“Did you hear that voice, Andy? Did you hear that beautiful instrument out there?,” choir director John Masters (Olan Soule) asked Sheriff Andy Taylor (Andy Griffith) on the February 24, 1964 episode of The Andy Griffith Show. Masters had just heard Gomer Pyle, the lovably sweet-natured, bumbling gas station attendant portrayed by Jim Nabors with a thick southern drawl, break out in song. Singing along to the traditional Neapolitan melody “Santa Lucia” as he changed a tire on the street outside the Mayberry auditorium, Gomer had revealed Nabors’ real singing voice – burnished, resonant and powerful. Members of the television viewing audience could have been forgiven if they exclaimed a Gomer-style “Go-l-l-l-y!” at the discovery.
Throughout a long and prosperous career, Jim Nabors lived to entertain, whether via his gentle, homespun humor or his earnest balladry. Nabors, who has died at 87 years of age, made his mark on all facets of entertainment. On television, he parlayed his beloved Andy Griffith Show character onto his own sitcom, Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C., before charming audiences as himself on The Jim Nabors Hour and making yearly appearances with his close friend Carol Burnett on her own, groundbreaking variety show. His music career was equally impressive. In roughly a decade at Columbia Records, Nabors recorded around 20 full-length albums, including Jim Nabors’ Christmas Album, a perennial classic which became the best-selling Christmas album of the 1969 holiday season…two years after its original release.
As the 1970s progressed, Jim Nabors moved on from Columbia to the Lawrence Welk-founded Ranwood label as he balanced recording with stage and television commitments. He dabbled in drama on ABC’s The Rookies and in children’s television on Sid and Marty Krofft’s The Lost Saucer. Nabors received a Daytime Emmy nomination in 1978 for the brief, syndicated run of the new, talk-oriented Jim Nabors Show, and appeared alongside his friend Burt Reynolds in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982), Stroker Ace (1983) and Cannonball Run II in which he appeared as “Private Homer Lyle” (1984). The high-rated 1986 TV movie Return to Mayberry even saw Gomer Pyle reuniting with his Andy Griffith Show co-stars.
A resident of the Aloha State since 1976, he opened a macadamia nut plantation on Maui. He hosted a yearly concert in Hawaii, A Merry Christmas with Friends and Nabors; it marked its tenth and final regular run in 2006. Nabors reprised the show in 2009 and made sporadic Christmas appearances in Hawaii at various venues including the Diamond Head Theater through 2014. Some of Nabors’ most beloved performances were given each year at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as he crooned “Back Home Again in Indiana” during the pre-race ceremony at the Indianapolis 500. The honorary Hoosier first performed the song at the event in 1972, and went on to sing it 35 times before retiring from the honor after his May 25, 2014 appearance. In January 2013, Nabors married his longtime partner, Stan Cadwallader, in Seattle. Typically modest, he told Hawaii News Now, “I’m very happy that I’ve had a partner of 38 years and I feel very blessed.”
We feel blessed, too, to have enjoyed the genial comedy and heartfelt music of Jim Nabors. In 2015, Second Disc Records and Real Gone Music issued The Complete Columbia Christmas Recordings, bringing all of Nabors’ holiday classics to CD in one package. It’s a joyful, reverent, and poignant tribute to an often-underrated artist who could always bring a smile. Rest in peace, Jim.