Shoes Too Big To Fill

When Coach Bear Bryant retired from Alabama in 1982; there was no way that his successor, Ray Perkins, was going to gain immediate acceptance from Crimson Tide fans. Perkins went 32-15 in his four seasons as coach, but he jumped ship for the lowly Tampa Bay Bucs of the NFL, rather than live under the enormous shadow cast by The Bear. Hoosiers basketball fans are probably too familiar with Mike Davis, who succeeded legendary coach Bobby Knight at Indiana. Davis lasted six years but made the fatal mistake of only one NCAA appearance in his last three seasons.

The point is, it’s an overwhelmingly impossible task to follow a legend. Such will be the case for whoever gets the unenviable assignment to be the immediate successor to Jim Nabors singing (Back Home Again in) Indiana just prior to the 99th Running of the Indianapolis 500 next May. He/she/they will have huge shoes to fill. It’s a daunting task. Quite honestly, I feel sorry for whoever steps up to that microphone next May. No matter how well they do it, they will be crucified because it was different from the way Jim Nabors did it.

But somebody has to do it. Some poor soul(s) will be thrown to the wolves to satisfy the job being done. If I were Doug Boles and had to decide who would be the immediate successor to Nabors, I would choose someone with the idea that they would be one and done. If I were a performer and wanted that gig on an annual basis; I think I would want to be about the third or fourth person to follow Jim Nabors. Right or wrong, the pressure will be too great on the first person and they are not likely to gain any acceptance at all.

With all that being said, did you see this article last week on It lists ten possibilities that might get a shot at it next year. The article examines each name and gives pros and cons for each one. This probably won’t surprise you, but few names on the list would get my nod.

Keep in mind, I’m an old goat. Even when I was in my twenties, I didn’t usually follow the very latest pop-act to come along. It’s also probably no surprise that I was always about a decade behind in my listening habits. In the eighties, I listened to seventies music. In the nineties, I started listening to the eighties and so forth. However, as I’ve gotten older – I don’t even follow that pattern anymore. We’re almost halfway through the second decade of the “new” millennium, and I’m still stuck in the nineties. There is not a whole lot of music on my iPhone that was produced in the 2000’s. Imagine that!

I point that out to explain that I have not even heard of about a third of the list that The Star put out, but based on their pictures – I shudder at the thought of them standing in Jim Nabors’ spot and singing those sacred notes. Others on the list I’m familiar with, but strongly oppose the idea of them getting that honor. Axl Rose? Are you serious? I saw a quote by one of my friends on Facebook, Lynn Weinberg, that summed up that suggestion perfectly by saying “I don’t know if I want to live in a world where Axl Rose is on the short list of people being considered to replace Gomer Pyle singing "Back Home In Indiana" at the Indy 500.” Thanks Lynn; I don’t think anything else needs to be said on that.

There were other less offensive names on the list that I would still have a problem with. Janet Jackson might be great in concert, but I’m not sure she has the persona to pull off that assignment. I also have a problem picturing David Lee Roth in anything other than shirtless suspenders. John Mellencamp would want to make the moment all about him, because…well, that’s what he does.

I’ve heard a lot of people clamoring for Straight No Chaser, including some good friends of mine. Their a cappella style may be great for an indoor Christmas concert, but I’m not sure it would work at a race track – a very big one at that. I keep thinking back to Seal singing the National Anthem a few years ago. Something about that performance seemed very odd and out of place.

Come to think of it, there were only two names on the list that I could live with. I’m not sure about the idea of the Indiana Children’s Choir. It’s harder to criticize kids – especially when there are so many of them. But like Straight No Chaser, I’m just not sure how it would play out in that venue. I’m not really sold on the children’s choir idea, but I don’t hate it either.

So, that really only leaves one name out of these ten that I really liked – Sandi Patty. She is a native Hoosier and has a booming voice. She sang the National Anthem at the “500” many times in the late eighties and early nineties, and then again in 2013 after a twenty-one year absence. She is fifty-eight now, but her voice has lost nothing. She still has her pipes.

Like many, I think she is better suited for the National Anthem. But of these ten listed, she’s the one I’d pick. However, I don’t think the eventual pick is on this list. One common denominator is that they are either all Hoosiers or have distinct ties to Indiana. Is that now the criteria? It shouldn’t be. Jim Nabors was not a Hoosier. He is a native of Alabama and lives in Hawaii. As best I can tell, the last time a native Hoosier performed the traditional song was in 1981, when Phil Harris sang it. Remember him? Me neither.

I was present the first time Jim Nabors sang it in 1972. I also remember the previous year, but for the wrong reasons. The 1925 winner, Peter De Paulo, performed the song before the 1971 race. Quite honestly, it was terrible. It was beyond bad. In those days before Nabors made it an annual tradition – it was a revolving door of performers. The sixties featured forgettable names like C. David Cochard, Brian Sullivan, Russell J. Wunderlich, Richard O. Plothow and Mack Shultz, to name just a few.

