Before there was American Idol, The Voice, The X Factor, or America’s Got Talent, there was Star Search. The TV talent contest was a launching pad for pop superstars like Destiny’s Child, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Justin Timberlake, Usher, Alanis Morissette, LeAnn Rimes, Aaliyah, the Backstreet Boys, Shanice, Pitbull, and Tiffany, all of whom competed during the show’s original 1983-1995 run. But Sam Harris was the first — the Kelly Clarkson of Star Search, if you will. In the show’s inaugural season, the power singer triumphed an incredible 14 times, in front of an average weekly viewing audience of 25 million, with his four-star performances ultimately winning him a $100,000 cash prize and, after a major-label bidding war, a contract with Motown Records.
It’s fair to say that Harris was a reality TV pioneer. But speaking to Yahoo Entertainment/SiriusXM Volume to promote the filmed production of his one-man stage show, HAM: A Musical Memoir, now streaming on BroadwayHD, Harris humbly refutes that notion. “Nah, I can’t take that,” he says. “I do think that the show definitely had an effect, and I think me being on the first season and gaining that kind of popularity certainly helped them go forward. I mean, the producer used to say to me, ‘We wouldn’t have a show if it wasn’t for you.’ But I don’t know that that’s true. I don’t even know what to say to that.” However, the balladeer and self-described ham does concede that he created the singing-show “formula” that “has been done and done and done, because I know how to structure a song. And the phrase ‘money note,’ I know that came from me. That was invented because I would find this place where I would hit the note — and then I won money! So, I will take that.”
Back in the early ‘80s, Harris had moved to Hollywood from his tiny hometown of Sand Springs, Okla., to pursue his show business dream, playing “little dumpy places” that were sometimes literally empty. When he was serendipitously invited to audition for Star Search, there was no way he could have anticipated what was in store. “It was a new show. They didn’t have people standing in line down the block [to audition] yet, because nobody ever heard of it. So, they were looking for talent. I went in to audition and they were so new at this… this was a room that was probably like 10 by 11 feet, and all of these people were smushed into a corner behind a production table. The piano was in the hall, because it wouldn’t fit in the room! So, I stood in the doorway and sang.”
The then-22-year-old Harris had been discovered by the Star Search talent scouts after developing his repertoire and signature style, and garnering a following that Los Angeles magazine nicknamed “Harrisites” (“which sounds so disgusting,” Harris chuckles), with his Out of Control musical revue, which ran for six months at a 50-seat venue on Santa Monica Blvd. called Theater Theater. But amusingly, once he tried out, the Star Search powers-that-be thought he was too theatrical. “They rejected me! I didn’t make it, and that was the reason… and they were right!” Harris laughs. “And then they called a few weeks later, because of a couple of people — and I remember them very well, Jan Walter and Steve Stark, their talent scout people — convinced the producers. They were like, ‘This is not cookie-cutter. It’s maybe not what you thought this was going to be, but this is special, and we should give it a shot.’ And so, they convinced them and threw me on, and I hung around.”
“Too theatrical” was a criticism Harris had heard many times before, going all the way back in his grade-school drama class. But it turned out that America’s mainstream television viewers connected with his flamboyant stage act, because it was authentic. Even Harris’s oversized thrift-store suits, which he wore because he “always thought that [he] was fat” and had been “really anorexic and bulimic” in his college years, were a hit. (And yes, he still has his three famous tailed tuxedo coats in storage.) “When I look back on it, it was kind of like ignorance is bliss,” says Harris. “But the difference between that show and I think these current [talent shows] is I got to wear what I wanted, and I got to sing what I wanted. There wasn’t a catalog of songs. There weren’t mentors. You kind of did whatever you did. … So, I just went forward with what I’d been doing.”
Harris’s most famous and certainly most theatrical song choice was a Patti LaBelle-inspired rendition of “Over the Rainbow.” Looking back, it might seem that Harris, who is gay and was still in the closet in the 1984, picked that tune to send a coded message to America about his sexuality. “I certainly didn’t consciously choose it because of being closeted or anything, but it’s all there,” Harris reflects. “If I look at the songs that I actually did sing, they are all about triumph-over-adversity and hope and change, across the board. I sang ‘I Am Changing,’ ‘God Bless the Child,’ ‘I Shall Be Released.’ They were pretty much all about getting free. And that’s what ‘Over the Rainbow’ is.”
Harris doesn’t recall anyone in his camp, or anyone at Star Search, advising him to keep mum about his homosexuality. But once he signed to Motown, it was a different story. The music video for his debut Motown single, “Sugar Don’t Bite,” featured “swarms of women” fawning all over Harris, for instance. “Motown didn’t ask me to tone down [my fashions], because it was a time in music when funky clothes and strange things were happening with costuming in a lot of music acts. But I was definitely told not to talk about my sexuality,” Harris recalls. “And interviewers were told, ‘Do not ask him about his personal life’ — which is code for ‘he’s gay.’ It was ironic, because here I am, this person who on the stage slits my wrist and pours [my emotions] out, and I’ll tell you anything about myself and I’m completely open and vulnerable and available — but don’t ask me anything too personal! I had a ‘beard’ when I would go to events or the Grammys or whatever; there was always a girl on my arm.
