room on Sunday afternoons.” (3)
Growing up fatherless and poor during the Great Depression led Dean to dream about life outside of the wheat fields and boll patches of West Texas. “I thought if I could get to Amarillo, I could get anywhere.” (3)
Dean found his way beyond Amarillo when he joined the Merchant Marines around his seventeenth birthday. Though the work was hard, Dean found it was a shorter day than what he worked back home. The best part of his duty was mess time. “I’d never had such good food as I had on that ship.” (4)
He returned to Plainview after his hitch was finished. Finding steady work was a problem for an eighteen year old with no high school education. So, he enlisted in the US Air Force. As a certified radio operator, the Air Force sent him Bolling Air Force base in Washington, D.C. where he spent the remaining two and a half years of his military commitment.
His job was to make sure all the radio equipment was functional as part of team of pilots, co-pilots and engineers that would test-fly the planes. Dean, in top physical condition and eating three meals a day, considered his military years were among the best times of his life. It was also a time he learned to play an accordion he bought in Plainview. When he had some down time, he performed for a number of the guys in the barracks.
Photo from circa 1955 courtesy of Hulton Archive/Getty Images.
Brownie Callaway was one of Dean’s GI buddies and a musician. Callaway and a few of his buddies played at a nightspot called Harry’s Tavern, a dive that featured country music and nightly brawls. One night, Brownie needed a replacement for his fiddle player who was out sick and asked Dean to sit in for him. With a share of the tips, Dean found something more important than the money he made that night. “I had a great time and I think the folks in the audience did too. Show business felt good and I was hooked.” (5)
Jimmy was asked to take a seat as a permanent member of the band. “Making music was great, but I especially enjoyed the fun we had bantering with the audience between songs. I just loved making them laugh. The money had improved, too. I was put on a salary for twenty-five dollars a week plus tips.” (5)
Dean continued to play with the house band at Harry’s Tavern after he was discharged from the service in 1949. Dean joined the group Dub Howington and the Tennessee Haymakers, which evolved into Jimmy Dean and the Texas Wildcats. It was now Dean’s responsibility to negotiate, market, promote and organize the business side while the band expanded its territory into Maryland and Virginia.
In 1952, Dean met Connie B. Gay, a disc jockey, businessman and entrepreneur who hosted an afternoon country music show in Arlington, Virginia called Town And Country Time. Dean proposed a deal to Gay to play his afternoon show for free if they could plug their nightly appearances. Gay accepted, as it was a win-win situation – especially for Dean as the crowds grew for their live gigs.
Dean in a recording studio around 1957. Photo courtesy Michael Ochs Archive/ Getty Images.
Dean and the Texas Wildcats eventually recorded a demo that was picked by Four Star Records called Bummin’ Around in the summer of 1952. By August, the song gained some traction around Houston and Dallas. In January of 1953, it landed on the national charts, and in short order, reached #5 and sold over two hundred thousand copies. Upon returning home after month-long USO Tour in Europe in March of 1953, they learned that Bummin’ Around had sold close to a million copies. That led to Dean’s first appearance on the Grand Ole Opry on May 16, 1953. “One thing I remember about that night was comedian Rod Brasfield walking by me before going on the air, saying, ‘I don’t know what you’re worried about. You’ve only got eight or ten million people listening to you.’” (6)
With a hit record in their pocket, the group was playing mostly dances – a step up from the seedy bars. Dean then approached Gay about playing a half-hour TV show called Town and Country Time for the same terms they agreed to for the radio show. The show debuted on WMAL-TV in Washington in January of 1955. This lineup of the Texas Wildcats at this time consisted of Buck Ryan (lead guitar), Herbie Jones (rhythm guitar), Smitty Irvin (banjo) and Marvin Carroll (steel guitar). Dean decided to hire another guitar player by the name of Roy Clark, who eventually became a country solo star in the 1960’s through the 1980’s.
It was a busy time for Dean and the Texas Wildcats. The band would rehearse in the morning for the hour-long radio show at noon. Then it was off to the TV station where they would rehearse and run through the TV show scheduled at 5:00 PM. After the show, the group would pack their gear and head to live show that night. Sometimes, the appearance kept them on the road until the wee hours of the morning. This schedule was usually seven days a week.
