Jimmy Dean wrote “Big Bad John” in an hour and a half on a plane ride to Nashville, Tennessee. “Big John” is based on an actor Jimmy had run across while he was performing in summer stock theater. The actor’s name was John Mentoe and he was six feet five inches tall and very skinny. Not muscular at all. Not exactly the picture of the person in the song. But, Jimmy always called him “Big John” and while on that plane thought he would write a song about the man.
“Big Bad John” has become part of American folklore much like Paul Bunyan or John Henry. Whereas Paul Bunyan was a lumberjack and John Henry was a “steel-drivin’ man,” the John in the song was a coal miner. One day they were working in the mine and a timber cracked and threatened to bury all of the miners. “Big John” stepped up and with a mighty shove, he raised the timber enough so all of the miners could escape. However, John himself was buried and presumably killed in that “worthless” pit.
Jimmy was later talked into writing and recording a sequel to “Big Bad John” called “The Cajun Queen” in which a woman comes to the mine and and brings him back to life with a “red hot kiss.” Jimmy Dean said he didn’t like “The Cajun Queen” because John was dead and should have stayed that way.
Jimmy Dean was more a country singer than a pop singer. The song hit number one also on the country chart where it stayed for two weeks. This would be the start of a career for Jimmy Dean that lasted all of his life. Later, after the music slowed down, he put his name to the famous Jimmy Dean Sausage Brand.
Jimmy was born August 10, 1928 in Plainview, Texas. His step-mother taught him how to play the piano at a young age and that sparked an interest in music. He also learned to play the harmonica and the accordion. That interest turned into a professional career. He dropped out of high school when he was eighteen and joined the Air Force in the late Forties. After the service, he got jobs at radio stations and by the early Fifties, he was singing and looking for a recording contract. He released his first single “Bummin’ Around” in 1953 on the Four Star Label and it reached number five on the country chart. In 1958, he signed with Columbia and after a couple misfires, he recorded “Big Bad John” for Columbia and he was on his way to stardom.
Jimmy Dean was nominated for the Country Music Hall of Fame in February of 2010, but died on June 13, so never had a chance to receive the award. He was 81.
“Big Bad John” entered the pop chart on October 9, 1961 and spent five weeks at number one.