RICHMOND, Va. -- Jimmy Dean, a country music legend for his smash hit about a workingman hero, "Big Bad John," and an entrepreneur known for his sausage brand, died on Sunday. He was 81.
His wife, Donna Meade Dean, said her husband died at their Henrico County, Va., home.
She said he had some health problems but was still functioning well, so his death came as a shock. She said he was eating in front of the television. She left the room for a time and came back and he was unresponsive. She said he was pronounced dead at 7:54 p.m.
"He was amazing," she said. "He had a lot of talents."
Born in 1928, Dean was raised in poverty in Plainview, Texas, and dropped out of high school after the ninth grade. He went on to a successful entertainment career in the 1950s and '60s that included the nationally televised "The Jimmy Dean Show."
In 1969, Dean went into the sausage business, starting the Jimmy Dean Meat Co. in his hometown. He sold the company to Sara Lee Corp. in 1984.
Dean lived in semi-retirement with his wife, who is a songwriter and recording artist, on their 200-acre estate just outside Richmond .
In 2009 a fire gutted their home, but his Grammy for "Big Bad John," a puppet made by Muppets creator Jim Henson, a clock that had belonged to Prince Charles and Princess Diana and other valuables were saved.
Donna Meade Dean said the couple had just moved back into their reconstructed home.
With his drawled wisecracks and quick wit, Dean charmed many fans. But in both entertainment and business circles, he was also known for his tough hide. He fired bandmate Roy Clark, who went onto "Hee Haw" fame, for showing up late for gigs.
More recently, a scrap with Sara Lee led to national headlines. The Chicago-based company let him go as spokesman in 2003, inciting Dean's wrath. He issued a statement titled "Somebody doesn't like Sara Lee," claiming he was dumped because he got old.
"Big Bad John," which is about a coal miner who saves fellow workers when a mine roof collapses, became a big hit in 1961 and won a Grammy. The star wrote it in less than two hours.
His fame led him to a string of television shows, including "The Jimmy Dean Show" on CBS. Dean's last big TV stint was ABC's version of "The Jimmy Dean Show" from 1963 to 1966.
Dean in February was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame. He was to be inducted in October .
Dean became a headliner at venues such as Carnegie Hall and the Hollywood Bowl and became the first country star to play on the Strip.
He was the first guest host on "The Tonight Show," and also was an actor with parts in television and the movies, including the role of James Bond's ally Willard Whyte in the 1971 film "Diamonds Are Forever."