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Interview: Sam Harris and “Ham: Slices of Life”

January 19th, 2014

Contributor Jim Gladstone chats with vocalist and author Sam Harris about his new book, Ham: Slices of Life.

Sam Harris (photo: Ray Garcia)

Sam Harris
(photo: Ray Garcia)

Before there was American IdolX Factor or The Voice, there was Star Search and a tuxedo-clad belting tenor who won America’s hearts.

“I found a formula that worked for me back then,” says Sam Harris, who first came to national fame 31 years ago, belting ‘Over the Rainbow’ as Grand Champion of the Ed McMahon-hosted TV talent show, Star Search. “But I started to feel boxed in by it. I always wanted to explore different areas.”

“It would have been very easy for me to build a career as a pop torch singer who does a big dramatic key change at the end of each song like his head is going to blow off. But my taste in music is eclectic. And my interests are eclectic, too.”

Instead of allowing himself to be wedged into a simplified persona and packaged as Brand Sam, Harris—who will present a theatrical blend of songs and stories at Feinstein’s at the Nikko January 24 and 25—has chosen “for my happiness, for my creative soul” to follow a wandering path.

He’s performed in Broadway and touring musicals (The Life, The Producers, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Hair), written for—and acted in—television sit-coms, headlined concerts and cabarets, been an interviewer for television’s EXTRA, and most recently, written a book, Ham: Slices of a Life.

The book, on which Harris’ new show is based, is a collection of heartfelt but sharply funny memoirs. At a time when other essayists in the style of David Sedaris and Augusten Burroughs seem to have scraped the bottom of their autobiographical barrels, Harris arrives with great observational writing chops and a deep well of material to draw upon.

Not only does Harris spin the terrific, empathetic tales of family eccentricity and personal growth that have become the genre’s hallmark, he’s got an eclectic career’s worth of backstage stories, too. Rarely a frivolous name-dropper, Harris’ tales of time spent with the likes of Liza and Aretha not only deliver big laughs, but unexpected depth. (His Donny Osmond story is a heartbreaker).

Harris wants—and deserves—to be read for his storytelling skills, not because he has a modicum of celebrity. To that end, he asked that his face not appear on the front cover of his book. Instead, the jacket art features a photo of a curly-tailed pig’s posterior.

Take the jump for more about Sam’s Harris’s new book and excerpts from Ham.

hamHam originated in conversations between Harris and his friend, actor Frank Langella, who had a publishing deal of his own.

“I’ve always written,” says Harris, “I’ve always incorporated comic monologues and brought a certain twisted perspective to my solo performances, but the idea of a book was daunting. Just so many pages.”

“Frank encouraged me to just vomit out the stories. I wrote really fast, and then I tweaked things over and over for a year.”

 “Performing is like a quick fuse. There’s a sort of risky, sudden, jumping-off-a-cliff factor. With writing and rewriting, the process is more private and personal and time consuming. I love words. I love punctuation. I love rhythm. I love the craft of it.”

While almost all of the his book’s anecdotes incorporate tales related to Harris’ performing career, he says that writing and editing them required him to distance himself from music.

“I’m in a total vacuum musically. I can’t have background music playing at home and I don’t play the radio in the car, because I find it difficult to able to focus on anything else—I can’t stop myself from paying attention to the lyrics and the arrangements and it’s very distracting if I’m trying to write.”

Add to that the fact that Harris and his partner of 20 years (and husband of five), Danny Jacobsen, have a five year-old son, Cooper. “I think the only CD I’ve downloaded in a year,” says Harris, “is Curious George.

As child rearing and writing move more toward the center of Harris’ day-to-day routine, Cooper is likely to become as compelling a character in Harris’ future writing as Liza Minnelli is in his first collection. May we propose Ham: The Lunchables Edition?

Watch Sam Harris read an excerpt from his book, in which he observes the antics at Liza Minnelli’s wedding with special guests Elizabeth Taylor and Michael Jackson:

The performance that catapulted Sam Harris to stardom:

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