Damon Harris Gets Ready
Posted on October 3, 2012, 1:38 PM
On July 15, 1971, back before he was Damon Harris, Otis Harris Jr. got the call that would change the course of his life. Motown superstars The Temptations were looking for someone to replace tenor Eddie Kendricks, who was leaving the band. Harris auditioned in their hotel suite at the Watergate Hotel that night – no mic, no stage, no musicians, just the sheer determination to seize this moment. If American Idol launches a career in a matter of months, imagine launching a career in a matter of minutes.
Look at him then. Smack in the center, where he belongs. Sure, the kerchiefs and vests may be dated. But the spirit, the soul, the confidence of youth… those are timeless. It’s a confidence you earn when, as a kid, you’re one of the best soul singers in Baltimore. And a confidence you need when, at 21 years old, you’re summoned to a suite that costs more per week than you’ve made your entire life to audition before Dennis Edwards, Melvin Franklin, and Otis Williams. It might as well have been Mt. Olympus.
The next day, Harris was invited to the band’s nearby show, where bass Melvin Franklin told him, “I want you to learn this shit, baby.” It was on. Well, with a caveat: he had to come up with a new stage name. The Temptations already had an Otis. Damon Harris was born that day.
Weeks later, Harris had his first gig as a Temptation in Detroit’s Edgewater Park. There were, of course, the trembling hands, the what I have I gotten myself into? feeling, and a crowd that wasn’t sure if they were ready to welcome their idol’s replacement just yet. But as soon as soon as “Get Ready’s” churning brass kicked in and Harris launched into the falsetto declaration “I never met a girl who makes me feel the way that you do,” he found himself exactly where he belonged: center stage.
During Damon Harris’s tenure with The Temptations, the group recorded nine gold records and won three Grammy Awards and two American Music Awards. That’s him at minute 5:01 on “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone,” hitting notes that would sound ridiculous out of most mouths. Life as a superstar treated Harris well.
When I asked Harris how he felt about the experience at the time, he told me, “Things like that don’t happen to ordinary people like me.”
On March 19, 1975, Damon Harris parted ways with The Temptations (he and band member Otis Williams give differing accounts as to why). On November 14, 1975, his father, Otis Robert Harris Sr., died from prostate cancer. It was not a good year.
18 years later, Harris found himself living in Philadelphia – 100 miles away from his Baltimore birthplace and a world away from the superstar lifestyle he’d briefly enjoyed. He’d put on weight. The money was gone. The fame was gone. The stage was gone.
And now, he started to feel immense pains in his legs, pelvis and hip. He was 38, without medical insurance, and was reluctant to go to a doctor in Philadelphia, afraid of being humiliated by his circumstances. He treated the pain with an ice pack.
Harris moved to Reno. After dabbling in music management, he landed a job as a teaching assistant at Earl Wooster High School while studying for a degree in Music Education at the University of Nevada. One night, pain coursed through his body every time he jiggled his friend’s infant son on his knee. By the time Harris drove home, he could barely get himself out of the car. He spent that night on the floor in fetal position.
Thanks to the medical insurance from his job, Harris was able to visit a doctor in Reno. Testing revealed advanced prostate cancer, which would eventually spread into his bones. At first, Harris refused to share his diagnosis with friends and family, not wanting to “burden” them with the news. The same disease that was ravaging Harris’s body seemed determined to destroy his spirit too, reminding him how alone he was.
Harris, drawing on the same resolution that got him through his hotel room audition, was determined to fight back. He told me, “I never said ‘I’ve got cancer: I’m going to die.’” Instead, it was: “Okay, I’ve got cancer. Now I have to learn to live.” He began a litany of treatments – at first, just hormone-based clinical trials, then, eventually, “traditional” treatment – that he continues to this day. His oncologist, Samuel Denmeade, wrote about them here.
Meanwhile, Harris set about understanding his disease. He began attending support groups in Reno, where he was often the youngest person by 25 years and the only one with black skin. He immediately found himself welcomed by a community of men who could not only teach him about his condition, but show him that he was far from alone in facing it. Take 85-year-old Harvey, a man who’d grown up in the heart of the Jim Crow era, and whom Harris, at first, thought was giving him funny looks. Yet when Harris missed a meeting, he returned home to a message on his machine: “Otis. This is Harvey calling. And I just want to know if you’re all right.”
The support groups provided a forum to talk openly about things Harris felt society dictated should remain hidden. He describes those first meetings as “therapeutic to a point of healing.” Since leaving the band, Harris had sought to define himself as something other than a former lead singer of one of history’s greatest acts. Harris knew that this was his chance. He had to become an advocate.
At a friend’s urging, he took up the American Cancer Society’s invitation to speak at a prostate cancer retreat in Georgia’s Emory University. Invigorated by his support group experience and unsure how much time he had left, he shared the messages that he’d grown to learn: that life is full of obstacles and impasses; that life is not guaranteed to anyone; that “what becomes important is how we deal with that.”
Harris’s Atlanta talk and his storied background led to larger engagements with churches and auditoriums. He was determined to get out the word, especially to African-American men, that the stigma associated with prostate cancer testing and the potential side effects of treatment were not justified. That, yes, having prostate cancer “isn’t the easiest thing in the world,” but it’s a much better option than, say, dying.
Harris’ biggest mission is to take prostate cancer out of the dark, and not just in support groups. He wants to make it as much of an open topic among men of all ages – not just elderly men – as breast cancer is with women. “Look,” he told me, “This is not a matter for a particular age or demographic. It’s a matter for people. Period.”
Not even cancer could keep Harris away from music, not for long. He’s done some touring as his body allows it (during one live performance, his oncologist at the time and friend to this day, Dr. William Nelson, backed him on guitar). He’s returned to the recording studio, backed by musicians from Johns Hopkins University’s Peabody Institute… just down the street from the university’s Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center, where he is treated. You can download the single he recorded with the help of his Hopkins friends at www.cdbaby.com/CD/damonharris1 or damonharrissings.com, his website in progress.
Of course, there’s the possibility that nobody wants to think about. The one where Harris’s body finally rejects yet another round of treatments and gives up. Though Harris himself seems strangely open to it, jokingly telling me he’d like to save up a bit before then for funeral expenses.
When asked where he gets the strength to push through that kind of bleak reality, Harris told me he believes that even when he’s not surrounded by a support group, not giving a talk, not in the recording studio, not on stage, he’s still never truly alone. He quoted Psalms 23: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”
Recently, Harris was back where he belongs, center stage. Only it wasn’t to sing. He was in Oregon, giving a seminar to a group of men. Afterward, a 36-year-old approached. Not to ask Damon Harris, former Temptation, for his autograph, but to thank Otis Harris Jr., advocate, for making him not feel so alone in facing his disease. Harris’s voice softened over the phone. “Maybe that’s the reason I’m here.”
Alexis C. Jolly is a writer based in Los Angeles, and the online content editor of Stand Up To Cancer.
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