Monday, June 14, 2010

Sausage King Smart

I suppose it's easy to poke fun at Jimmy Dean and his overblown, down-home, cornball image. Since his death on Sunday, there's been plenty of snide remarks all over the web, but the way I see it, he was none of those things.
Consider this: Jimmy Dean took a rather average singing voice, parlayed it into a five-week chart-topper, which led to his own network television show and movie roles, which led to his building a million-dollar food empire. Not bad for a cornball, eh?

Here's a mini-biography, courtesy of David Hinckley at the New York Daily News, as is the photo.

His first pop recordings, in 1957, included "Little Sandy Sleighfoot," a touching Christmas story about an elf who was 4 feet tall with feet that were 3 feet 3 inches long.

The other elves made fun of him, naturally, until he discovered he could ski without skis. So the night the stable burned, he was able to race down the hill and save the reindeer.

It wasn't a big hit. It was a great template.

Four years later Dean's moment finally came around: "Big Bad John," a No. 1 hit for five weeks in late 1961.

Big Bad John, for those born too late to remember, was a mysterious miner who "stood 6 foot 6, weighed 245." No one knew much about him until the day the mine shaft collapsed, trapping 21 men underground. Everyone else started crying. John "grabbed a sagging timber, gave out with a groan, and like a giant oak tree just stood there alone." And then?

"Twenty men scrambled from a would-be grave and now there's only one left down there to save -- Big John."

That, alas, didn't happen. But the survivors did place a marble stone in front of "that worthless pit" and it read, "At the bottom of this mine lies a big, big man -- Big John."

Admit it. There's a lump in your throat.

Nor did Dean stop there.

His follow-up was "Dear Ivan," a melodramatic recitation set to the tune for "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." It called on his Russian counterpart to recognize how much the average person of the U.S. and the Soviet Union really shared, despite the tensions of the Cold War.

A year later he recorded "P.T. 109," a romantic account of the World War II drama of then-President John F. Kennedy.

Then in 1976 he returned with "I.O.U.," a recitation thanking his mother, and mothers everywhere.

He never had a hit to match "Big Bad John." He didn't have to. That song raised his profile high enough for ABC to give him a variety show, which in turn enabled him to launch the restaurants and the sausage.

Nor did we begrudge him any of it. He made it all look as easy as shucking corn.

My final note: shucking corn isn't easy, and I admire Jimmy Dean for his over-achieving accomplishments.

Yours truly,
Jack (for Jasper) McCutcheon

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