Jim Nabors died today at the age of 87, his husband said, after being in declining health for a year. And while he became famous as Gomer Pyle, the good-natured blockhead from The Andy Griffith Show who later joined the Marines and got a show for himself, he was known to racing fans for “(Back Home Again In) Indiana,” which he sang at dozens of runnings of the Indianapolis 500 beginning in 1972.
He last performed it in 2014:
Nabors was not from Indiana—he was born and grew up in Alabama, before eventually landing in Los Angeles—but the song and his performance became iconic.
According to The Indianapolis Star, it all started as a bit of an accident.
Nabors first visited the Speedway in 1972 while in Indianapolis for a song-and-dance performance with Florence Henderson. He was a Las Vegas headliner at the time.
Later that year he attended his first 500, as the guest of Bill Harrah, the Vegas impresario and race fan. The Speedway’s owner, Tony Hulman, knew Harrah and dropped by his seat for a brief visit on race morning. Hulman recognized Nabors from television.
“He said, ‘Welcome, want to sing?’ “ Nabors recalled in a 2007 IndyStar interview. “’Sure,’ I said.”
It was a last-minute proposition by the usually well-prepared Hulman. Nabors was to go on before several hundred thousand race fans in 20 minutes. Nabors was calm, though, because he assumed he’d been asked to sing the national anthem, which he knew well. Only moments before showtime was he told he’d be singing “(Back Home Again in) Indiana.”
Nabors stayed cool — he knew the tune, and some of the lyrics. He scribbled some reminders on his hand.
He pulled it off. He was a comical person at the time, he was Gomer Pyle. But he sang the song straight up, and people liked it. Within a few short years Nabors was an integral part of what is billed as “the greatest spectacle in racing.”
Like most, I first came to know Nabors through Gomer Pyle, USMC, which my dad adored and forced me to watch a lot growing up. It was because of Indy, though, that I came to love him. RIP Jim Nabors.