Singer Sam Harris :: Putting his talent to good use
It seems implausible to think it has been almost three decades since the incomparable singer, Broadway star, and television producer Sam Harris first became a household name after becoming the first Grand Prize winner on the television reality talent show pioneer "Star Search."
What was once a new phenomenon to find new talent in the areas of singing, acting and modeling with "Star Search" is now almost one of the few ways we find our new stars of today. But what may separates Sam Harris from those that have and will follow his accent to stardom and acclaim is that he is a pioneer and reliable trailblazer when it comes to giving of his celebrity, talent and time to bringing awareness to the need to create a world of equality for the gay community, and to end the AIDS epidemic.
Harris’ appearance and upcoming performance at this year’s Richmond/Ermet AIDS Foundation’s Annual benefit and gala "Help Is On The Way" in San Francisco on August 5, 2012 is a prime example of his unwavering policy to be present when needed and when he can for these causes. With memorable performances on and off- Broadway, millions of records sold around the world, and stage productions developed that ensure that we will continue to have honest and poignant pieces of work to see for several years ahead, Harris seems to find a balance with all this in his life.
I had the privilege to speak with the versatile talent prior to his City by the Bay visit and we managed to cover over 40 years of his life from the beginning in a little town in Oklahoma where he didn’t seem to fit, to the present where he is in a place that just seems to fit him just fine.
BeBe: You know you and I are from the same generation, and I am one of millions of people who was introduced to you through Ed McMahon’s ’Star Search.’ I can remember admiring your talent so much back then.
Sam Harris: Thank you. That means so much!
BeBe: At that point in time, I don’t think the public had really seen anyone such as you (gets a little giggle from Sam). I mean you came out to the stage as ’you.’ I remember the outrageous costumes and those coattails you would wear. And, then (you) proceeded to belt out a song in a manner that I don’t think we had really seen or heard before coming from a male artist, a white artist singing the style that you sang. It was great to see the appreciation the audience bestowed upon you.
Sam Harris: I was really grateful and lucky to have that platform at that age. As far as style and all that, I think when you’re that young, there is a sort of wonderful thing such as ’this is who I am’ and I’m just going to put it out there and not think too much. It’s not so much brave as it is honest. There was nothing to lose!
Music more homogenized
BeBe: It’s amazing that was almost 30 years ago. And now, unlike then, talent shows are a dime a dozen. Which is great. I’m not knocking that, but they are a bit different than the platform you performed under. I think ’American Idol’ is probably the closest to ’Star Search.’
Sam Harris: Certainly, and it is definitely flicker now. There is a homogenization now. It’s interesting with ’American Idol’ you’ll notice the people that win are usually sort of the ones that fit in the easiest. And then there are some of the ones that don’t win that go on to have successful, original careers because they were different. They were original.
BeBe: That’s a good observation and great commentary. I was going to mention just that, that there have been fewer winners from ’American Idol’ that have gone on to what we would call major success than some of the non winners. There have been several losers who have gone on to have very successful careers, Jennifer Hudson being one of them (Academy Award and Grammy winner).
Sam Harris: However it works, winning or not, the great thing about it is that there is a platform for young talent to be seen and have that opportunity. And also now, not only do we have ’American Idol,’ ’The Voice,’ ’America’s Got Talent,’ and all these other shows, but we also have the internet.
There are so many people through their own self-promotion that have become visible on YouTube. It’s extraordinary that we are in a time now where people can be seen and make their own records, even, because of technology. It’s a completely different world. But the basis of it is still the same. People with a drive, a talent, an ambition and a focus...there will always be room for those people, right?
Quite the misfit
BeBe: Speaking of drive, talent and ambition, I know that you left home at an early age to pursue your dream, so to speak. And I wondered after knowing that, if you felt the need to leave home? Was there little support for you in your dream from your family?
Sam Harris: There were two things. I grew up in a very small town in Oklahoma which wasn’t exactly the mecca of show business. Part of it (the reason) was I went away for a summer job at a theme park, and was all of sudden for the first time with more like-minded people who were also talented, focused and had a vision.
The other part of it was personally, because growing up in a small Bible-belt town in Oklahoma, I was always quite the misfit. So once I got a taste that there were others like me, not only who were talented and had a dream for show business, but also other people who were gay, it gave me a sense of freedom. But at the same time, even though I was with other people like me, no one talked about it. There was still this cloak of secrecy around everything, but there was still this commonality in which you still found familiar.
