Friday, September 17, 2010

40 Years Ago Today: The Jim Nabors Hour

On Thursday, September 17, 1970, the Jackson 5 made their first guest appearance on a musical variety show. These types of shows were the mainstay of network television from the 1950s-1970s but today they are are completely extinct. They always featured a big star as the ongoing host, who usually could sing and act, and every week there were different guests stars who participated in a combination of musical numbers and comedy sketches during the hour-long show.

The Jackson 5 were the only guests on the Jim Nabors Hour for his 1970 season premiere. Nabors was an affable, goofy actor who had achieved national fame as a country bumpkin named Gomer Pyle on the situation comedy, The Andy Griffith Show. In spite of the flagrant southern hillbilly stereotype, Gomer proved so popular as a character that he got his own spin-off show when he joined the Marine Corps in Gomer Pyle, USMC.

In addition to being an actor, Nabors was a gifted singer with a beautiful baritone voice. Unfortunately, he could never shake the Gomer image, and there was always a bit of a disconnect when he went from talking the voice that made Gomer a household word to singing in his deep, rich voice. The transition itself became funny.

When it was announced that the Jackson 5 were to be the guest stars on The Jim Nabors Hour, J5 fans everywhere were excited enough that they were willing to put up with an hour of Nabors' corniness for some airtime by the Five.

And we were treated to lots of airtime! The Jackson 5 sang "The Love You Save" and "I'll Be There," their latest single (with an oddly truncated counter-lead from Jermaine), and they acted in a skit set in a hotel in which Nabors played a bellhop being duped by the Jackson 5 and their manager, who was trying to sneak all five boys into a hotel room that had a limit of two guests. I remember this skit specifically because I was watching it ad my best friend Janet's house, and it was the first time we had ever heard Jackie's speaking voice. We were surprised it was so high because we had both had assumed he would have a low speaking voice, since he was the oldest and he looked so manly. When he popped out of the closet to place his sandwich order ("I'll have a tuna and tomato!") we both fell out laughing, and often quoted the line after that. Here's the skit on YouTube. I just watched it again for the first time in forty years, and it's genuinely funny.

On musical variety shows, it was nearly always incumbent on the musical guests to perform a number with the host. The Jackson 5 performed two songs with Jim: they sang a gorgeous a cappella introduction to the Beatles' current hit, "Let It Be" before Jim took over with a version that wasn't going to make Paul McCartney nervous about the competition. The embarrassing ensemble of dancers at the end of the song was also a strange requirement of musical variety shows (that always made my older sister cry out "Stop the dancers!")

But then they sang a song that was a very odd choice: an hip, updated version of "Shortnin' Bread." The song, written in a faux Negro dialect, was popularized in minstrel shows of the early 20th century, and at least Jim had the good sense to sing it without blackface and to tweak the lyrics a bit.

Although the Jackson 5 (and particularly Michael) sing their hearts out in this, we can only imagine what the Jackson family and the folks at Motown must have felt like when they saw this insulting song listed in the script. But Motown must have had a hand in the re-write, because at 1:38, the tune Jim sings comes directly out of "Love Comes in Different Flavors," a Jackson 5 song that went unreleased until last year when it was included on "I Want You Back! Unreleased Masters." At the two-minute mark, there is a complete line with lyrics and music lifted from the song ("Thank your folks for the recipe" has become "Thank your mom for the recipe").

"Love Comes in Different Flavors" was produced by The Corporation, but it was written by Deke Richards, Jerry Marcellino and Mel Larsen. Richards was especially known for his early work as a song writer for the Jackson 5, both by himself and as a member of the Corporation, while Marcellino and Larsen were known as a writing and production team for the Jackson 5 a bit later. Perhaps it was Richards who wrote the updated "Shortnin' Bread" for the group to perform, and then the other two added to it later to create a completely new song. I don't suppose we'll know for sure until we get the complete show so we can see the writing credits for the song at end. Whoever did it, deserves credit for getting the Jackson 5 and Motown out of what could have been a humiliating experience.

Maybe that's why the whole group looks so happy and relieved at the end of the show, except perhaps for Jermaine who looks like he's hoping none of his friends back home in Gary are watching.


  1. A great time was had by all (maybe not Jermaine) - such a great blog today. Wow, the J5, just 6 or 8 months after appearing on the scene, were big enough--and had enough hits-- that they carry a whole hour-long show. Too bad Jermaine didn't get to sing I Found That Girl. Didn't notice the connection with Love Comes In Different Flavors. On "Love Comes" I believe I can hear Marlon's voice clearly near end when everyone's running thru names of flavors. That's double rarity.

  2. I must be getting old because I don't have a distinct memory of watching this show and yet I have no doubt that I did since i missed nothing during those years :-) That skit is pretty damn funny. Did you catch the line at the very beginning about George Wallace staying there and Michael chimes in "missing any sheets?" OMG, hilarious and so politically on point. Who would have thought... And those songs with Nabors are painful. Jim could indeed sing beautifully but hip, the man was NOT!! LOL!! Love his weird 1970 tie in the first music number and those dancers.....I can see why your sister made a plea for the pain to stop. Thanks for this! Really great post!


  3. You are a librarian! So am I (I have the degree anyway)! :) That explains your awesome organized, well-researched entries. Love 'em.


  4. Roberta, I heard the George Wallace mention, but I couldn't understand Michael's response, so thanks for that. Hilarious! Jim Nabors was from Alabama, too, I think.

    For those readers too young to know what we're talking about, George Wallace was the notoriously racist Governor of Alabama during that time, so Michael's reference to the sheets suggests that Wallace would have taken them for his KKK uniform.

    We used to go south every summer to visit my Grandma, and whenever we had to drive through Alabama, my father wouldn't let us spend any money there because he didn't want to give any money to George Wallace. He wouldn't even cross a toll bridge there. But Wallace did have a change of heart later in life. I recently read an essay by his daughter (an Obama supporter) where she talked about it.

  5. does anyone know what season of the Jim Nabors show this is? I would love to buy the season so I can watch the whole thing. thanks! :D