AN INTERVIEW WITH “THE DEAN OF COUNTRY MUSIC”
By Bill Miller
Edited by Edie R. Lambert
A country music ambassador, radio and television entertainer, songwriter, singer, sausage maker, entrepreneur and actor, Jimmy Ray Dean started out as a cotton-picking kid. The older of two boys, he went to work at age six pulling cotton bolls at 50 cents per 100 pounds during the Great Depression.
The scrawny kid who wore discarded sugar sacks fashioned into shirts under his bib overalls to school would one day fraternize with U.S. Presidents, corporate heads and entertainment celebrities. Today at age 78, the semi-retired West Texas native no longer dreams of indoor plumbing and a surfeit of bologna.
Collaborating with his wife Donna, Dean has published an autobiography that guarantees an unabashedly frank, revealing self-portrait free of euphemisms and moderately seasoned with clichés. In attending faithfully to unapologetic candor, Dean often astonishes readers with unexpected hilarity.
Jimmy Dean’s Own Story: Thirty Years of Sausage, Fifty Years of Ham (Berkley Books, 278 pp.) isn’t a downer despite the gritty passages on his early scorched-earth years. What enfolds is an adventure tapped into timidly at first. Relayed, not chronologically, but with the haphazard spontaneity of a conversation between friends, Dean narrates the tale of his rise to entertainment and business fame. His score has homophonic texture with some chords expressed charitably. Some not.
Invested with thanks – to mother and wife – and a diffident joie de vivre, Dean closes his liberally illustrated narrative by writing, “Looking in the mirror these days, I see a wrinkled old head, but I have to say those wrinkles were a result of more smiles than frowns.”
Beginning on October 5, the month following Jimmy Dean’s Texas Country Music Hall of Fame induction, Bill Miller began a series of five weekly interviews with Dean broadcast locally on KFEQ 680 AM. The Bill Miller Show is a syndicated radio program heard in over 100 U.S. markets. Here, provided courtesy of Bill Miller, are excerpts from those interviews.
Bill: Jimmy Dean, welcome. You’re a living legend in this business. Now, you’ve got a great book. I really enjoyed reading your autobiography. I hope it’s selling for you.
Jimmy: It’s doing very well. My wife did a wonderful job putting the book together. We had a lot of fun doing it right here at the kitchen table. People tell us it reads just like I was sitting there talking to them. I think that’s about as nice a compliment as I could get on writing.
Bill: You dedicated the book to your mother, Ruth Taylor Dean…“the toughest lady I’ve ever known.”
Jimmy: She was a tough lady. She had to be to make things work, but she was also a sweet, loving lady. I.O.U. was really about her.
Bill: In your book, you don’t pull any punches.
Jimmy: I just kind of laid it out, told it like it was.
Bill: It all started in Plainview, Texas in 1928 where you grew up. You were in the Air Force. With the Tennessee Haymakers and the Texas Wildcats in Washington, D.C. You were one of the first dogs in country music to get into the television business.
Jimmy: It wasn’t the overnight success that people talk about. I traveled a lot of roads. I started on local radio there in Arlington, Va. and went to WMAL-TV. But if my luck stops tomorrow, I’ve still had a hell of a lot more than my share of it.
Bill: Your hit, The First Thing Every Morning kind of fits you. You greeted a lot of people early morning on television. In fact, my dad was a fan of yours. He was raised on an Arkansas farm and loved country music. He was so happy when CBS put you on that show.
Jimmy: My dad was from Arkansas too. He had a very famous relative, kind of my claim to fame. Dizzy Dean was my daddy’s second cousin.
Bill: You’ve given a lot of people a lot of thrills over the years – Daniel Boone, Candid Camera, your Grammy and of course your success with records and the CBS morning show.
Jimmy: Talking about Daniel Boone, about a month ago, Donna and I went out and spent the weekend with Fess Parker and his wife, Marcy. We had the best time. He was so gracious and elegant. They’re just lovely people.
Bill: He has his own winery, right? Did you drink any wine while you were out there?
Jimmy: You bet. He sells very, very good wine.
Bill: About your song, PT 109, tell us the story from your book about meeting Jacqueline Kennedy.
Jimmy: I was down in Ocean Reed, Fla. on my boat when I ran into her. I’d met the President, but I’d never met Mrs. Kennedy. I walked over to her and told her that I’d known her late husband, and I just wanted to say hello. She said, “Are you the singer Jimmy Dean? PT 109 Jimmy Dean?” And I said, “Yes.” She called to Caroline and John Jr. to meet me. They were going for a sail. We chatted for a good long time before I went fishing.
