In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
Before you ask: Yes, the Jimmy Dean who hit #1 with “Big Bad John” was the Jimmy Dean Sausages Jimmy Dean. Dean founded the Jimmy Dean Sausage Company in 1969, and he appeared in its TV ads for many years, even after the Sara Lee Corporation bought Dean’s company and took over its management in 1984. Dean was also the first-ever guest on Johnny Carson’s version of The Tonight Show. As a TV host, Dean was also the first person to put Jim Henson’s Muppets on television. And as an actor, he played a good-hearted billionaire in the James Bond movie Diamonds Are Forever. Jimmy Dean’s life was crazy.
Before all that, though, Dean was a country singer who also worked as a radio host. The story of “Big Bad John” is that he needed a fourth song to record during a session, and he sketched out its lyrics on a plane when he was flying to that session. The country legend Roy Acuff helped him polish them up, and Floyd Cramer, hired to play piano on the song, had the idea that he should hit a piece of steel with a hammer instead.
“Big Bad John” is a story-song about a big, strong, mysterious motherfucker who rolls into town one day. Nobody knows what his story is, but rumors persist: “Somebody said he came from New Orleans / Where he got into a fight over a Cajun queen / And a crashing blow from a huge right hand / Sent a Louisiana fella to the promised man.” Everyone’s scared of John, and nobody gets to know him. But one day, when a mine collapses, John sacrifices himself saving the lives of the men who’d kept their distance from him. Dean came up with that story himself, but it feels like American folklore.
The song itself exists to serve the narrative. Dean doesn’t really sing the song; he intones it, his Texan drawl adding a sense of atmosphere. The arrangement is spare; everything stays out of Dean’s way. The backup singers just sing John’s name, sounding awed. And I love Dean’s writing, his ability to tell you everything you need to know about this situation with a few finely sketched details. It all sounds epic: “Through the dust and the smoke of this man-made hell / Walked a giant of a man that the miners knew well.”
Dean would eventually record a couple of sequels to “Big Bad John,” and they’re both pretty bad. In “The Cajun Queen,” the woman John loved saves him from the bottom of the mine — he’s still alive, somehow — and they go on to have hundreds of grandkids. And in “Little Bitty Big John,” John’s enormous son learns the story of his father’s heroism. Dean didn’t tell either of those stories remotely as well, and the stories don’t have the same intense simplicity, either. Maybe it’s the fact that I am also a giant of a man, but I’ve got intense sympathy for the character, and I get caught up in that story every time I hear it. It’s a perfect American tale, told exactly the way it should be told.
BONUS BEATS: In 1990, Dean starred in a TV-movie adaptation of “Big Bad John,” playing a sheriff who’s trying to bring John to justice. Here’s a trailer: