& Fortune: Jimmy Dean
Broke many times, but never
Sara Lee bought
Jimmy Dean's name, but they couldn't buy his spirit.
associate Jimmy Dean's name with different things, depending on their age. Older
folks know him from his country music star career: His ABC show "Town and
Country Days," which debuted in 1955, introduced the world to such talents
as Roy Clark and Patsy Cline. Dean successfully started doing commercials for
his show's sponsors, a hint of what was to come in the future. In 1957, he was
the host of CBS's "Country Style," which was a hit in the morning ratings.
That show featured such guests as Les Paul, Della Reese, Mel Torme and Sam Cooke.
In 1961, Dean hit it big with "Big Bad John,"
winning the Grammy for Best Country and Western recording. Another well-known
song of his was "P.T. 109," the ode to John F. Kennedy. In 1962, ABC
took Dean back with "The Jimmy Dean Show." Dean's show had a recurring
guest, "Rolfe the Dog," giving the first big boost to Jim Henson's career.
Dean also was a frequent guest host on others' shows, including
"The Tonight Show" and "The Mike Douglas Show." On "The
Mike Douglas Show," Dean respectfully paved the way for a nervous, stuttering
man to make his national television debut, a young Mel Tillis. Dean was also a
frequent actor on made-for-TV movies and in 1971, had a role in the James Bond
movie, "Diamonds are Forever."
But even those who
don't know a note of Jimmy Dean's tunes or a line of his acting work know him
from the grocery store. From 1965 until 2002, Jimmy Dean was the president of
his own sausage company. Having butchered his own meats growing up, Jimmy knew
how to make sausage, from the piglet to the table. His company became so successful
that Sara Lee Foods bought it and later forced him out. Dean laid out all the
details in his new autobiography, "Thirty Years of Sausage, Fifty Years of
Ham: Jimmy Dean's Own Story."
Why did you decide to write your memoirs at this point?
Dean: My wife and a lot of other people, when I first sold to Sara Lee,
kept saying. "Why don't you write a book?" A publisher sent some guy,
they paid him about $6,000, to come out to me and write my book. He was trying
to write like I talked, and that didn't work. This time, my wife wrote the book.
My wife sat at a kitchen table with a tape recorder. She'd written a lot of songs
before, but this is her first book. I think it turned out fine.
You've written that your dad was reckless with money, stealing your childhood
savings and slaughtering your pet goat for food. Did that have a lasting impression
on you, money-wise?
Jimmy Dean: Not
money-wise! It's like I've said, "I've been broke a lot of times, but I've
never been poor." My mother taught me to put some money aside for a rainy
day. But our industry is the worst in the world for money -- same with athletes.
After I played a benefit concert to pay for my friend's medical expenses, I made
a vow that nobody's going to have to play a benefit for me, and they won't.
You said that when performing in Vegas, you were uncomfortable watching
people gambling who couldn't afford to lose their family's money. When you invest
now, do you look for socially-conscious investments such as mutual funds that
do not invest in gaming operations?
Dean: I don't mind when some big time guy gambles, it's the guy who loses
his family's milk and bread money that bothers me. You can tell the difference.
I have gone mostly to munies now. I was the biggest individual shareholder in
Sara Lee. When they dismissed me, I sold all but one share, so I could still go
to the meetings and have my say. They got all new management, a new CEO and a
new marketing team. They told me they were going after the younger housewife.
If you've seen what's happened since then ... I would not come back if they asked
me. I don't use the product anymore. To lose money is one thing, but to lose faith
in a human being is the worst.
Many artists have horror stories as to royalties from the record companies.
How did you fare? Do you still get a piece of the action when they play "Big
Bad John" on the radio?
Oh, yeah! When I was at Columbia, I wasn't doing much; they let my contract
expire before "Big Bad John" came out. When they released it, they had
to renegotiate my contract to keep me. As you can imagine, I was in an extremely
good position. Even if I hadn't had to renegotiate my contract then, I still would've
done okay. You see, I had gone too far down the road by then. I knew what I was