Born in 1928, Dean had a few minor pop hits in the early 1950s. In the early seasons of the “Daniel Boone” TV series, he was the sidekick of the famous frontiersman played by star Fess Parker.

It was in 1957 that he began hosting a series of music and variety television shows. “The Jimmy Dean Show,” initially called “Country Style,” aired live as a local show on WTOP-TV in Washington, D.C., from June 22 to Sept. 14, 1957. Guests included Johnny Cash, Jim Reeves and the Andrews Sisters.

The local production was picked up for airing nationwide by the CBS-TV and ran until Dec. 13, 1957, under the name “The Morning Show.” Some of Dean’s guests included Chet Atkins, Jay Chevalier, Billy Walker, Little Jimmy Dickens, George Hamilton IV and the Country Lads. CBS then carried “The Jimmy Dean Show” on its daytime schedule from Sept.14, 1958 to June 1959 from New York.

In 1961 Dean’s pop career was stalled, and he made his crossover into Country music with the No. 1 spokenword song, “Big Bad John.” The record was certified gold, having sold more than 1 million copies, and garnered Dean the 1962 Grammy for Best Country and Western Recording.

A year later he was tapped by ABC to host an hour-long weekly music and variety television show, which aired for three seasons, called “The Jimmy Dean Show.” Of the 86 episodes, 10 were filmed outside of the ABC studio in New York, including four at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee.
Its first season was written by Frank Peppiatt and John Aylesworth, a Canadian comedy writing duo. In 1969, Peppiatt and Aylesworth created “Hee Haw” as a way to cater to the rural audience, bringing on two of Dean’s most frequent guests, Buck Owens and Roy Clark, as hosts.

Performers such as George Jones, Buck Owens and Dean’s former band member Roy Clark, pop artists like the Everly Brothers and Gene Pitney and comics like Jackie Mason, Don Adams and Dick Shawn were guest stars on the “Jimmy Dean Show.In 1964 Dean hosted the first television appearance of Hank Williams, Jr., who at the age of 14 sang several songs associated with his legendary late father, Hank Williams.
The website points out that during the show’s first season some of America’s most momentous events occurred. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated; the Pro Football Hall of Fame opened; the first push-button phone and first Ford Mustang came to market; Sen. Barry Goldwater announced he would run for the presidency; the Beatles made their first visit to America; Cassius Clay (later Muhammad Ali) beat Sonny Liston for the world heavyweight championship; the Rolling Stones released their first album; and Sidney Poitier became the first African American to win an Oscar for best actor in a starring role for “Lilies of the Field.”

Dean’s show is credited with bringing Jim Henson’s Muppets to national prominence. Muppet character Rowlf the Dog, performed by Henson, debuted as a regular on the show performing duets with Dean. Introduced each time as Dean’s “ol’ buddy, Rowlf was Henson’s first Muppet to score a regular spot on a network television show and appeared in 85 of the 86 episodes. Henson was so grateful for the exposure that he offered Dean a 40 percent stake in the Muppets. Dean refused, however, explaining in a 2005 interview, “I didn’t do anything to earn that.”

Dean and Rowlf the Dog were reunited one final time on “The Ed Sullivan Show” on Oct. 8, 1967, where they performed “Friendship” while doing their “herd of cows” gag.

The series was produced on black and white videotape, which was later disposed of by ABC. However, 82 of the surviving 16mm kinescope copies of the series were salvaged from the UCLA Archives and other sources by the Jimmy Dean Estate and restored under the direction of Donna Dean Stevens Entertainment over three years at the cost of $3 million.

“He considered this show to be the best work he ever did,” says his widow, Donna Dean-Stevens, who was instrumental in resurrecting it. “I was determined to make this happen, because this is how Jimmy wanted to be remembered.”

RFDTV on Jan. 1, 2017, began airing the painstakingly remastered series. That same month, the remastered Season 1 of the show, which had not been seen in more than 50 years, was released as a DVD set that includes interviews with Merle Haggard, Bobby Bare, Bill Anderson and Donna Dean Stevens.

The show was an important one to the early years of television and to Country music itself. Counting Dean, 15 of his first-season guests later become members of the Country Music Hall of Fame. In all, 35 hall of famers inductees appeared across the three seasons

Dean died suddenly at his Virginia home in 2010. He was entombed in a 9-foot-tall piano-shaped mausoleum overlooking the James River on the grounds of his estate. His epitaph reads “Here Lies One Hell of a Man,” which is a paraphrased lyric from the uncensored version of his song “Big Bad John.”

Story by Claudia Johnson