By Ken Tucker
Updated June 14, 2010 at 02:50 PM EDT

Image Credit: Everett CollectionJimmy Dean, who died at age 81 on Sunday, had one gigantic hit single, “Big Bad John,” in 1961. It was a hypnotic story-song that made the most of Dean’s rumbling Texas drawl.

But Dean achieved equal fame via television, as the host of The Jimmy Dean Show, which aired on ABC in the mid-1960s. Pre-Hee-Haw and before The Johnny Cash Show, Dean’s variety hour (he’d had an earlier, less successful CBS show) was the best nationwide showcase for country music. It gave exposure to great country artists such as Roger Miller, Jim Reeves, and Ray Price.

Dean had an utterly beguiling, easygoing style, and unlike a lot of singing hosts of the era, he was able to duet with a guest in a way that didn’t call undue attention to himself. Just look at this charming performance with guest Buck Owens:

Dean also liked to do comedy bits, and had a particular fondness for Jim Henson’s puppetry. Again, pre-Sesame Street, look at the amusing rapport Dean had with one of Henson’s creations, Rowlf the Dog, as puppeteer and director Frank Oz describes Dean’s style. Note that Oz credits Dean with giving Jim Henson “the first country-wide exposure to one of Jim’s characters.”

Dean put out a lot of music albums, and had a number of other hits. His lean, horsey good looks landed him a number of acting jobs, most notably a semi-regular part on Fess Parker’s Daniel Boone series.

And a lot of you know him only as the guy who hawked sausage in commercials. But The Jimmy Dean Show is a repository for some of the best country music had to offer, and for that, we should be grateful to Jimmy Dean as a genial host.

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