Indianapolis Has Lost Its Adopted Son, Jim Nabors

Andy Clary Photo

Indianapolis Motor Speedway. [Andy Clary Photo]

by Allan Brewer

American pop culture, and by extension the Indianapolis 500, lost a mountainous talent on Wednesday evening.

James Thurston Nabors was born on June 12, 1930, in Sylacauga, Ala., the third child and only son of Fred and Mavis Nabors. His father was a police officer.

Jim sang in his school glee club and played the clarinet in the band. After earning a Business degree from the University of Alabama, he moved to New York entertaining longings for a stage career on Broadway. Those hopes were never fulfilled.

A son of the south, Jim returned by way of a television station in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He had a talent for film-editing and eventually parlayed his expertise into a job on the staff of NBC-TV in Los Angeles.

It was in LA that Jim first performed onstage, for no pay, at the Horn, a cabaret in Santa Monica, where his hillbilly monologues and operatic arias caught the notice of the comic actor Andy Griffith who decided that Nabors’s nasal twang and down-home ways made him a natural for “The Andy Griffith Show.”

“Andy saw me, and he said, ‘I don’t know what you do, but you do it very well,’ ” Nabors once recalled.

It was with Griffith that Nabors created an American “everyman” character named Gomer Pyle that so well-typified the innocence of a naïve country bumpkin that it continues to resonate to this day. The lanky, affable Pyle will forever be associated with the hard-working auto-shop mechanic, wiping hands on a shop rag, offering a frank assessment of every vehicular malady.

This contextual picture is essential to understanding Jim’s appeal. After a very successful fictional TV stint with the U.S. Marines, he could once again entertain his designs on a singing career, which he did with a baritone’s booming, mellifluous tone perfect for a big American anthem full of patriotism and love of home.

I remember the first time Jim Nabors performed at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. I was there. It was 1972, and won by the late Mark Donohue and (in his first Indy 500 victory) owner Roger Penske. Like most people at the Speedway that day I had little notion that Jim could sing—anything—much less a beloved and spiritual “Back Home Again in Indiana.”

I remember Jim Nabors’ introduction, a whisper of bewilderment from the massive crowd, and the curious juxtaposition of Gomer Pyle and the beautiful Memorial Day ceremony that precedes the race each year. Then I soon heard a sound more realistic and natural than I have ever heard before. It was a true “knock your socks off” experience that I am struggling to convey to you what I experienced because it was so different from the twangy, hackneyed parody I expected to hear.

When you heard him sing you forgot “Gawwwwleee” and his gorgeous voice would fill you with joy and a longing at once, like two notes sung at the same time, perfectly incongruous and fully joyful.

I was that day and forevermore impressed by what Jim did in that recital, and, perhaps most telling of all, the character and professionalism of his performance. High performers attract high performers, and Jim was a pretty amazing person to accomplish his dream on a stage far grander than one on 42nd Street.

Jim Nabors is fully deserving of his status as an artistic and beloved legend. Perhaps this commentary does not seem objective in an obituary, but I get passionate when I see excellence in action, and Jim Nabors was excellence who remained humble and true until the end.

Rest in Peace, Jim. The majestic celestial voices you join have never sounded better before.

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