The Indianapolis 500’s pre-race ceremony is rich in homegrown tradition, with performances by the Purdue University All-American Marching Band and Indiana native Florence Henderson, and Terre Haute’s own Mari Hulman George issuing the famous Start your engines! command.
An outsider might assume that “Back Home Again in Indiana,” of all songs, would be performed by a born-and-raised Hoosier. Instead, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway bestowed this great honor on Jim Nabors, a man born in Alabama and currently settled in Hawaii, who is best known for playing Gomer Pyle on TV some four decades ago.
That might seem strange to someone from New York or California. But the truth is, since the first time Nabors faced an IMS crowd in 1972 and crooned the lyrics from notes scribbled hurriedly on his hand, we have embraced the Southern-bred baritone as one of our own. After a pacemaker procedure prevented him from making the trip to Indy in 2007, it was the fans who serenaded him as he watched the race from a hospital bed. And when another surgery in 2012 kept him away, a video crew traveled to Hawaii so a recording of Nabors’s rendition could be played in his stead.
Unfortunately for us, Nabors has announced that his 35th performance of Indiana’s unofficial state song on May 25 will be his last at the 500. In a revealing and wide-ranging interview, Nabors told IM why he decided to call it quits—and looked back on a life and career that have included acting advice from Andy Griffith, lunch with Eleanor Roosevelt, and watching football with Richard Nixon, to name just a few of the highlights.
Why did you decide to make this your last year performing at the Indy 500?
It’s really bittersweet. I just thought I was getting a little long in the tooth. The week after Indy I’ll be 84, and I don’t fly well anymore. It’s the highlight of my year to come there and sing, but as the old song goes, I don’t want to stay too long at the fair.
I heard you had to write the words on your hand the first time you sang “Back Home Again.”
That’s a true story. I was a guest of Mr. Harrah of Harrah Casinos, and he was a car guy. Mr. Hulman came over. He had actually seen my show at Lake Tahoe. He looked down and said, “Would you like to sing the song?” Hell, I thought he meant “The Star Spangled Banner.” I went down there five minutes before race time [pictured, 1972], and when I was introduced to the conductor of the Purdue band, I said, “What key do you guys do this in?” He said, “We’ve only got one key.” I said, “No, ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ has two keys.” He said, “You’re not singing that.” I said, “What the hell am I singing?” Scared me to death.
What was your best performance at the 500?
Gosh, anytime I got through it! I remember one year, it rained. Every time it rained, they had to dry the track off. I’d go out to sing, and just before I’d sing it would start raining again. About the third time we tried to do it, it was the middle of the afternoon by then, and the crowd started booing me because it seemed like I brought on the rain.
Do you enjoy coming to Indianapolis?
I always love watching the old families at the race. The Andrettis and the Unsers and everybody. Just watching the kids grow up and start racing themselves. I never expected to be a part of the race because I’m from Alabama, but I had such a good time the minute I first sang “Back Home Again.” I became part Hoosier. And now I root for the Colts and everything that’s Indy.
What are your plans now?
I think I earned my retirement. I sit here on my porch. The ocean is constantly changing, so there’s always something to see out there. There’s nothing else like Hawaii in the world. It’s the farthest islands from any major landmass in the world. We’re just kind of independent out here. With its own culture. For an old guy like myself, it was a Godsend. I met more fascinating people here than I ever did in Hollywood.
You own a macadamia-nut plantation in Hawaii.
Yeah, I still have it. It’s on Maui. I’ll never forget, I said this on Good Morning America, and I got so much flack. It was live. I was showing them the farm. They said, “Jim, it seems like you’ve got the world by the tail. What are you going to do for the rest of your life?” I said, “Oh, I guess I’ll just wait ’til my nuts drop.” That’s what they do, they drop. I wasn’t being tacky. They drop and we pick them up. My mother called me and said, “Why’d you say that?!”
You deserve a nice retirement. You’ve been a busy man over the years.
I did more than 200 films. And I did 46 albums. Then I played Vegas 35 years running, headlining. Each one was exciting in its own way. I was very fortunate I was able to change up my career. The smartest thing I ever did was try to become an entertainer instead of an actor! I don’t think I’m a very good actor.
But weren’t you picked up off The New Steve Allen Show as an actor?
It was just a brief thing, but then Andy Griffith saw me in the club, and he liked my character. He said, “Hey, come down, and if a part ever comes up on the show, I’ll give you a call.” And I thought suurree! I was a film editor at the time at NBC. Sure enough, he called about two weeks later and said come down. I read for the part and got it. It scared the hell out of me, so I told them, “You know, guys, I have to be honest with you, this is the first time I’ve ever acted.” And Andy looked over at me and said, “Well, hell, ain’t nothing to it.”
Do you stay in touch with Ron Howard?
I got a letter from him the other day, and it was the sweetest note. A very personal thing, and I was dumbfounded to get it. He was talking about how he just turned 60. See, I’ve known Ron since he was 6 years old. He wrote this letter, and he said that he was going to have a party for his 60th birthday. But it coincided with the Academy Awards, and too many of his friends wouldn’t be able to come. He said if he ever did decide to have the party, I would certainly be on the top of the list.
Do you like singing more than you liked acting?
I loved acting, but I never did think I was very good at it. I just did the one character. But that one character got me a lot of stuff. He was really good to me.
Did you mind being typecast?
Not at all! I enjoyed him. Because I never really considered myself a pure actor, where I could do Shakespeare and those crap things. I wish I had registered “Golly” and “Shazam.” They’ve become bywords in American vernacular.
Do people still come up and ask you to say “Golly?”
Oh sure, absolutely. It’s funny, I was watching a TV show, I don’t remember what it was, and it was one of those question-and-answer things. A silly show. But they said, “Where did the habit of kids wearing their hat sideways come from?” I wondered who that was, and I was the answer! It was Gomer Pyle on Andy Griffith.
You started a fashion trend.
Hell, I didn’t know I was a trendsetter. I just was dumbfounded that it caught on. I don’t think rappers today like to admit that they got that from Gomer.
Did you sing growing up?
I never thought I’d be a singer. That was a total surprise. I sang in the church choir and glee club, but never a solo until I was in college at Alabama in the fraternity. I used to write the sketches for the fraternity, and of course I starred in them. Ha! It sort of whetted my appetite for performing.
I was hired to sing at a wedding in Beverly Hills once. This was my first paid performance. The mother of the bride wanted me to sing “Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life.” Do you know the song? [singing] Ah! Sweet mystery of life at last I’ve found thee. Ah! I know at last the secret of it all. I learned it, and they paid me $25 to sing. They wanted their money back after this. It was an evening service by candlelight, and when I opened the door to walk into the choir loft—it was real high—it was dark as pitch. They seated the mother of the bride and groom, and I started to sing. If you’re a total amateur when you’re singing, you don’t know what to do with your hands. I was standing there with them just straight by my side, singing, and at that point, I decided to change positions and get a little dramatic. I turned and opened my arms. Then I took a step forward, but there wasn’t a step there. I vanished. I fell a whole flight of stairs. I was lying there upside down, and all I could hear was organ music. I didn’t know what to do. I had torn my tuxedo, which I had rented for half of my money. I thought I should go back, since I still needed to sing the Lord’s Prayer. I crawled back up the stairs, and as I reappeared, the congregation applauded. I did sing the Lord’s Prayer, but needless to say, my sister and I were not invited to the reception. I often wondered after that if they were watching television one night and looking at me wondering, “Is that the idiot we hired to sing at our wedding?”
Who would have guessed you’d ago on to record numerous gold records?
That’s actually 10 or 12 gold albums now. But my favorite thing that I’ve done is really going out and playing all the county fairs and state fairs and theaters around the country, because you really get to know America and the folks. I was talking to a lot of my political friends over the years, and I said, “You want to know about America, you ask me, because I’ve played everywhere.”
Have you known a lot of people in politics?
The most interesting of my first jobs was right after school. I went to New York, and I didn’t know what I wanted to do in life. I had no money whatsoever, and I read in the paper that they were hiring typists at the United Nations. I turned out to be their fastest typist. One day I worked all the way through lunch and didn’t get a break. A lady came over and said, “Jim, you’ve worked really hard. Why don’t you go on down to the Rose Garden and have your lunch.” Peons like myself were never allowed in the Rose Garden. I got very excited. I went down to the Rose Garden with my brown paper sack; I had a tuna sandwich and some chips and a drink. I was the only one in the Garden. Suddenly, an older lady came across from me smelling the roses. I recognized her, but I thought she worked upstairs. Being Alabama friendly, like I am, I said with a mouthful of tuna, “Hey, how you doing?” She turned around and said, “Oh, hello.” It was Eleanor Roosevelt. So I said, “Oh, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to interrupt you.” She walked over to me, I’ll never forget it, and she took me by my arm and said, “Swallow, dear, and then we’ll talk.”
I used to sing for every Los Angeles Rams football game when I was doing my show. I walked off the Coliseum floor and was standing by the football team; they were getting all revved up to walk on and start the game. A man came up behind me and said, “Hey, Jim, that was really good.” He stuck out his hand. Had a whole bunch of people following him. He said, “How about watching the game with me?” It was Richard Nixon. I climbed the stadium stairs and watched the game with Tricky Dick. I’ve also met Harry Truman. And Lady Bird was the first one to ever have me to the White House to entertain. Of course, the Reagans were very good friends of mine. I met a lot of interesting folks.
You got married last year. Congratulations!
Yeah! My old good buddy [Stan Cadwallader]. He’s my best friend. We just did it for legal reasons. I had to go to an emergency room one day, and he took me. While I was in the emergency, he went to park the car. They put me in the hospital, and he was trying to find me. They wouldn’t let him in because he wasn’t family. I thought, “Oh, God, this is ridiculous.” But anyway, we’ve been together for almost 40 years. It’s nice to find your best friend that you can hang with all these years. If you do it for any other reason than that, you’re in trouble. If you can find one in this life, you’re a really lucky person.
Hear Jim Nabors’s final pre–Indy 500 performance of “Back Home Again in Indiana” at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 25.
Nabors photos courtesy Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Find more Indy 500 and Month of May coverage at IM‘s May Madness blog.