Our hearts are hurting this afternoon as reports confirmed the passing of Indianapolis 500 icon, Jim Nabors (1930-2017). At Open-Wheels, we offer the Nabors family our condolences and wish them strength in this somber time.
James Thurston Nabors, born June 12, 1930, spent the earliest parts of his life growing up in small town Sylacauga, Alabama. Naturally drawn to singing, Nabors spent time performing for his high school and church before enrolling as a student at the University of Alabama. While at Alabama, he became a member of the Delta Tau Delta fraternity and continued his career in entertainment by taking part in university skits.
Following graduation, Jim spent time in New York City, Chattanooga, Tennessee and eventually Los Angeles, California, with asthma problems relocating him from the south to the west coast. While in Southern California, Nabors joined NBC as a film cutter and spent time working at The Horn, a tavern in Santa Monica where he also sang and acted in theatre form.
His time at The Horn sparked what would be the breakthrough in his career, with the notorious Andy Griffith discovering Nabors’ talents and hiring him to play the role of “Gomer Pyle” on the show bearing Griffith’s name. Initially signed as a one-off deal, Nabors’ character garnered extensive popularity to the point where he was made a regular on the show for the remainder of its running.
Making his singing debut on air for the first time on February 22, 1964, Nabors drew additional praise as a performer and subsequently secured opportunities in both the recording and live performance industries.
Nabors enjoyed bevy of opportunities following his time on The Andy Griffith Show, including his own show The Jim Nabors Hour from 1969 to 1971, appearances in multiple feature-length films and even a theatrical performance in the 1980s with Florence Henderson titled The Music Man.
While his successes reach far and wide in the entertainment industry, motorsport fans link Nabors to his annual singing of Back Home Again in Indiana at the Indianapolis 500.
Appearing for the first time in 1972, Nabors would become part of the fabric within the event’s pre-race ceremonies. His rich baritone voice meshed exquisitely with the excitement that is found on race morning at Indianapolis, and he became one of the most recognizable figures in Indianapolis 500 lore.
Recalling his first opportunity to sing at the race, Nabors thought he was slotted to perform the National Anthem. “When I got over there to meet the conductor of the Purdue band, I said ‘What key do you do this in?’ He looked at me and said, ‘We only got one key.’ I said, ‘No, Star-Spangled Banner’s got two keys.’ He said, ‘You’re not singing that,’ and I said, ‘What the hell am I singing?’”
He spoke of the thousands of fans filling the frontstretch at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and how he hardly knew the song. “I said, ‘I know the melody, but I don’t know the words.’ This is a true story, I’m writing on my hands the words,” Nabors said, explaining the time period of five minutes between when he was told he would perform Back Home Again in Indiana and when he went to the microphone.
What followed, as they say, is history. Nabors would perform at Indianapolis 35 more times over a course of 42 years. In 2014 he performed the song for the final time, citing health and traveling concerns as a reason to close the book on an illustrious career.
We will miss Jim Nabors dearly, and while another Jim (Chicago Blackhawks National Anthem singer Jim Corneilson) is back in 2018 after doing a fine job this past May, the presence of Nabors cannot be replaced. He is a part of the Indianapolis 500’s golden age and should be remembered as a gracious, kind and exemplary individual that worked his way from the heart of Alabama to race day royalty at the Racing Capital of the World.
“You know, there’s a time in life when you have to move on. I just figured it was time,” said Nabors before his final appearance in 2014.
“This is really the highlight of my year to come here. It’s very sad for me, but nevertheless, there’s something inside of me that tells me when it’s time to go.”