“And here’s the crazy thing: It didn’t bother me at for a long time, because I grew up in a time that it was not even possible to think of being out,” continues Harris, who is now an out-and-proud, 59-year-old husband and father. “There was no ‘out.’ No one was out — there wasn’t a movie star or a singer or a politician or a sports figure. Now it’s everywhere. There are role models. There are people who aren’t Liberace or Paul Lynde. But back then, it was the given [to be straight]. And so I never thought, ‘Oh, I’m locked in here and my life is horrible!’ It was just my station in life that I had accepted about myself.”
When Harris was younger, however, the realization that he might never have a “normal” life did in fact drive him to despair. After leaving home at age 15 to work at Opryland USA in Nashville, he fell in love with a boy there, but upon returning to Sand Springs, he fell into a deep depression. “It was the first time in my life that I fell in love, and you’re supposed to be able to shout about it from the mountaintops. And I couldn’t do that, because it was taboo. It was absolutely impossible. I became so depressed, because I knew that I would never be able to have an open life.”
Feeling hopeless, Harris tried to take his own life at age 16 by ingesting 30 Seconal pills, on a night when his parents weren’t home. But just as he was lying down in bed for what he thought would be the last time, his heard his little brother wailing in pain from stepping on his grandmother’s darning needle. Harris instinctively sprang into action to help — vomiting up all the pills, gulping down a pot of coffee, and nursing his brother’s bloody foot wound. “All of a sudden, I had to take care of my brother and make him OK,” Harris recalls. “It gave me enough value at that moment to keep going, to comfort him, in the way that I so desperately needed to be comforted. It gave me a sense of value.”
Harris actually credits two people with saving his life: his little brother, on that fateful night, and his high school psychology teacher, Mr. McDowell, who was “the one who told me that there was nothing wrong with me. That was the first time I ever heard those words: ‘There’s nothing wrong with you.’ He said something so beautiful that is such a philosophy for all of us. He said, ‘You are the whole package. Where do you think your talent comes from? And your humor and your compassion? You can’t look at your life and pick and choose what you want to keep or throw away. You’re the whole package, and if the package is good, then those things also have informed and created that person that you are. You can’t wish something away.’”
Harris’s brother and parents didn’t know about the teenage suicide attempt, and Mr. McDowell didn’t know about his profound effect on the young singer, until many years later, when Harris released the autobiography HAM: Slices of a Life, on which his HAM stage show is based. “[My parents] read it and they felt so guilty that they didn’t know the signs, that they didn’t see the depression, because I was very good at doing my little dance,” explains Harris. As for Mr. McDowell, he later attended a HAM book reading in Tulsa in 2014 and found out the whole story.
“I invited him and he came and I saw him after, and it was so emotional for me. He had just heard in public what he had done for me. And he played it down: ‘Oh Sam, you were so strong, you would have been fine. You would’ve found your way.’ And I said, ‘No, you don’t get it. You really changed my life. I believe you saved my life,’” says Harris. “Here I am, a gay kid in high school in the Bible Belt in the ‘70s. I mean, do the math — I could have been beaten up and tarred and feathered at any moment. And he understood that. But here’s the horrible part: Now that [HAM] has been a show and it’s a movie and it’s out, I can’t find him! No one knows how to get to him. And I know he’s alive. If you’re [reading] this, anyone who knows Mr. Wayne McDowell in Tulsa or anywhere of the environs, please reach out, because I want him to see this movie.”
Harris developed the original stage production of HAM: A Musical Memoir with help from his longtime friend and fellow theater veteran Billy Porter (who, incidentally, won the Star Search Male Vocalist grand prize in 1992), and the movie covers not just Harris’s Star Search tenure and his troubled, closeted years, but his small-town childhood through his domestically blissful current middle age. Harris didn’t quite become a Kelly Clarkson-level pop star after Star Search — in retrospect, he realizes that Motown Records wasn’t the best fit, as that label pushed him in a dance/pop direction with songs like the top 40 single “Sugar Don’t Bite” (“I still don’t even know what that means,” he laughs), rather than focusing on the sort of show-stopping ballads that had made him a TV sensation in the first place. But Harris has since earned Tony and Drama Desk nominations, has undoubtedly secured his place in pop-culture history, and has a rich and fulfilling personal life, so he harbors zero regrets.
“My first records went gold, and the first one went platinum, so there was that. But yeah, I felt like I was being groomed to be a pop star. And I’ll tell you, as much that would have been fantastic, I am a theater guy and I am a writer,” asserts Harris, who is currently working on secret scripted television project. “I have toured the world, and I’ve been able to do Broadway and theater and write and sing and have a family. Yes, there’s always, ‘What if I had done this?’ But frankly, I have a lot of friends in the business, people that are really, really what we call ‘successful,’ that have focused solely on that — solely on their career. I was always driven, but I also focused on relationships. My husband and I have been together for 26 years. I have a son who’s turning 13. And those things are certainly not secondary. They’re number one.
“I never could have imagined the life I have now. It wasn’t really possible to even think that it was possible,” Harris marvels. “The idea that I am married and I have a child — if you had told me that when I was 10, I would have said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ It’s amazing, what’s happened in this particular generation. My generation.”
If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, don’t hesitate to reach out for help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is open 24 hours a day at 800-273-8255.
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