It’s no surprise that, being a copywriter, I’ve been fascinated with TV commercials since childhood. And as a lifelong music enthusiast (thanks, Dad), my absolute favorite ads were those ones for compilation albums put out by labels like Time Life Music, K-tel and Razor & Tie. You know the kind – clips of retro artists performing a few lines from their most licensable songs, song titles scrolling down the screen, bookended by the booming announcer’s voice (almost always the same guy, no matter the label) commanding you to order it NOW: this compilation is NOT AVAILABLE IN STORES! The only thing better than the two-minute version of these ads that ran during local network programming were the half hour-long late-night infomercials hosted by a pseudocelebrity tangentially related to the subject of the compilation (e.g., “MTV’s Martha Quinn!”). I devoured these ads, and can still sing huge chunks of the patchworked songs constructed from the bits and pieces of advertised hits.
So given my ardor for these ads, it was inevitable that I’d stumble across a wormhole in the advertising universe. While watching one for “Legends of Country” or some such (opening track of the ad: “El Paso,” naturally), I noticed a familiar name in the caption under one of the grainy black-and-white. “That’s not … the Jimmy Dean?” I asked in disbelief. “Of course it is!” my mom replied. The folksy spokesman familiar from the ads for his namesake packaged meats company was also, apparently, a legend of country.
Of course, those of us not alive when Jimmy Dean had his string of pop-country hits in the early ’60s can be forgiven for thinking of him merely as a sausage magnate. Search YouTube for “Big Bad John,” and at least as many uploaders credit the song to Johnny Cash as to Jimmy Dean. (Wikipedia says that Cash did cover the song at some point, but all the videos I found crediting Cash on YouTube use Dean’s original version.) “Big Bad John” does share some traits with Cash’s contemporaneous hits, most notably the epic, baritone, spoken-sung narrative of tough Western men (e.g., “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town,” “The Rebel – Johnny Yuma”). Cash is a bit grittier, but Dean’s delivery is perfectly acceptable for this type of song. In fact, the surprise is how capable a singer and songwriter Dean was. Musically, “Big Bad John” is more than a little repetitive (although appropriate for a song about toiling miners ) and the chorus is nearly non-existent. But overall it’s a worthy-enough song for a country hit, though why it overtook Cash on the pop charts is a mystery better left to writers more knowledgeable about this era in pop culture. I also can’t say if Dean deserves the title of “legend of country.” What “Big Bad John” makes clear, however, is that Dean is more than just a born businessman with a hobby for singing. 6
Hit #1 on November 6, 1961; total of 5 weeks at #1
61 of 969 #1’s reviewed; 6.30% through the Hot 100