Clark had a habit of showing up late which was a pet peeve for Dean. Finally, Dean had enough. Clark showed up late for a morning show and Dean fired him on the spot. Clark pleaded with Gay for his job but Gay supported Dean. Years later, Clark admitted to Dean that he justified in firing him and they two remained friends the rest of their lives. Dean hired guitarist Billy Grammer to replace Roy Clark. Grammer had a top ten hit with Gotta Travel On in 1959.
The afternoon TV show was a success and spun off a three-hour Saturday night TV show Town and Country Jamboree. The show guest performers Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, Marvin Rainwater, Eddy Arnold, Johnny Cash, Faron Young, Ferlin Young and many others. Two new female band members joined the Wildcats – Dale Turner and Mary Klick who played guitar and upright bass. Patsy Cline joined the TV show and eventually the morning and afternoon shows as well in 1956.
This promo picture for The Jimmy Dean Show was taken on March 25, 1957.
Photo courtesy of CBS Photo Archives/Getty Images.
In the mid-50s, the TV networks introduced morning network shows with the first being NBC’s Today Show. CBS tried but couldn’t compete with NBC as a morning news show. CBS changed directions and opted for a morning country music show. A kinescope of Town and Country Time was submitted to CBS and was selected to compete nationally from the Washington studios on April 8, 1957 as Country Style. The show did well in the ratings but couldn’t garner the sponsorship that CBS wanted. So, after just nine months, CBS gave the show the boot.
CBS believed with a format change the show could still compete in the market. The network made Dean an offer he couldn’t refuse. The look of the show would be slick and sophisticated, the time slot called for a half hour show and only Herbie Jones would make the move to New York. The Jimmy Dean Show premiered on September 22, 1958, airing 2:00-2:30 PM Eastern time. The show had been on nearly a year when it was cancelled in favor of Art Linkletter’s Divorce Court. “I’ll never understand the inner workings of a network or the reason behind some of their decisions, but I’m sure the bottom line has to be money. This was the second time I had gotten the ax while being number one in the ratings.” (7)
With the CBS television experience in his rear view mirror, Jimmy redirected his focus. Dean had maintained a recording contract with Columbia Records. The company released some singles and albums but nothing stuck with the record-buying public. Still, Columbia allowed Dean to record in his preferred setting in Nashville. “In those days we would just go in the studio and do it. With the musicians and singers present, we’d play the song a few times and record it. We could usually record four songs in a three-hour session, which is what most producers shoot for.” (1)
On one trip to Nashville in early 1961, Dean had just three songs prepared to record and needed one more for a B-side. “I had an idea. A few months earlier I’d had my first acting experience working in a play, a summer stock production of Destry Rides Again, “ Dean related in his autobiography. “I worked with an actor by the name of John Mento. At six-feet-five inches tall, John was the only guy taller than me, and the only one I had to look up to, and each time I’d pass him on the set I’d say ‘Big Johhnn.’ It had a nice ring to it, so during the hour-and-a-half flight I decided to write a story around him, and lyrically put him in a mine and kill him.” (1)
The recording session was held on August 18, 1961 (8) in the old Quonset Hut located on Music Row that housed Columbia’s studio. Grady Martin, a guitar player who later worked for Willie Nelson, helped Dean arrange the song in exchange for the publishing rights. Lightnin’ Chance played bass, Buddy Harmon was on the drums and The Jordanaires sang background vocals. Don Law produced the session. During a run-through, Floyd Cramer, who was hired to play piano for the session came up with an idea. “Don, you don’t need me to play piano on this song; I’d be playing the same notes as the background vocals,” Cramer told the producer.
“Floyd reached over and picked up a chunk of steel that was used as ballast for a TV camera, tied a coat hanger around it and hung it on a coat rack,” Dean recalled. “Somewhere in the studio, he found a hammer and began to strike the steel chunk obviously looking for the sound of a miner’s pick. He then pulled the microphone over to it and told the engineer to put some echo on it. Floyd Cramer worked magic that day, and the hammer sound became a very important part of our record. Brilliant!” exclaimed Dean. (1)
Unbeknownst to producer Don Law, Columbia Records and even Dean himself, Jimmy’s contract expired. With the hottest record in the country, there had to be a renegotiation of the deal between Dean and Columbia. “Of course, when I shamelessly put the word out that I didn’t have a contract, there were other record companies coming to me with some pretty sweet offers. Columbia was having to compete with them for their own artist, and to no one’s surprise I ended up renewing with an exceptionally good contract,” recalled Dean. (1)
Dean had to record two different endings to Big Bad John. “The original ending I had written was, At the bottom of this mine lies one hell of a man, Big John. That’s how we recorded it.” Dean remembered. The record was released that way and after it sold about twenty-five thousand copies, Columbia wanted Dean to change it. “They thought saying ‘hell’ was too risque´– never mind the fact that I used the word ‘hell’ earlier in the song. Columbia had me go into a New York studio and replace the ending with, At the bottom of this mine lies a big, big man, Big John.” Dean said. (1)
Photo courtesy of Columbia Records.
