Wednesday 23 May 2018

Selling Sausage and Singing to a Cow

In the 1950s, there was almost one way to guarantee success. By failing. As host of the CBS morning show opposite NBC’s “Today.”

Walter Cronkite went on to be the Most Trusted Man in America. Dick Van Dyke went on to star in one of the classic TV comedies of all time. Jack Paar went on to a memorable turn hosting the “Tonight” show. And Jimmy Dean went on to a number-one record, a gigantic meat empire and helped popularise Jim Henson in North America with his chats with Rowlf on an evening variety show.

And the tale of how Dean’s big, bad song came about is remarkable in its own way.

But, first, let’s look at Dean’s network TV break. He had been hosting a local morning show in Washington, D.C. that CBS decided to pick up. It had nothing to lose. None of its attempts to make a big dent in “Today” had worked. And, after all, hadn’t CBS seconded a Washington D.C. morning man named Arthur Godfrey and watched the money roll in? It hit the network on April 8, 1957. This story from six months down the road is from the United Press.
Jimmy Dean Music Gives 'Today' Jolt

NEW YORK, Sept. 14 (UP)—It appears that the Columbia Broadcasting System finally hit upon the right formula for getting an early morning TV audience opposite NBC's entrenched "Today" show (Ch. 17) when it put singing Jimmy Dean in charge of its 7 a.m. programming (on Ch. 4) and let him cut lose with that "country music."
The lean and likeable Jimmy and his company of expert vocalists and instrumentalists have lost little time since they took the air in April in making an impression on the early-morning ratings. For whatever ratings may be worth, the show has been able to get slightly ahead of Dave Garroway's "Today" in recent weeks.
"Country music's been national popular for years and years," Dean said, "so it's not so surprising that folks like to listen to it even early in the morning. We didn't have to break any new ground when we started this show."
Dean pointed out that so far as radio and television are concerned, much is owed to Station WSM in Nashville for spreading knowledge and appreciation of hillbilly or country or western songs around the land.
"I feel that our acceptance by the public in such a short time is due to the pioneering done by WSM and other radio stations like it over the years. Why, right after our first week on CBS-TV, we got over 40,000 letters.
"This response was something of a surprise because we figured that, although we knew there was a big audience for such entertainment, the early hour might be something of a handicap.
"Folks never really used to stop me on the street except, of course. In Washington, where we had a local show, but now I have to watch my manners wherever I go. Can't pick up the fried chicken in my fingers when I eat in a restaurant now."
Jimmy and his group have latched on so well that CBS recently spotted them also in a 30-minute night-time spot carried at 8:30 Saturday nights on Ch. 4 for the summer.
The 28-year-old Texan, who's sort of free and easy himself, said the performer he most admires is Bing Crosby.
"It's the way he relaxes when he sings that makes all the difference," Dean explained.
Dean and his family live near Arlington, Va., close to the National Capital where his telecasting originates.
"I'm teaching my two children to play the piano," he said. "One of the nicest things about country music is that the notes don't go too high or too low, so the whole family can have a sing-song whenever we're of a mind to."
After December 13th, Dean was replaced with dead air (affiliates filled their own time), but CBS kept him on Saturdays at noon. In September 1958, the network switched him to a half-hour daytime show from New York. But he was told to dump all that yokel stuff. The show didn’t last. By the following June, he was replaced with a soap opera and muddled around with some guest shots (on The Chevy Show, Dean sang while he milked a cow).

But then came “Big Bad John,” released in September 1961, racking up the best sales for Columbia Records in two years within weeks and parking at number one on November 6th after six weeks on the chart. Soon, the Newspaper Enterprise Association came knocking for an interview. This appeared in papers starting November 26th.
Big Bad John Born in Plane

NEW YORK - (NEA) - Out of a chorus singer, a flight certificate, a hunk of steel and a quonset hut has come the first big popular record hit in three years. Not since the late Johnny Horton yelled out "The Battle of New Orleans" has there been a record which has sold as fast as Jimmy Dean's current Columbia smash, "Big Bad John." Not so much a song as a recitation, it was written by Dean himself.
“Big Bad John" tells the story of a mighty miner who gives his life to save his fellows. Although it has the flavor of folk music, it is a complete fiction. It came about when Dean toured the summer stock circuit last year in "Destry Rides Again.” In the chorus was a 6-foot-5 singer named John Mento. "What else do you call a man that big whose name is John except Big John?" says Dean.
Let You Experiment
The two became friendly and one day Dean gave him a ride. To while away the time, he made up a story about Big John — and promptly forgot all about it. This fall, Dean was summoned to Nashville, the second capital of the recording industry, to do a session. For some reason the saga of “Big Bad John” flashed into his mind while he was flying to Tennessee. He called the stewardess and asked for some paper.
All she had was a flight certificate the airline gives out to babies commemorating their first flight. Dean scribbled the words of "Big Bad John" on the back. "What I like about recording in Nashville," Dean says, "is that they let you experiment."
So they let him put "Big Bad John" on wax. The recording stadio he used is a converted quonset hut. In it, Dean, five singers, a rhythm section and famed country pianist Floyd Cramer went to work.
Opens TV Doors
“We'd done one or two takes," Dean says, "when Cramer says, “You don't need a piano on this, but I've got an idea.” He took a hunk of steel they had been using for a door stop, hung it from a coil rack and began hitting it with a big bolt. That's the clang you hear on the record."
The result was something—nobody knew exactly what—which was an immediate hit (Dean originally preferred the ether side, a little number called "I Won't Go Hunting With You, Jake, But I’ll Go Chasing Women.")
For Dean, the huge success of "Big Bad John" has meant a 75 to 100 per cent increase in hit salarv for in-person engagements and, “It's opened some TV doors." Indirectly, it will mean the completion of a dream. Dean, originally from Plainview, Tex., has long wanted to build a certain kind of house on a particular plot of land. He already owns the land—75 acres in Loudon County, Va., not far from Leesburg.
"This coming summer,” he says, "I’m going to build that house. I’m going to dam up the creek and have a fishing pond about seven acres and stock it with trout and bluegill.
As for John Mento, the cause of it all, Dean would like to know where he is.
“I’d like to take him home and give him a steak dinner,” Dean says. “I owe him that much, any how.”
It took a little time for Dean to land a TV deal. He signed with ABC for the 1963-64 season and, despite mixed reviews for his debut, the show lasted 2 1/2 seasons. Dean told Lawrence Laurent of the Washington Post that a time slot change opposite “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” was the main thing that killed his show. He went back to guest shots (none involving a cow) before adding to his wealth when he jumped into the pork sausage business in 1969. The friendliness he projected in his TV commercials sold a lot of meat.

Dean jumped back into television in 1973 with a syndicated show but had a lucrative contact in Vegas, so he really didn’t need the small screen any more. He died in 2010 at the age of 81. His TV shows may be long gone, but his sausages live on.


  1. I remember seeing a few shows back in 1964. I most remember seeing " Rowlf " for the first time on Jimmy Dean's show.

  2. Interesting that both Dean and the Muppets got their start in the Washington, D.C. media market (though apparently Jim Henson's characters on local TV there spent more time interacting with Willard Scott on WRC before making the move west for Rowlf's big national break on Dean's show).

  3. And don't forget his significant role in the James Bond movie "Diamonds are Forever" in 1971.