Jim Nabors: The Sad Death of a Living Legend & Friend

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The Associated Press reported yesterday that Jim Nabors, “… the shy Alabaman whose down-home comedy made him a TV star as Gomer Pyle and whose surprisingly operatic voice kept him a favorite in Las Vegas and other showplaces, died Thursday. He was 87. Nabors died peacefully at his home in Hawaii after his health had declined for the past year, said his husband, Stan Cadwallader, who was by his side. “Everybody knows he was a wonderful man. And that’s all we can say about him. He’s going to be dearly missed.”

“The couple married in early 2013 in Washington State, where gay marriage had recently been made legal. Nabors’ friends had known for years that he was gay, but he had never said anything to the media. “It’s pretty obvious that we had no rights as a couple, yet when you’ve been together 38 years, I think something’s got to happen there, you’ve got to solidify something,” Nabors told Hawaii News Now at the time. “And at my age, it’s probably the best thing to do.”

According to The Associated Press, “Nabors became an instant success when he joined “The Andy Griffith Show” in the early 1960s. The character of Gomer Pyle, the unworldly, lovable gas pumper who would exclaim “Gollllll-ly!” proved so popular that in 1964 CBS starred him in “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.” Audiences saw another side of Nabors in appearances in TV variety programs — his booming baritone and his full-throated operatic arias was stunning. For two seasons beginning in 1969, CBS presented “The Jim Nabors Hour,” on which he joshed with guest stars, did sketches and sang country and opera.

“Offstage, Nabors retained some of the awed innocence of Gomer. At the height of his fame in 1969, he admitted, “For the first four years of the series, I didn’t trust my success. Every weekend and on every vacation, I would take off to play nightclubs and concerts, figuring the whole thing would blow over some day. He recorded more than two dozen albums and sang with the Dallas and St. Louis symphony orchestras. During the 1970s he moved to Hawaii, buying a 500-acre macadamia ranch. “I was completely burned out,” he later recalled. “I’d had it with the bright lights.”

“Among his regular gigs was singing “Back Home Again in Indiana” at the Indianapolis 500 each year, which he first did in 1972. The first time, he wrote the lyrics on his hand so he wouldn’t forget. “I’ve never thought of (the audience reaction) as relating to me,” Nabors said. “It’s always relating to the song and to the race. It is applauding for the tradition of the race and the excitement.” Illness forced him to cancel his appearance in 2007, the first one he had missed in more than 20 years. He was back performing at Indy in 2008, saying, “It’s always the main part of my year. It just thrills you to your bones.”

Picking up from The Associated Press story, I have my own happy recollections of this sweet and humble man whose talents reached millions.

Jim Nabors Honolulu, 2006. Left to Right: Dave Banmiller, Brian Banmiller, Jim Nabors, Frank Eck

While my twin brother David was President of Aloha Airlines, he became close friends with Nabors in Hawaii. It was though him that I first met Jim over lunch in Honolulu. He was gracious and charming, not the personality you might expect from a true star with a “household name”.

During lunch I told Jim the shock I felt when I first saw him on the Perry Como show. After doing his “Gomer Pyle” routine, he stopped, cued the orchestra, and sang the most amazing song with a voice that was anything but Gomer Pyle. I asked him how he did that so well. He stopped his conversational voice and turned into “Gomer Pyle” speaking in that hillbilly voice complete with “Golllll-ly” at the end. We doubled over in laughter. Jim beamed. He still liked an audience.

The last time we spoke was shortly after his unannounced wedding to his longtime partner Stan Cadwallader hit the media. Stan had sat in our private lunch in Honolulu and was equally charming. My brother suggested we call Jim and Stan to offer our congratulations. Typical of Jim, he was very gracious but wanted to know what we were up to. We chatted for a while and promised to get together again when next in Hawaii. I promised to bring my wife who knew of his great talent.

Sadly we will not have that opportunity to again hear that wonderful voice over a fun meal.


This article was originally published on November 30, 2017.

Brian Banmiller

About Brian

CBS News Radio national business journalist Brian Banmiller has spent more than 40 years in the news industry, covering business, politics and the economy on television, radio and in print. Currently, his “Banmiller on Business” reports are delivered to an audience of millions nationwide.

 
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