I can still recall the first time hearing Jim Nabors, who I’d watched on the Andy Griffith Show as Gomer Pyle perform that first time. His rich singing voice was a stunning, if not shocking, contrast to the Pyle “Gawly Sargent Carter” or “Shazam! Shazam! Shazam!” to anyone who had never heard him sing.
The affection for Jim at Indy and his love of the famed race grew with each year’s performance of “Back Home Again”. Fans, drivers, crews, staff, all who knew him met a true gentleman who became an adopted son of Indiana or as Jim would say, “I became a Hoosier on that day [the first time he sang the song].”
Here below is the video of his last time to sing at the 500 in May of 2014.
Every time he ever sang “Back Home Again”
Jim Nabors at Indy YouTube Playlist
This story was written by Jim Ayello and originally published on Indy Star
An Icon of the Indianapolis 500 Passes.
During his last appearance at the Speedway Jim Nabors waves to fans before the 98th Indianapolis 500 race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Sunday, May 25, 2014. (Photo: Mike Fender / The Star)
INDIANAPOLIS — “I’ll bet you,” Indianapolis Motor Speedway historian Donald Davidson starts, “that if the IndyStar ran a poll about who is the most beloved, iconic person in the history of the track, (Jim Nabors) would be No. 1. Even ahead of most of the drivers.”
Nabors, who died Thursday at the age of 87, was a staple of the Indianapolis 500 with his cherished rendition of “(Back Home Again in) Indiana.” He sang before “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” more than 35 times over 42 years. Davidson, a fellow 500 icon and adopted Hoosier, kindly shared his memories of the man entrusted for nearly a half-century with one of the most sacred honors in the tradition-rich race.
By now, most fans of Nabors and the 500 have heard the tale of how he first came to sing the legendary song. The story goes that while attending the 1972 race as a guest of Casino operator Bill Harrah, Nabors was invited — just 20 minutes beforehand — to sing the song. At first, he thought he was going to sing the national anthem but upon learning that wasn’t the case, he quickly scribbled the words to “(Back Home Again in) Indiana” on his hand so that he didn’t mess them up. “I became a Hoosier that day,” Nabors memorably said.
However, what many fans might not know was how the surprised crowd reacted to Nabors’ debut.
Shortly after his death, many of his fans took to Twitter to say that his yearly rendition reduced them to tears, but after the very first time Nabors sang “(Back Home Again in) Indiana,” many people in the crowd laughed. It wasn’t that he was bad — not at all — but many couldn’t get over the fact that TV’s good-natured knucklehead Gomer Pyle was belting out the song. “A lot of people didn’t even know he could sing,” Davidson said with a chuckle. “They were saying, ‘Gomer? What’s he doing here?’ And they started laughing.”
But after three or four more years, Nabors had become part of the fabric of the race — so much so that when others tried their hand at the song, fans told Davidson, “Why doesn’t Jim Nabors come back? We liked him!”
“It got to the point, where him singing was the most important freaking thing that could happen,” Davidson said. “I’m being facetious, but it was almost like if he couldn’t do it, then we have to cancel the race!”
Nabors’ reputation as gentleman was well-earned and beyond reproach, Davidson said. “What I remember about in him is that he was truly a genuine person with everyone,” Davidson said. “He loved fans; he looked you in the eye, put his arm around you, gave you a hug, whatever you wanted. I remember he typically would come into the museum after the parade and go to the gift shop and was such a delight with everyone there. He was such a sweet person.”
Davidson had always believed Nabors to be a kind person, but that was made abundantly clear in 2014, the final year Nabors performed at the 500. Davison recalls attending at a packed drivers meeting ahead of the race and watching legendary driver Mario Andretti enter the room right before the meeting started and finding nowhere to sit.
That’s when the 83-year-old Nabors shouted, “Hey, Mario, over here, over here!”
“The guy was going to get up and let Mario sit in his seat!” an astounded Davidson remembers. After that, there was some shuffling and both legends were able to sit, but Davidson will never forget how kind Nabors was in that moment and in life. “He was such a gracious man,” Davidson said. “He just seemed to like everybody, always wearing that grin.”
After singing “(Back Home Again in) Indiana” every year from 1987 to 2006, Nabors was unable to return in 2007 because of an illness. However, he made his comeback in 2008, and Davidson said for the life of him, he cannot remember a warmer reception than the one the IMS crowd gave Nabors that day.
“Ladies and gentlemen, he’s back!” Said pre-race emcee and WTHR’s Dave Calabro. “Here to perform ‘(Back Home Again in) Indiana,’ ladies and gentlemen, our good friend, Mr. Jim Nabors!” And the place went berserk, Davidson said. People were waving their hats and programs in the air, going crazy. “It was an astonishing ovation,” Davidson recalls. “It was amazing.”
Funny enough, Nabors missed it, Davidson said. He was looking down, maybe taking one last look at the lyrics before performing. “I don’t know what he was doing, but I kept thinking, ‘My god, look up, look up, look up!’” Davidson said.
It was such a special moment, Davidson felt compelled to tell him. So he did. A couple of years later, when Nabors went to the museum the afternoon before the race, Davidson relayed his memories to Nabors. “He really didn’t know,” Davidson said, “but when I told him, he just grinned. … He was just so beloved.”
Related: Jim Nabors, beloved Indy 500 ‘Back Home’ singer and TV’s Gomer Pyle, dead at 87
Will Higgins, firstname.lastname@example.org Published 1:08 p.m. ET Nov. 30, 2017 | Updated 9:37 a.m. ET Dec. 1, 2017