“Back Home Again In Indiana”

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It was about ten o’clock on Tuesday night when I first saw it on Twitter. Jim Nabors was ill and would not be coming to Indianapolis for his traditional singing of Back Home Again In Indiana. What is so ironic about that was that on that very day, I was explaining to a co-worker how he flies from his home in Hawaii to Indianapolis every year to perform what is my personal favorite part of the month of May.

Different people have different favorites from the Indianapolis 500. To my father, it was hearing Tony Hulman say “Gentlemen, Start Your Engines”. It became a family joke to look over at him as soon as those words were uttered, and see tears streaming down his cheeks. Many look forward to watching the release of thousands of colored balloons just prior to the start. For others, that moment comes with the somber playing of Taps, in honor of Memorial Day.

For me, it is hearing Jim Nabors sing that traditional song that so strongly symbolizes the month of May to me. Perhaps it was because he was there singing it when I was still a kid. As someone pointed out here yesterday, his voice is the last audio link to the past. With the passing of Tony Hulman, Sid Collins and Tom Carnegie; the voice of Jim Nabors bellowing across the PA at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was the last sound resonating from my childhood.

We were all put on notice in 2007, when Nabors was too ill to attend, that the day would come that someone else would be put in the awkward position of filling those shoes. Fortunately, he returned to perform with the same passion we had all grown accustomed to for the next four years.

He can’t come this year because he is having a heart valve replaced later this month. Nabors will turn eighty-two in June. Even if he is completely healthy at this time next year, no one could blame him if he decided to step away for good. He has had a good run. Selfishly, I want to see and hear him perform that annual tradition for about another thirty years. Assuming that probably won’t happen, the Speedway needs to start thinking about a permanent successor – just in case 2011 was his last year to sing for us.

It’s hard to replace a legend. Ray Perkins had a hard time succeeding Bear Bryant at Alabama. Bill Guthridge didn’t do so well following Dean Smith at North Carolina. Hopefully, Denver Bronco fans will be happy with their latest quarterback to try and fill the shoes of John Elway. IMS PA announcer is one of the few that have successfully followed someone with the status of legendary Tom Carnegie. Probably about the only reason he was able to pull it off was that he and Carnegie worked together on the microphone for several years. There has been no apprentice for Jim Nabors.

I’m not a fan of what the Speedway has in the works for this year’s performance. When Jim Nabors missed the race five years ago, IMS decided it would be fitting to play a recorded version of Jim’s famous rendition and have the crowd sing along as sort of a salute to Nabors. It sounded great in theory, but was very awkward in practice. It was confusing as what the crowd was supposed to do and the result was something that left me feeling very empty and cheated from my favorite pre-race moment.

So with twenty-five days to prepare for Plan B, they’ve decided to fly a crew out to Hawaii to film Nabors singing the song and playing it on the video boards on race day. Hmmm…

Am I the only one who felt that was a very unsatisfactory solution in 2007? I know race officials are reluctant to turn that sacred moment over to an outsider, but it’s not like Jim Nabors is the only one that ever sang it. It used to rotate around as often as the National Anthem does now. I can remember Robert Goulet singing it in the 1960’s. Dinah Shore sang it many times in the fifties.

Actually, I think that there’s nothing wrong with turning the honor over to someone to perform it live for just one year. If Nabors is healthy enough to return in 2013, then great. If not – it’s time to pass the baton. It’s a harsh reality that that time is coming at some point. Why compromise a special moment by making it a confusing and awkward moment.

I saw on Twitter the other night where someone suggested that Hoosier John Mellencamp should be tabbed to sing the song. Please. That causes visions of Steven Tyler to dance in my head. This sacred honor should not go to a washed-up rocker, no matter where he’s from. This should go to someone with a classic, booming voice. Quite honestly, I think to avoid unfair comparisons to Jim Nabors – a woman should be chosen. If the chosen one needs to be one with Hoosier ties, how about Sandi Patti? She belted out the National Anthem at the 500 several times in the nineties and very nicely, I might add. I think she would fill that role very well for one year.

Whatever is done, the important thing is that our friend Jim Nabors gets well very soon. As Tom Carnegie would say; “His voice has become an institution”. We obviously wish him a fast and speedy recovery and we hope that he can return to fulfill that moment for us for years to come.

George Phillips

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21 Responses to ““Back Home Again In Indiana””

  1. madtad1 Says:

    Personally, I would vote for the a capella group “Straight, No Chaser”. They are from Indiana, sing very well, and would be a credible change from Jim Nabors, sho I slso love.

    • I saw a you tube vid of these guys sing it (not knowing at all what to expect) and was actually moved by it. I can seriously envision them doing the song and moment justice this year. I would wholeheartedly support them now or as a future possibility.

  2. I’d like to thank Jim Nabors for giving us a short break from cursing the evils of Honda and Chevy for not just crapping out ANOTHER engine. #OccupyBrickyard

    I think King Diamond would bring passion, artistry, and range to the performance. He’d also serve George’s need for a woman if he brought Melissa with him.

  3. There is someone who would be a good replacement and who will cherish the the role as much as Jim Nabors has. Jim was wonderful and I am always going to remeber seeing him and listening to him very fondly..

  4. redcar Says:

    the video idea is not good. it’s like the 500 can’t move on past it’s traditions. audio tape of tom carnigie, now video of nabors. he’s done a e legendary job, but give the song to some new person and move on.

  5. H.B. Donnelly Says:

    Remember, all: The original “Indiana” singer was from the New York Opera. Being from in-state is not necessarily a requirement!

