In most parts of the country, Sam Harris is known (if at all) as the Star Search champion who scored a record deal, had a Top 40 hit ("Sugar Don't Bite"), went platinum, and promptly faded into obscurity. But Harris simply redirected his career, finding considerable success (and a Tony Award nomination for The Life) on Broadway. He's still recording, too: His fifth album, Revival, comes out later this year. The Onion recently spoke to Harris about his recording career, his new album, and the fickle nature of fame.
The Onion: Your career has certainly made a number of transitions: A lot of people who aren't in the Broadway world still just know you as the Star Search champion. What has the process been like for you?
Sam Harris: Well, the process of show business is a strange and evil enigma. I've been doing this all my life; I did my first shows when I was 5, I left home when I was 15, and I've been making a living in show business since I was 15. There were many years of just trying to make a living and discover who I was. But the nature of the beast is that it is in cycles. And if you look back on the long-term careers of people we love and admire—be they in music or film or theater or whatever—we can pick out the four or five great records or plays or movies, but there are probably 30 others in there that are mixed in. So when you're younger, every time those things happen and those cycles happen and those disappointments happen, they're so personal. And I think they're always personal, because when you invest in something personally, you can't help but be intimately affected. But when you get older, you realize that that's part of the business, part of the cycle, part of the structure. And the goal is that you're always moving forward artistically, and that you're going to be around for a long time, always growing and getting better. Hopefully, with that growth also comes growth of power within the business, so you can make more choices instead of being at the mercy of others. It's a double-edged sword for me, because I love performing, and yet nothing frightens me more. Every time I go on stage, I think, "Why am I doing this to myself? I hate this! I hate that I'm worried about it coming out right; I hate that I get sick to my stomach. It's awful. But then, when you're doing it, there's nothing like it. There have been many times that I think, "Why am I torturing myself?"
O: What happened between the first record [1984's Sam Harris] and the second record [1985's Sam-I-Am]? With the first one, you were kind of a sensation, and then… I remember the second album coming out, but I don't remember a whole lot happening with it. What happened there?
SH: The second record went gold, as well, but with the second record, I didn't have the… The first record sold primarily because I was fresh out of Star Search, and people wanted something they had grown to know from television. However, the first record did not necessarily reflect a lot of the stuff I did on Star Search. It was, I think, a peculiar mix of directions. So the second record didn't really have the record company… They didn't know what the hell to do with me there. I think the second record is a better record than the first one artistically. It was also highly unfocused, though. There were so many different kinds of things on it. And I really didn't have anybody there who was helping me focus that. And then, after that, I didn't really feel that they were behind it, and I decided to get the hell out of Dodge. So I did. Hindsight is 20/20, but I think I would have been smarter to secure where I was going before I left: I was so burned by the recording industry, and so confused by it, that I just sort of didn't want to do it for a long time.
O: Well, you had a platinum record and a gold record; it's not like you were really experiencing failure.
SH: No, but… [Pauses.] I don't know how to explain it. I felt by myself. I don't know. It was a very strange time, and so I literally took two years to do nothing but sort of garden and refinish furniture and figure out what was going on. I started writing a lot more. It's all coming full-circle, though; now I'm doing a record that's really going to reflect a lot of the same stuff I was doing then. I'm not saying I'm going to make a record where I'm screaming at the top of my lungs constantly, because that was a formula for Star Search, but it's certainly got my sort of Southern gospel roots and the music that I love, with a groove to it.
O: During the time when you were refinishing furniture, did you hear "Papa Don't Preach" on the radio, and say, "What is this?" [The song's primary hook recalled that of Harris' "Sugar Don't Bite"]
SH: Actually, Madonna was sued for that by Donna Weiss and Bruce Roberts, and they won. They got money. But again, "Sugar Don't Bite" is a song I would just as soon… I really don't even remember it. I couldn't even tell you the words to that song. That's another thing I've learned: Don't ever record anything you don't want to perform. That's how the whole concept for this record came about, actually, because I was thinking, "What do I want to do? What do I want to say? What am I feeling?" And my brother Matt, who is enormously talented, said, "Sam, you are of performance and of theater, and you always have been. The things you've loved the most that you've done are performances in concert that are like a James Brown revue or a Tina Turner revue, that are like a live theatrical concert, with songs that can go lots of different places, but still have the same sort of musical focus, with a rawness involved. Like a church revival." And we looked at each other and went, "Oh my God, revival. It's called Revival." And that's what it is. This record is going to feel, I hope, like it could be done live. It's not gonna be a mess—it'll be slick enough to be pop—but it's played live, and recorded live, and recorded with mostly the same musicians. I did two records live with an orchestra, and there's something that happens that's quite magical. I wanted to try it with this, doing a funky record with a live sort of… Somewhere between Delbert McClinton, Whitney Houston, Bonnie Raitt, and Jackie Wilson… You know what I'm saying. And Aretha. Definitely Aretha. So I'm really excited about this.
O: And you don't have to play "Over The Rainbow" [Harris' Star Search staple] anymore.
SH: Well, I think I'll always have to play "Over The Rainbow," and the good news is that I don't mind it anymore. I mean, for a long time, I thought, "Oy, God, if I have to sing this again…" But then I thought, "There are worse songs to have to sing." I wouldn't want to have to sing "Like A Virgin" for the rest of my life, you know? Or "Sugar Don't Bite." Thank God that if I'm going to have to sing something until I'm 60, it's going to be something that stands the test of time.