I’m thinking that the best bet is to go the revolving door route again for a few years before settling on a new tradition. I would get bigger names than those of the sixties, but for such an iconic position in the hearts of racing fans – I would play it safe. I wouldn’t go the Steven Tyler, Axl Rose or David Lee Roth route. I’d go with some of the more subtle choices that I’ve heard mentioned over the last few months – Hoosier or not.

George Phillips

22 Responses to “Shoes Too Big To Fill”

  1. Jim Peabody, Colorado Springs Says:

    Native Hoosier; John Hiatt! Period, the end………

  2. I can’t see a pop star of today having the fortitude or tenure that Jim Nabors had.. These kinds of things work in mysterious ways. Somebody somehow, someway will gravitate or fall into the position and there’s no way to predict who it will be.

  3. Let people interested audition on YouTube, organize a voting process, and select the winner.

  4. George, I know this will sound sacrilegious to you, but I don’t really care who they select. Your idea of trying different singers each year is a good one.

    Of far greater importance to me is who they select to sing the National Anthem. I’m not referring specifically to the Indy 500, but to all of the terrible singers I have heard in the last few years trying to sing it at various sporting events. It seems like the only decent renditions come from military personnel, who sing it the way it was intended to be sung. There’s nothing worse than some modern-day singer moaning and trying to put their own “spin” on it.

    The one exception is a version by a patriotic group called “Madison Rising.” If you haven’t heard them, check them out on You Tube. Their version truly makes you proud to be an American and gets you on your feet cheering.

  5. DZ-groundedeffects Says:

    Count me among those who’d prefer a great a’capella group do it. I have no doubt, sung well, that they could raise the hair on your neck.

    I think back to the Singing Hoosiers recording of “The 500” and how either ‘Straight No Chaser’ or rotate between the state Universities’ singing groups (are they still called glee clubs?) and see who could top each other.

    Great a’cappella singing, done right, will send pre-race spirits soaring, I have no doubt. Do not even consider an individual person to follow in Jim Nabors’ vocal footsteps.

  6. Bruce Waine Says:


    Simply have Jim Nabors (already pre-recorded) sing as normal….

    Problem solved.

    However, I have not read where anyone has had this basic suggestion.

    Why “fix” what is NOT broken?

  7. I’d choose “Straight No Chaser” because they’re an Indiana University group and IU has no representation at the 500 while Purdue does. Also, there’s gonna be a whole lot of pressure on whoevers singing next year. If its a group singing maybe that pressure can be spread around a little so it’s not so overwhelming.

    I also don’t get why everybody thinks it has to be a performer with Indiana ties. It should be a nationwide search

  8. Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs fame. He has a great singing voice , is young enough to sing for anumber of years, has recognition from his Ford commercials , and seems to be the sort who would accept the offer

  9. I would also choose “Straight-No Chaser” but for the fact that the Speedway’s semi antique PA system may not give their rendition the depth that it deserves. And, for those few who would seem to want a recording of Jim Nabors, I would pose this question: how long do you want to continue? It was OK for a year when Jim’s health wouldn’t allow his visit, but as a regular feature of the pre-race? I think it would become boring pretty fast.

  10. I have seen the list, none qualify in my mind, least of all a choir. This song employs all that is right about the Indy 500 tradition. This in my mind is Doug Boles biggest decision for 2015. As crazy as that seems, I hope the decision is made for all the right reasons. This song in a short time, allows me to revisit the early days with my parents as a kid, and yet appreciate as a father, my kids enjoying the same great event with me on race day. I agree, I am not sure the shoes can be filled, but I trust Mr. Boles will make the right call.

  11. Whoever sings it I will be singing along.

  12. billytheskink Says:

    Since we are all gonna hate whoever is chosen, whether they deserve it or not, I would suggest Chip Ganassi. Anyone who saw the clip of him singing “Take Me Out To The Ball Game” a decade ago knows that he deserves it…

  13. We keep hearing we need to attract the young people. Perhaps a rap version? Taking the twisty road back home to Indiana! Yo!

  14. I don’t live in Indiana, don’t even want to. I have no right to an opinion. So I don’t have one.

  15. Mike Silver Says:

    The Indianapolis Children’s Choir sang “Back home Again..” at Dan Wheldon’s memorial. it was a beatiful arrangement. This would be a non-political choice IMS could go with for a few years. before deciding on a permanent singer. I really do not like any of the other names on that list

  16. It scares the hell out of me that some of the folks who have picked recent 500 pace car drivers (some food guy with bad hair and sombody named Donald) might select Jim Nabor’s replacement.

    I don’t believe the successor needs to be in some category such as pop, contemporary, or of the current batch of faux country singers.

    Whoever is chosen should have a strong voice, but most importantly they should be able to convey the images of the song, the feeling of it, to the gathered fans. I am long gone from Indiana and the fields I use to roam, but I damn well remember moonlight on the Wabash. When Jim sang those words he always brought a tear to my eye and to the eyes of many in the stands.

  17. Have to update my prior opinion. I just heard several Straight No Chaser songs on You Tube. Those guys are great! They have my vote!

  18. Randy Holbrook Says:

    This guy:
    Timothy Miller of Atlanta

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