'Back Home Again,' Jim Nabors intertwined in Indy 500 tradition

Updated: May 25, 2007, 3:31 PM ET
Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS -- Jim Nabors never planned to perform "Back Home Again in Indiana" at the Indianapolis 500. In fact, when speedway owner Tony Hulman first asked him to sing on the morning of the 1972 race, Nabors thought he was being tapped for "The Star-Spangled Banner."

The band director set him straight, then asked with some concern whether Nabors, who lives in Hawaii, knew the words to "Back Home Again."

"I said, 'Well, I think I know part of it," Nabors said. "I wrote down the song so I wouldn't screw it up -- wrote it down on my hand."

Thirty-five years later, Nabors has become as much a part of Indy 500 tradition as the song itself.

Both are a bit unlikely for the role: Nabors is an Alabama native who never has lived in Indiana, a performer best known as the TV character Gomer Pyle. And the song, which waxes poetic about new-mown hay and candlelight through the sycamores, is an example of musical thievery, lifting liberally from the mostly forgotten official state song, a somber ode about the deaths of a mother and sweetheart.

While an illness will keep Nabors from taking the microphone at Sunday's race for the first time since 1986, loud applause from the thousands filling the grandstands that surround the 2½-mile oval has greeted him for years.

"I've never thought of that as relating to me," Nabors said of the crowd's reaction. "It's always relating to the song and to the race. It is applauding for the tradition of the race and the excitement."

"Back Home Again" -- originally titled "Indiana" -- debuted as part of the Indy 500 in 1946. That year, James Melton, a New York Metropolitan Opera performer and car collector, took the microphone about 45 minutes before the race, which was the first run since a four-year break during World War II.

"It just got a lot of positive comments, so they invited him back to do it again the next year," said Donald Davidson, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway's historian.

Within a few years, organizers moved the song into its current spot in the Memorial Day weekend tradition -- right between the playing of taps and the command to start engines.

Mel Torme, Dinah Shore, Morton Downey Sr., Peter Marshall and others took turns at the microphone during the years. Many times, the decision on who would perform the song with the Purdue University marching band waited until race day.

"They were just last-minute things," Davidson said. "If there wasn't a celebrity that was available to do it, then Purdue would have one of their own people."

That changed once Nabors gave the song his voice.

"The first year that he did it, I remember a lot of people saying, 'Oh, yeah, Gomer, what's he doing here?' People didn't know he could sing," Davidson said. "After about three, four years, he became a tradition and people were unhappy when he wasn't doing it."

James Hanley and Ballard MacDonald wrote "Back Home Again" in 1917 after they received permission from the publishers of "On the Banks of the Wabash," written 20 years earlier, to use two bars of its music, said Clayton Henderson, a biographer of "Wabash" composer Paul Dresser.

Hanley and MacDonald borrowed a bit more than two bars, however. The refrain of their song parrots references to the song about the Wabash, a river that winds nearly the full length of Indiana.

Dresser died in 1906, and the Indiana Legislature in 1913 designated "Wabash" as the state song.

"Back Home Again" became a common jazz tune, frequently played by Louis Armstrong and others, but little attention was paid to the similarities between the two songs until the newer one was included in the 1940 film "Remember the Night." Henderson said Dresser's brother threatened to sue for copyright violation, but that effort was complicated by the agreement between the "Back Home Again" composers and Dresser's publishing house. He eventually dropped the matter.

"I wonder whether a court would call it plagiarism these days. I suspect they might," said Henderson, a retired music professor at St. Mary's College in South Bend.

The 76-year-old Nabors lives in Hawaii following his days in the 1960s TV comedies "The Andy Griffith Show" and "Gomer Pyle, USMC." He has returned to sing at the Indy 500 nearly every May for the past 35 years -- even bringing his doctor with him in 1994, months after undergoing a liver transplant.

The speedway plans to have Nabors address fans this year from the video boards around the track, and fans will be asked to sing "Back Home Again." Nabors says he plans to return for the race "as long as I can sing and they still want me."

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press

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