Sam Harris hams it up

  • by Adam Sandel
  • Tuesday January 21, 2014
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Sam Harris has published a book, <i>Ham: Slices of a Life</i>.
Sam Harris has published a book, Ham: Slices of a Life.

Sam Harris was the first American Idol, 20 years before American Idol existed. His big break came when his Motown-tinged rendition of "Over the Rainbow" earned him the title of grand champion singer on the premier 1983 season of the talent competition show Star Search.

Thirty years, a Motown contract, nine studio albums, and innumerable stage and concert appearances later, Harris has added "author" to his list of credentials with the publication of his book Ham: Slices of a Life. But this performer with a bigger-than-life presence, who counts Liza Minnelli among his bffs, is not about to settle for a mere book-signing. He's crafted a one-man musical show around the book that he'll bring to Feinstein's on Fri. & Sat., Jan. 24 & 25.

"The book is not really a memoir, it's an eclectic collection of stories and essays about childhood, show biz, parenthood, and celebrities," he says. "The unifying element is ham." Harris' love of the spotlight also suggests that the title refers to more than pork. "There's no denying it.

"The show is a very theatrical combination of excerpts from the book with songs that are appropriate to the book," he says. "The music includes Broadway, pop, special material and songs that I've recorded. The challenge is turning a 305-page manuscript into a one-man show."

To this day, Harris can't get off the stage without performing "Over the Rainbow." "I have the good fortune to be stuck with it, since it's the greatest song ever written," he says. "The meaning of the song constantly changes according to what's happening in the world and in my life."

And 2014 is the ideal year for Harris to wax retrospective. "It's been 30 years since Star Search, 20 years since I've been with my partner Danny Jacobsen [they married in 2008], and 10 years since I've been sober. These are all hallmark moments of my life."

Growing up gay in the small town of Cushing, Oklahoma, was not without its challenges. "The misfit thing was in full force," he says. "My father had a collection of big band and blues records, so my influences were a peculiar amalgam of Broadway musicals, Aretha Franklin, and Billie Holliday. I grew up wanting to be Jewish, blind, and to sing."

Since Harris shot to fame on one of the first television talent competitions, he has an insider's perspective on the glut of post-Idol shows that currently flood the airwaves.

"I'm for anything that provides a platform for new talent," he says. "I really love The Voice because it celebrates original talent vs. homogenizing talent into something that already exists. Some of the other shows don't allow individualism to shine through."

The experience that has most profoundly shaped Harris is being a father. He and Jacobsen adopted their son Cooper in 2008.

"He's my favorite subject," he says of his five-year-old son. "Parenthood is the greatest, most thrilling, challenging, and exhausting experience. He inspires me to be my best person. I have to be a good citizen and human being, and a role model at all times. And he makes me laugh all the time."

Being a dad also knocked some of the diva tendencies out of him. "I've always been a multi-tasker, but I used to get very myopic about what I was doing, like if I had a show that night, I wouldn't speak until 3 p.m. But with a kid, that's virtually impossible. I worked on this book on a treadmill, with cartoons in the background, and driving him to school."

Harris is also grateful to be gay, married, and raising a child today. "I get to be on the right side of history. When I come across something anti-gay and disparaging, I don't turn the other cheek any more. I want to create a standard of consciousness and ethics to teach him. I have no patience for ignorance and bigotry."


Sam Harris, Ham: Slices of a Life, Fri., Jan. 24 at 8 p.m., Sat., Jan. 25 at 7 p.m., Feinstein's at the Nikko, 222 Mason St., SF

Tickets ($25-$35):