    I’ll also ask this: does the singer necessarily need to be someone we’ve heard of? I say hold auditions in the city and dig up some of the fantastic church-choir soloists or local dive-bar acts that I’m sure could put on a better show than someone like John Mellencamp (who I have a low opinion of to begin with). As George says, the song needs a classic, booming voice.

    • billytheskink Says:

      Not to mention that Nabors himself is from Talladega County, Alabama.

    • Savage Henry Says:

      I totally agree that it doesn’t need to be a “name” person. The last thing they need is to have somone get paid to show up and then mail in the performance. We need someone who is going to give 110% like Jim Nabors always does. The best way to guarantee that is to have a fan – someone who wants to do it so much that they will endure a long audition process. I’m sure tons of people will line up to try out. Ideally, I think it would be best if it was someone from Indiana but that’s not a requirement.

      It always gets a little foggy when Jim Nabors sings the song. I want to make sure it stays as meaningful as it has always been.

  6. In concept, I think Mellencamp would be fine, completely different dude and career than Steven Tyler (singer/songwriter vs frontman for a hair band). I just don’t think his voice is appropriate for the song or situation.

    Sandi Patti? Please…

    A thought I have, and have not taken the time to become cynical about it yet, is the person who keeps showing up in Indy and singing the national anthem at stuff – the 500, the Super Bowl…Kelly Clarkson. Still popular enough to be revevant for multiple generations and bring some star power, responsible enough to be trusted with a big deal. Familiar enough with the event and the role of the of the performance of the event to treat it with respect.
    One thing is certain, no matter what happens, someone will hate the decision that is made, you are always looking for the decision acceptible to the most people.

  7. If I had the final vote, it would go to these guys:

    • SkipinSC Says:

      Like George, I am a bit of a traditionalist. That said, after listening to “Straight-No CHaser” I would be perfectly FINE with their rendition. Failing that, I could live with Sandi Patti, even though sheno longer lives in Indiana. The idea of “taping” Jim Nabors, even though he is “the tradition,” I find something of an anathema.

  8. billytheskink Says:

    If the Speedway doesn’t think they can book the right choice with less than a month until the race, then I’m fine with the videotaped song. It’s better than them choosing the wrong replacement.

    This turn of events, though, ought to get them thinking about who the eventual replacement might be.

  9. Steve K Says:

    Tony George should sing it

  10. Travis R Says:

    I’d love to see IMS do a contest – post a video of yourself singing it on YouTube and let the fans vote. The winner gets a VIP trip to the 500 and nice exposure.

  11. Carburetor Says:

    I think the videotape idea is not good; I agree with the comment that it is like they cannot move on. I love Jim Nabors and agree with you George, it is my favorite pre-race tradition; but that said, I’m perfectly fine giving someone else a chance. All I ask, is that whomever they get, they do treat it respectfully for the tradition it is–what it means to race fans and those from Indiana–and not overstylize it like so often happens with the national anthem.

  12. james t suel Says:

    I was at the 500 before Jim Nabors came along, but he has been the best. If they ever have to replace him i must agree STRAIGHT NO CHASER would be a great choice. this will be my 52 straight 500
    but i never dreamed there would be a raceday without Tom C, Jim Nabors, or Tony Holman! maybe we should invest in cloning!!

  13. Ron Ford Says:

    Since we cannot get Jimi Hendrix to do it, I hope whoever eventually replaces Jim has enough respect for tradition to do the song straight instead of, as someone above said, overstylizing it like so many do to the national anthem.

    Whoever does it, I may just dub in Jim anyway and this year I will also listen to Danny Boy by Eva Cassidy.

    While currently living in Wisconsin, I have strong Indiana roots (Frankfort), I have been to many 500’s, and when Jim Nabors cranks it up, it never fails to bring a tear to my eye.

    Get well soon Jim!

  14. But remember- Jim isn’t alone when he does this. He’s accompanied by Purdue AAMB, who has been the host band of the 500 since nearly the beginning (I believe). So whatever is done regarding Jim also affects them. As someone who has had quite a few friends in AAMB, I can tell you that many of them look forward to Back Home Again more than any football game or event they may play at through the year.

  15. That is a great rendition above by “Straight-No Chaser” and they even got the words right. How would a A Capella group go with the Purdue Band.
    My first thought was Sandy Patti and i think she would be great.
    I don’t see a video taped performance from Hawaii working well.

  16. Lawrence Stoen Says:

    Here’s a story about another person who sang the famous song.

    A few years ago, in May of 2007 to be exact, and while on business, I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. and Mrs. Vic Damone at their Palm Beach, Florida estate home. I was surprised to find them greeting me at the door. As Mr. Damone began to introduce himself, I stopped him and explained that I knew exactly who he was.

    Due to the generation gap, he seemed a bit surprised and pleased at the same time. I explained that I knew he sang “Back Home Again, In Indiana” during the Indianapolis 500 Pre-Race Ceremonies in 1964. With that, Mr. Damone immediately began singing the song in its entirety, just for me, right there in his living room.

    He said he enjoyed being a guest of the gracious Mr. Tony Hulman, but that was the year of the tragic crash taking the lives of racing drivers Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonald. He joked that he was never invited back to sing the song again, and somehow attributed it to the sad event of that year.

    As I concluded my visit, Mr. Damone gave me an autographed CD of some of his songs and sang “Back Home Again … ” again! Now, how cool is that?!?! I hope you enjoyed reading my story as much as I enjoyed telling it!

    PS: As we know, 2007 was the year that Jim Nabors took ill and could not perform the song. Too bad Mr. Damone wasn’t given the opportunity to sing it again. I have a feeling he would have jumped at the chance.

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