The song was released in September of 1961 and debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 and Adult Contemporary charts on October 2 and the Country chart on October 16. It eventually became the first song in Billboard’s history to claim the #1 slot on all three of the above-mentioned charts. (9) (10) Big Bad John spent five weeks at number one on the pop chart, two weeks on the country chart, and ten weeks on the Adult Contemporary chart. It was also a number-two hit in the United Kingdom. (8)
Big Bad John won several accolades for Jimmy Dean, including “Most Popular Juke Box Record of the Year” from the Music Operators of America. Jimmy acquired a “gold record” award from Broadcast Music Inc. The song was also nominated for four 1961 Grammy awards: Record of the Year, Song of the Year, Best Male Vocal Performance and Best Country and Western Recording of the Year, winning in the latter category. (11)
Not only did the song resuscitate Dean’s career, it opened the doors to a number of entertainment venues – some old and some new. A return trip to the Grand Ole Opry, the London Palladium, the Hollywood Bowl, The Ed Sullivan Show and Jack Paar’s Tonight Show were among the many stages that Dean graced.
Dean mentioned his reaction to the song in his 2004 biography. “It amazes me that people can still remember that record after more than forty years. And I can’t tell you how many men named John have come to me and said 'Big Bad John' was their nickname, and then ask me to sign an autograph to them that way.” (1)
So what about the man who served as the inspiration to the song? “Shortly after the record became a hit, I had John Menlo go to my tailor so I could buy him a suit. Not a bad lick for just having a catchy name and being two inches taller than me. And for a song that I didn’t think was so special at first, at this writing Big Bad John has sold over eight million copies. Not too bad for what was supposed to be the B-side of the record.” (1)
Jimmy Dean charted just nine more songs for Columbia in a career that lasted through 1965 including two sequels, Cajun Queen and Little Bitty John. Only P.T. 109, a song about President John F. Kennedy ever reached the top ten. (9)
After Dean’s contract ended in 1966 with Columbia, he recorded a number of singles and albums for RCA in a deal that lasted until 1972. After a brief reprise with Columbia in 1973, he dropped out of show business saying, at this point, it just wasn’t fun anymore. Besides, he had some sausage to sell.
The show business bug bit Dean again. He re-recorded his Columbia hit, I.O.U., in 1976. The song became a top ten country hit that year and it became a perennial hit around Mother’s Day for a number of years following its re-release.
In February of 2010 he was nominated for the Country Music Hall of Fame, in Nashville, but before he could be inducted he died at his home on June 13, 2010 at the age of 81. Always one to have fun at his own expense (dead or alive), he’s buried in a piano-shaped mausoleum on his family estate in Virginia. The epitaph on his tomb reads, “Here lies a big, big man”, a lyric from Big, Bad John. (12)
Jimmy presents a live performance of Big, Bad John on his show around 1963.
According to Sonny Fulks of PressPros Magazine, Jimmy Dean sang "Big Bad John on Bill Gaither’s weekly show. It was recorded just weeks before his death, a touching reminder of his popularity, and you’ll see a lot of familiar faces."
1) Jimmy Dean and Donna Meade Dean, Thirty Years Of Sausage, Fifty Years Of Ham: Jimmy Dean’s Own Story, 2004, Pages 62-66.
2) Dean and Dean, Page 7.
3) Dean and Dean, Pages 12 and 13.
4) Dean and Dean, Page 14.
5) Dean and Dean, Page 19.
6) Dean and Dean, Pages 29-30.
7) Dean and Dean, Page 56.
8) Wikipedia, Big Bad John, Link.
9) Joel Whitburn, Top Pop Singles 1955-2002, Pages 180-181.
10) Joel Whitburn, Top Country Singles 1944-2004, Pages 91-92.
11) Facebook, Classic Country Music Songs, Big Bad John. Link.
12) Sonny Fulks, Press Pros Magazine, Whatever Happened To “Big, Bad John….Jimmy Dean August 10, 1928-June 13, 2010, Link.
This photo is undated and uncredited.
© 2019 Jerry Reuss