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…”
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).
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.
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.
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.”