Bill: You mentioned Bing Crosby in your book. You had some fond memories of Bing.
Jimmy: Yea, we didn’t work together that much, but they were pleasant times. I remember the first time I met him, I was doing a variety show called Hollywood Palace, and he was in the studio. He invited me to sit down, and we chatted forever. I found him to be a polite, nice gentleman.
Bill: You also mentioned the Mills Brothers who appeared frequently on one of your shows. Was Harry your favorite?
Jimmy: I love all of them. Harry just swung so nice and easy. He went blind at the last, but people didn’t realize it.
Bill: We play I.O.U. every year at Mother’s Day.
Jimmy: Larry Marks and I wrote that in 1959 for a Mother’s Day special when we were doing a half-hour afternoon show on CBS. When I recorded it in 1976, it became a hit here and in Australia.
Bill: Big Bad John got you a Grammy, didn’t it?
Jimmy: Yea, it did. I wrote that song in less than an hour-and-a-half on a plane to Nashville, and it was the number one song in the world in 1961. Today, over eight million copies have been sold.
Bill: Those were the days when a song could be #1 on the Pop chart and #1 on the Country chart. I’m not sure that could happen today.
Just recently, another person named in your book, Don Adams passed away. Do you have some thoughts about Don?
Jimmy: We had so much fun. He was a fun guy to be around. He did our show so many times. We used to play Liar’s Poker when he was on the show. It’s a bluffing game using the serial numbers on five-dollar bills. Don was always fun to have around and always entertaining. One time, he was playing the part of a great white hunter, and he had one of those hats. I looked at the hat and said, “That’s a pith helmet.” And he took it off quickly and said, “I certainly hope not.” But you couldn’t say that on TV then. They made us take it out.
Bill: Do you remember your first Opry appearance pretty vividly?
Jimmy: Like it was yesterday. Scared to death. Scared to death. That’s all there was to it. I was waiting to go on, and Rod Brassfield walked by and said, “What are you nervous about? There are only about 10 million people listening to this thing.”
Bill: Roger Miller was a pretty wild guy, wasn’t he?
Jimmy: Yea. I still miss him. He was the most spontaneously creative human being I’ve ever met. We introduced King of the Road on our show, and shortly thereafter, it was a big hit. I got a unique award from Roger. It’s a gold doorknob on a piece of mahogany with a bronze plaque that reads, “To Jimmy Dean… For the one million doors you’ve opened for me, I’m forever grateful.” It holds a rather prestigious place in my home.
Bill: Eydie Gorme stopped the taping of your show once.
Jimmy: Yea, our opening scene was a barroom brawl. One of the stuntmen was supposed to slide down the bar, but when he got to the end of the bar he veered off and hit his head on a two-by-four. It split his head open, and there was blood all over. Eydie came out singing, but when she saw all the blood, she gagged.
Bill: Tell us about Rowlf.
Jimmy: We started the Muppets on our show. I saw Jim Henson’s work in Washington when I was working on local radio and TV, and he was doing local coffee commercials. They were so creative and such fun. I kept looking at them, and when we went on the air, I said, “Let’s see if we can get the Muppets.”
Bill: Do you have memories of Eddy Arnold?
Jimmy: Eddy is an astute businessman, a really bright businessman and was an extremely good singer.
Bill: Tell us the story of making your first Jimmy Dean Sausage commercial.
Jimmy: Well, we didn’t have any advertising people writing commercials. I just sat down and talked about a product that I knew, and that was it. I always insisted on product quality. The company bought my name, but I’m no longer responsible for the quality of the product that has my name on it.
Bill: Tell us about Sean Connery. You were with him in Diamonds Are Forever playing the part of Willard Whyte, a Howard Hughes type individual. Sean helped you with your golf game.
Jimmy: Sean’s a great golfer, and he knows how to teach. There’s a difference between playing golf and teaching it. He was very patient. We used to have a net behind the set where we were shooting. We’d each have our sticks and a bag of shag balls, and he’d patiently help me hit irons between takes. When I left there, I was hitting the best irons I had ever hit, but that’s long since gone. Sean used to call me ‘the noisy American.’
Bill: We’re so honored to have you on the show. Thank you for everything you’ve done.
Jimmy: I want to tell you a little story. I was having coffee with mom in the kitchen once, and I knew she had something on her mind. After a little while, she said, “Jimmy, now that you’re on TV doing what you’re doing, a lot of people are going to watch you and want to be like you. So be nice.”
Coming next month: Kansas honors Bill Miller’s 55-year contribution to radio broadcasting entertainment.