My interview with the late Jimmy Dean: Broke many times, but never poor [classic article]

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Sara Lee bought Jimmy Dean’s name, but they couldn’t buy his spirit.

People 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.

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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.”

Bankrate: Why did you decide to write your memoirs at this point?

Jimmy 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.

Bankrate: 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.

Bankrate: 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?

Jimmy 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.

Bankrate: 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?

Jimmy Dean: 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 doing.

Bankrate: You were a famous singing star; why not go into record producing and talent management, like Quincy Jones?

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Jimmy Dean: I don’t think I’m good enough. Quincy Jones is very creative, I’ve met him. I don’t think I’m as creative.

Bankrate: You had an opportunity to take 40 percent of all of Jim Henson’s future earnings with the Muppets, but you turned it down.

Jimmy Dean: Well, that was when he came to our show. We started him in New York. I didn’t feel I deserved his money then and I don’t feel I deserve it now. I told my manager “I am not going to take that money, it would be sick.”

Bankrate: Sara Lee recently dropped you as the face of Jimmy Dean. Who else can be Jimmy Dean but you?

Jimmy Dean: Well, I don’t know. They talk about the age factor, saying I’m too old for the customer. A couple of really tactful executives from Sara Lee said to me, “You’re not going to live forever, you know.” They were preparing for me to die! Can you believe that?! I think Wilford Brimley does good work for what he does, though I don’t know how they get him up on a horse. They’re still using Colonel Sanders in ads and he’s been dead for years.

Bankrate: Your sausage business was borne out of a cousin-in-law’s failing hog business. Many famous people have been asked by relatives to invest in get-rich-quick schemes. How did you know your sausage business would succeed?

Jimmy Dean: I didn’t know. I’ve always felt that diversification was the key in investing. It’s not like the sausage business is my only investment. I’m in banking, real estate, lots of other things.

Bankrate: Who helps you manage your money?

Jimmy Dean: The major things, I take care of myself. The details and minor things, I have a man, Jack Bartlett in Dallas, who’s been working with me for years and years and years.

Bankrate: Do you have any favorite charities?

Jimmy Dean: We do. Education is very important. We contributed a lot of time and money to our local high school in Varina, Va. But then we learned that high school is too late. Teachers told us the parents weren’t getting involved. We used to give away a new Ford car every year to one of the high achievers. Now, we’re in the process of getting involved with the local middle school. Of course, we’ll have to scale it down to giving away a bicycle.

Bankrate: Do you feel successful?

Jimmy Dean: Success, my dear, is a state of mind. Growing up, my grandfather Taylor was the wealthiest, most successful person I knew — and he probably didn’t have $10,000 to his name. He was one of nine kids and had a wonderful relationship with the man upstairs. He had inner peace. I don’t have peace, I’m always scared I’m going to lose it all. I regret selling to Sara Lee, but I knew we could grow faster with them than I could do on my own.

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