So, I came back (home) for a short time, and then left again to not return. I’m so enormously grateful that my parents were supportive from the very beginning, I mean from the time I was really a very little kid like five. My father was a band director, and my mother loved the theater, so I was introduced to it (early). As soon as they saw that I found my means of expression, which was also my means of escape, they supported it. So by the time I was fifteen, I think they were petrified of letting go and letting their child be what he needed to be, but they recognized I needed something larger. So, I went with their support.
BeBe: That is a story that you don’t hear of a lot, as far as, the positive support surrounding why someone leaves home at an early age.
Sam Harris: Right, I didn’t leave because I was kicked out. I left because I was able to.
BeBe: Well, we are all aware that you went on to do ’Star Search’ which led to a successful recording career. Interestingly enough, your first recording contract was with Motown, which of course is the premiere black artist label. And knowing that, I know you must have been offered contracts by many other recording labels after your win on ’Star Search,’ so why choose Motown?
Sam Harris: Why? I think it was because I had been so influenced by Motown’s artists and their history. And like you said, I was on ’Star Search’ and I was this white boy with this blue-eyed soul style. And, I believed that Motown would recognize it (my style), and they did. But I wanted to be a part of that history. And, I also wanted to be the different one, and be the white kid on the black label. In retrospect, there were many other offers, but who really ever knows?
Because if I had put myself under the tutelage of like Clive Davis (Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick) who was a master, my fear at the time was that I wouldn’t have a voice. You know, I did go on stage on ’Star Search’ with oversized tails and Converse tennis shoes, and I was afraid I’d be stripped of that. I knew Motown would sort of let me be that. Whoever knows? You make the choices you make at the time, and move forward.
BeBe: While on ’Star Search’ you were able to present to the audience your workings of a ballad and gospel type song which led the way for your rendition of ’Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ to become your signature song. I’ve asked many performing artists about performing such a song of theirs, so I’ll ask you, during the course of your performing in concert halls and the like over your career, do you ever or have you ever had any pressure to have to perform that song when you may not want to, but you know the audience is expecting it?
Sam Harris: I think I went through a period where that was true. And there was even a period where I sometimes didn’t do it. But, I have since gone past that. I’m so grateful for that song because there are worst songs to get stuck with (both laugh). It is the greatest song! You know, it’s great that I can make some pretty notes now and then, but I consider myself a storyteller. And when you have great material, it constantly reinvents itself. It means different things at different times.
That song has been celebratory for me. It has been desperate for me. It has been from a place of need, and also from a place of reflection. That song has been a place of hope. It’s been reflective of wherever I am at that point in my life. Instead of resenting it, I get to rediscover it.
BeBe: And your rendition of ’Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ has been compared to Patti LaBelle’s version of the song....
Sam Harris: (interjecting) Well, sure. I lifted it from her basically, and put my own spin on it.
BeBe: Have you and Patti had conversation about the song?
Sam Harris: We’ve sung it together. I wouldn’t say we have had a conversation, but she is right up there, and I consider her a friend. She is an amazing artist, an incredible performer. But rather than her being angry that this young kid was taking the style of what she was doing, I think she saw it as respectful.
BeBe: They always say the biggest compliment is emulation!
Sam Harris: Exactly! And, Jesus! God, knows so many people have done ’Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ over the years that it doesn’t belong to anyone. And Patti didn’t originate it either. It’s a Judy Garland song.
It’s for whomever wants to sing it. I’m grateful that it’s mine. And for not being able to have Judy’s blessing, Liza (Minnelli) loves it and considers my version the only other version, and that means a lot to me.
A Broadway performer
BeBe: Earlier in our conversation, you spoke about storytelling. We are definitely aware of the success you have received of the storytelling in the songs on your 9 albums you’ve recorded, selling millions of copies around the world, but you have also received much acclaim and acknowledgment for your ability to tell stories in your writing for stage. And,you have also written about some very social conscious issues in your original songs.
Sam Harris: Well, thank you.
BeBe: When you add all that up, put all that together, I would think most people would consider you more of a Broadway or off-Broadway storytelling performer, rather than a recording artist, wouldn’t you say?
