By Sean Smith
June 14, 2010 at 04:01 AM EDT
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Jimmy Dean, the country music icon and famous sausage entrepreneur, died in his home in Henrico County, Virginia, on Sunday at the age of 81, the Associated Press reports. Dean’s wife, Donna Meade Dean, told the AP that her husband had suffered some health problems, but nothing that indicated he was near death. He was eating in front of the television this evening, and his wife left the room. When she returned, he was unresponsive. She told the AP that he was pronounced dead at 7:54 p.m.

Dean’s biggest country music hit was “Big Bad John,” a 1961 classic about a coal miner who saves his co-workers when the mine collapses, and it earned Dean a Grammy award.

The singer, who was born in 1928 in Plainview, Texas, grew up to have his own television show, first on CBS and then on ABC in the 1960s. In 1969 he founded The Jimmy Dean Meat Co., and for many years served as the folksy voice and friendly face of Jimmy Dean sausage in national television commercials. He sold his company to Sara Lee in 1984. In 2003 he  got into a public battle with the company when it fired him as the brand’s spokesman.

Last year, a fire destroyed Dean’s home on his 200-acre estate outside Richmond. He and his wife had only recently moved back into their rebuilt house. His wife told the AP that he liked boating and watching the sun set over the James River.

Dean had just been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame this February. He is survived by his wife, three children, and two grandchildren. Dean’s wife said the memorial service would be private.

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