Click to listen

Click to listen

Sept. 22: Jimmy Dean hadn’t had a hit in nine years when he flew from New York to Nashville in August of 1961, for a Columbia Records session that could well have been his last. Little did he know that the spoken-word story song he wrote on the plane would revive his career by becoming a country — and pop — sensation.

Dean based the hero of “Big Bad John” — who “stood 6-foot-6 and weighed 245” — on someone he knew: an actor of small success but large stature. Realizing he needed a fourth song for the Aug. 18 session, Dean created a compelling tale of a tough-but-soft-spoken drifter who gave his life to save his colleagues from a mine collapse. But to me, the real key to the record’s success was the arrangement.

According to Jordanaires leader Gordon Stoker, the “Big John … Big Joh-ohn” background voicings and “big, bad John” hook were devised by the late Neal Matthews, the group’s second tenor and arranger. (Matthews invented the chart system that allowed session musicians to quickly learn the songs in the studio. Read about that here.)

The other hallmark of the song is the pick-ax sound effect throughout. Credit the late Floyd Cramer for that. He suggested there was no need for his piano part, so he hung a metal door stop on a coat hanger and banged it with a hammer.

Two other notes:

  • This recording is among the few, and perhaps the only, that included the Jordanaires AND Anita Kerr, whose Anita Kerr Singers was Music Row’s other great vocal group. Stoker says someone at the Dean session thought a female voice was needed. So Kerr, who was recording in another room within the Bradley studios on 16th Avenue, was fetched to provide it.
  • The last line as written (and originally recorded) is: “At the bottom of this mine lies one hell of a man — Big John.” But back then, there was controversy in even the mildest of cussin’, so the more familiar “lies a big, big man” was substituted.

“Big Bad John,” released as a single 48 years ago today, ended Dean’s dry spell in a big way. The first of several hits for him over the next few years, it reached No. 1 on Billboard’s country, pop and adult contemporary charts, and won a Grammy in 1962. (Read more about the song, all of Dean’s output, and Dean himself.)

Still to come was that sausage thing, which you can snack on here.

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