Sam Harris: I would say so, too. And I think that is because you make records because you want to document, and you want to create in a controlled and isolated circumstance in which you can release something that reflects you. But, where I live is on the stage! That’s where I get to have a singular moment that is not confined to one time.
Everytime you perform, it is different, it changes. There is something about live performance that makes it my first love. Although whatever I’m doing, I love. If I’m making a record, that’s what I love the most. If I’m making a TV show and I’m not singing, that’s my first love at the time. I really do pour myself into whatever it is I’m doing at the moment.
BeBe: You know as people think about the fight for civil rights in the gay community, and the fight to find a cure for AIDS and to bring awareness to HIV, we sometimes forget about those who were true pioneers, celebrities or persons with a public name that could bring attention to these causes. And, you were one of those first celebrities to lend themselves to the AIDS causes, as I understand it, through the encouragement of Elizabeth Taylor.
Sam Harris: Yes, when the very first ETAF (Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation) event was being formed, I got a call from her (Taylor). I didn’t even believe it was her. I picked up the phone, and she said,’Sam Harris, this is Elizabeth Taylor.’ And, I said, ’Stop! It is not. What are you talking about?’ (draws a laugh from us both) She had to put her marketing and publicist person on the phone to say it was really her. And she asked me to perform, and I said ’yes’ immediately.
And, then she told me I was the first person to say ’yes.’ That even though she was Elizabeth Taylor, and even though this was something that was happening and a hot bed of controversy, a lot of people were saying ’no.’ I really didn’t understand that. So, I said yes, and then the event went on to have a lot of wonderful performers. I think Cher was in the first one, Rod Stewart and Cyndi Lauper. It was quite magnificent!
BeBe: That brings us to your upcoming visit to San Francisco to be apart of the Richmond/Ermet AIDS Foundation’s Annual Help Is On The Way event occurring on August 5th. These types of things have always received your acceptance upon being invited to participate as a performer over the years, but have you, with your highly rated production ability, ever considered putting together an event such as this one yourself and reaching out to your fellow celebrities?
Sam Harris: Wow, that’s an interesting question. I have never done that. (After some pause) Wow! (We roar)
I tell you what, I say ’yes’ whenever I can, certainly for AIDS which I have done hundreds of benefits and collected money all over the country on tour, and then certainly for equal rights, but there are also other things that are important to me.
I have to keep a balance sometimes. I’ve done six benefits in the last month and a half! But it is my policy to say ’yes’ when I can, because whenever I get out of touch of being of service, then I’m in trouble.
Autobiography in the works
BeBe: Speaking of balancing everything, you have a current project in development. Are you working on some sort of television show.
Sam Harris: (Without being specific) I have a couple of shows in development for television that I’m very excited about. One is scripted, and one is reality TV. There is also a project I’ve been involved with off and on for years about Al Jolson that is nearest and dearest to my stage heart. The greatest role for me, for a man, ever. It (the role) is the Mama Rose (’Gypsy’) for men. A dark, investigatory, sort of psychological unraveling of this iconic man who has never been really portrayed, I believe, truthfully. It’s just a great, great piece, and is coming up. And I’m also writing a book!
BeBe: Wow! (my turn to wow)
Sam Harris: I am a crazy reader. I love words. I love punctuation (laughs). And, I love writing. Writing a book has always been that sort of ominous thing out there like ’Oh, My God someone wrote a book’ because it’s giant in what it takes.
BeBe: I am assuming this is autobiographical?
Sam Harris: It is. It’s anecdotal. It’s autobiographical. It’s quite a process to delve, uncover and relive. You know, in my stage shows I talk quite a bit, and writing comedy and finding the sense of the absurd in everything is something I first learned as a survival tool when I was young, but (it) has given me a perspective that has really given me a sense of happiness and comfort. So, that’s really the overview in the book, too. It’s anecdotal and very honest, but it’s also ridiculous.
There you have it. Anecdotal. Honest. Ridiculous. Sam Harris.
Sam Harris will be joining Helen Reddy, "American Idol’s" Kimberley Locke, versatile star Loretta Divine, and a host of others in Richmond/Ermet AIDS Foundation’s "Help Is On The Way" Benefit Show and Gala on August 5 in San Francisco at the Herbst Theater.
For updated performance dates and other Sam Harris projects, visit his website Sam Harris’s website.