Remembering Jim Nabors, 1930-2017

Jim Nabors at WRGP Channel 3 in Chattanooga, 1957

Thanks to the glorious black-and-white films of the Andy Griffith Show, Jim Nabors will never die.  “Gomer Pyle” will outlive us all.  So will Sheriff Andy, Deputy Barney, Aunt Bee, Opie, Goober, and Ernest T. Bass.

Nabors did so much in a career that spanned more than six decades.  But he is forever ingrained in our memories for twenty-three episodes of Andy’s show that originally aired from 1962 to 1964.  Remember “Citizens’ Array-est!” If not, don’t worry, it will be on TV somewhere very soon.

After leaving the Griffith show, he starred in his own sitcom, “Gomer Pyle USMC,” and “The Jim Nabors Hour,” a variety show, both on CBS.  His recording and concert career was hugely successful, giving him a chance to showcase the rich baritone singing voice that surprised so many when it was unveiled on national TV.

That brings me to my Chattanooga Jim Nabors story. His employment at Channel 3 in the late 1950s is something we point to with pride.  The Sylacauga, Alabama native moved to Chattanooga in 1957 to join the crew at the one-year-old station, then known as WRGP, with studios at 1214 McCallie Avenue across from Warner Park.

Long before the proliferation of national network and syndicated programming, local stations like Channel 3 produced variety shows, staged in a tiny, cramped studio under hot lights. Local TV was largely considered to be “radio with pictures” back then, and they took it quite literally. It was not uncommon for a host to hold up a copy of “Life” or “Look” magazine, or a book of travel photos, and just hold it up to the camera and flip through the pages while an instrumental record played in the background.

Eventually they enlisted live entertainers.  Local singers, musicians and dancers were invited to appear, and that worked out pretty well, except for one thing.  If they called in sick, or got snowed in, the TV host still had an hour to fill.

One day, such an occurrence changed the life of Nabors, who up until then, had been behind the scenes.

“Jimmy” Nabors, as they called him then, was 26. Back home in Alabama, he had sung in high school and church, and had acted in a few plays while attending the University of Alabama. To get his foot in the door of a TV station, he took the job at Channel 3.  He was responsible for “cutting,” or editing the film from commercials and news stories.

One afternoon, while the daily “Holiday for Housewives” hour was airing, a scheduled guest didn’t show up, and the host realized he had several minutes left in the show.  He sent assistants scrambling through the station’s offices, asking co-workers if they had any hidden talents.  If so, they said, now’s your chance. Eventually, they spotted Nabors in the film room.  They asked, “Jimmy, is there anything you can do on live TV?” In his natural Alabama drawl he replied, “Well, I can sing” (although that word sounded like “sang” coming out of his mouth).

There was no time to check the accuracy of his claims, so they rushed him into the studio, turned on the lights, handed him the microphone, and crossed their fingers.

What happened next was a TV miracle, the stuff of which legends are made. The film cutter with the high-pitched, twangy accent opened his mouth, and out came the richest, purest baritone they had ever heard.  When he finished, everyone looked at each other in amazement, and then looked at Nabors. “Wow, we had no idea, you were absolutely great!” He just smiled back and said, “Well, I told ya I could sang…”

Jim Nabors at WRGP Channel 3, 1957

He was also very active in Chattanooga’s theater community, performing at the Pan-O-Ram Club on Lookout Mountain, and in plays at the Little Theater (now Chattanooga Theatre Center).

Jim Nabors with Barbara Molloy at WRGP Channel 3, 1957

It was soon apparent that Nabors’ talents were best suited in front of the camera, and with the help of Chattanooga mentors like Farol Seretean and Helen Patterson (a Channel 3 manager, and wife of station owner Ramon G. Patterson), he was able to do auditions in Hollywood.

Farol Seretean and Jim Nabors in 1978 (State of Florida Photo Archives)

Andy Griffith was in the audience while Nabors was performing at The Horn, a nightclub in Santa Monica. Griffith decided he would find a spot in Mayberry for the talented newcomer, and the character of Gomer Pyle was created with Nabors in mind.

Here’s a fun fact I have discovered: On April 16, 1966, he appeared at Chattanooga’s Memorial Auditorium in concert, in a fundraiser for the 365 Club.  He was not billed as “Jim Nabors.”  Frankly, most of America (and our town) knew him by his character’s name.  So it was billed as a Gomer Pyle show.  Either way, it must have been a great feeling headlining in the town you left six years earlier, as a behind-the-scenes TV station employee.

Jim Nabors, Carol Burnett, and Harvey Korman in 1968

From 1967 to 1978, Nabors was the traditional season-opener guest on the Carol Burnett Show, with Burnett referring to him as “my good luck charm.” He also appeared in films, and sang at the opening ceremony for the Indianapolis 500 for more than forty years. In retirement, he lived in Hawaii, still beloved by millions of fans.

As he proudly told me in a 1996 interview (excerpted below), it all started in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

This story is excerpted from my book “Volunteer Bama Dawg.” 

About David Carroll

David Carroll is a longtime Chattanooga radio and TV broadcaster, and has anchored the evening news on WRCB-TV since 1987. He is the author of "Chattanooga Radio & Television" published by Arcadia.

8 thoughts on “Remembering Jim Nabors, 1930-2017

  1. James rogers

    Thank you David for the great strory about Jim Nabors. He was a great talent and nice man and we have lost a real treasure.

    I had the opportunity to meet him and work with him during my Music Mansion days. He definitely has a special place in our hearts and we are so thankful for the talent he shared with us

    Reply
  2. Debra Cooper

    Jim Nabors is the type of actor/entertainer that we don’t seem to find much any more. He made you feel like you knew him and if you met him that he would treat you as a neighbor and friend. Loved him on Andy Griffith Show (just saw the rerun of “Citizens Array-est!!!” a couple of days ago. The world has lost another great talent and he will be missed. Thank you for sharing with us.

    Reply
  3. Gayle Mitchell

    We met Mr Nabors on a flight to Hawaii probably 40 years ago. He was in first class and of course we were in coach and during the long flight he walked back to coach and started talking to someone across from us. Just had to ask for his autograph and he so sweetly signed an airline napkin for us, which I still proudly have. His smile from ear to ear and that voice was something to remember! RIP

    Reply
  4. Jerry Lingerfelt

    I was just starting out as a DJ at WDXB in 1957 and had the pleasure of meeting Jim and attending some Little Theater performances and parties. He was a very talented man. I did not know all of the story you have told here but glad that some of the stories I had heard were true. JL

    Reply
    1. John Lewis

      Jerry, I remember Jim Nabors from Channel 3 when I was a kid. I used to drop by, knew Dave Carlock and Tommy Eason. I knew Jim Nabors, and he was always vey friend to me, probably because I knew the two who supplied the film.

      I remember you and Larry Johnson from WDXB when I was at the Rogers Theatre, Asst Mgr to Clyde Hawkins. We had a lot
      of Film Promos at the Rogers. I distinctly remember “Birdman of Alcatraz” and many more. Glad to know you are still around, and hope you are doing well.

      Reply
  5. Kim Molloy

    David, Thank you for posting these memories of Jim Nabor’s and his career start in Chattanooga. We are losing so many great icon’s. He brought a lot of laughter and beautiful music to this great planet.

    Reply

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