In 2014, a few weeks before he sang “Back Home Again in Indiana” for the last time at the Indianapolis 500, Jim Nabors told the Indianapolis Star about the first time he'd done the honors, 42 years earlier.
Attending the race as a guest, Nabors met Tony Hulman, owner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, who on impulse asked him if he would be willing to do the opening song that day.
“I thought I was going to sing 'The Star-Spangled Banner,' ” Nabors told the Star. “When Mr. Hulman said, 'Sing the song,' naturally, I thought that's what he meant,” Nabors said, laughing. Moments before showtime, the band leader told him the song was “(Back Home Again in) Indiana.”
“I looked at him and said, 'Well I'm from Alabama!' ”
Familiar with the “Back Home Again” tune but shaky on the lyrics, he wrote them on his hand – “and suddenly they said, 'you're on.' ”
As any self-respecting race fan knows, Nabors turned that impromptu performance into a tear-inducing Indiana tradition, performing at 35 more 500s.
After Nabors died at 87 Thursday in Honolulu, Hawaii, most of America recalled him first as Gomer Pyle, the twangy-voiced, lovable character he played on “The Andy Griffith Show”; the talented baritone singer was his widely admired alter-ego. In Indiana, it was those rich renditions of a cherished song that first came to mind.
Nabors was stunned by the crowd's reaction to his first rendition of “Back Home.”
He told the Star's Leslie Bailey, “I became a Hoosier that day.”