Sausage, songs and ships

Published 9:42 pm Wednesday, July 16, 2014

By Frank Roberts

What do you get when you mix songs and sausages? Personal wealth estimated at up to $100 million, plus country music stardom, movie stardom, meat product stardom, a gorgeous house on 179 acres, and a 110-foot, six-bedroom yacht with white carpeting and a white grand — very grand — piano.

The big man (6’4”) named his floating mansion after his giant-sized hit recording, “Big Bad John.”

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That’s where I met Jimmy Dean, back in 1994, when his yacht was docked near Waterside.

Dean was affable and easygoing, but no stranger to work, having started at age 6, helping his mother pull cotton sacks around the farm in Plainview, Texas.

“There wasn’t much I didn’t do — digging ditches, running tractors, cleaning chicken coops, baling hay, and stealing watermelons,” he said.

He took time out to learn piano, harmonica, guitar and accordion, and he displayed some of those talents that night to me and a Suffolk youngster, Pamela Speight, a family friend who later became one of the country’s leading teen models.

She posed for a picture with the Deans. I ran across it recently, and it brought back memories of that day aboard the yacht, the largest he ever owned. He couldn’t recall then if it was his seventh or eighth yacht.

“One can lose track of one’s yachts,” he told us.

And you thought you had problems.

One generation knew him as a country singer; the next recognized him as a super sausage salesman, an enterprise that began on his 6,000-head hog farm in 1968. Sara Lee, a $5 billion corporation, purchased his enterprise with Dean staying on as board chairman and corporate spokesman.

Dean (“awww, call me Jimmy”) was not one of those stars whose family connections made him famous.

While in the Air Force, stationed in Washington, D.C., he decided on a performing career, beginning at Harry’s Tavern at $4 a night.

After discharge, he stayed in D.C., and, in 1952 recorded “Bummin’ Around” which reached No. 5 on the charts. Then it was on to television.

Fame came thanks to his recording — mostly a recitation — of the story of “Big Bad John,” a piece he wrote hurriedly on, he recalled, “a piece of cardboard.”

Two things raised Dean’s hackles during our conversation — politics and the then-current state of country music.

The “politicians-I-have-known” conversation got around to the Kennedy family.

Jackie Kennedy had been “impressed with ‘PT 109,’” Dean recalled, referring to his hit record recounting her husband and former president’s military heroism.

He, however, was less impressed by the family’s political leanings.

Regarding country music: “It bothers Donna and I,” he said, referring to his wife. “With few exceptions — like Randy Travis and Vince Gill — they all sound alike. We call most of today’s singers Jimmy and Jane Generic.”

As for his own success, he explained it like this: “While others were drinkin’, I was thinkin’.”

Today, I’m still thinkin’ — that day on that great ship was a career highlight for me, and an exciting time for the lovely Speight youngster.

During a 60-year career spanning newspapers, radio and television, Frank Roberts has been there and done that. Today, he’s doing it in retirement from North Carolina, but he continues to keep an eye set on Suffolk and an ear cocked on country music. Email him at froberts73@embarqmail.com.