JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
Sam Harris says he's been a ham all his life. He's been drawn to the spotlight since he was a kid, belting out "Sound of Music" tunes in a makeshift nun's habit, in his family's garage. Practice, practice, practice - and plenty of audacity - paid off all the way to Carnegie Hall. In 1983, Harris won the very first season of the television show "Star Search" with his performance of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOMEWHERE OVER THE RAINBOW")
SAM HARRIS: (Singing) Where troubles smell like lemon drops, way above the chimney tops, that's where, that's where you find me...
LYDEN: Since the '80s, Harris had been performing on Broadway and films and on television. He's written a hilarious memoir called "Ham: Slices Of A Life," about growing up in a small town in Oklahoma. He says his life in show business really began in high school when a black friend named Michelle Chambers(ph) invited him to church on the other side of the tracks.
HARRIS: At that point - I think I was 14 or 15 - Southern baptism was everywhere. I had been baptized, and it was beautiful, but I never went back...
LYDEN: You said you never went back after the big performance of it all.
HARRIS: I'd done the big 11...
LYDEN: You'd done that.
HARRIS: ...number. Done that. Moving on. But she, as opposed to a lot of the church people that were telling you, you had to be saved, I sensed that it was something that she wanted to share. And she was a great, great singer. So she invited me to church. And she picked me up, and we drove from my middle-class neighborhood down and through the poorer section and the poorer section. And then we crossed the tracks into Colored Town, which I had heard about but never seen. It was a ghetto, basically - like, clapboard houses and dry, clay yards; and this white, little church and all of these women wearing stripes and polka dots and architectural hats and, you know, these extraordinary, vivid, happy clothes.
And these people started singing with this sense of celebration and pain. I think in the book, I call it a nearly carnal joy rose up in my throat, and I started to sing. And this woman that was standing next to me, she grabbed my hand and she said, hallelujah! And it was like another tribe that felt closer to me than my own. But it was where I found a musical voice.
LYDEN: Pretty early on in your life, Sam Harris, you're still just in your late teens, maybe you're about 20, your father helped set you up with a producer; a man named Jerry Blatt, who had also produced Bette Midler. He becomes a real mentor to you. And I love the story of him getting you to open your act in this really crummy Italian place, little restaurant that has a back room.
HARRIS: (Laughter) We played every dump and dive. And we were in this horrible place. It was a restaurant called Gio's(ph), which I was certain was the next step for my destiny of stardom - and I was so desperate to be famous. And there was no dressing room. I was pacing back and forth in an alley, and Jerry runs out and says, think of it a rehearsal. And I'm like, what do you mean? We've been rehearsing for weeks. He said, the house is small. How small? Very small. How very small? No one is in the audience.
HARRIS: And I said, well, what are we going to do? And he said, well, you're going to do the show. You are being paid - not much. Actually, you're losing money. But you are billed, and you have to fulfill that promise. And we did the show. Two acts - it was two acts with an intermission. It was no one there. I think a drunk guy came in at one point, and smoked half a cigarette and left.
LYDEN: And isn't so long before you get - in fact, it's shockingly short - between that time and Carnegie Hall. That's just a marvelous moment - you know, to be a young man, you have a big stretch limo waiting up, you and the singers; roll the top down and you...
HARRIS: I pulled myself up with as many of us as could fit through the sunroof, and we literally yelled out: How do you get to Carnegie Hall? And some of the New Yorkers yelled: Practice! Practice! (Laughter) It was like a dream come - it was a fantasy. It was a fantasy.
LYDEN: This book is called "Ham." And what I like about your "Ham" is, you say there's a little bit of ham in all of us. What do you mean by that? Is it good to be a ham?
HARRIS: I think it is, and I think our hamdom comes out in different ways. Sometimes, it comes out of joy. And then there's a kind of ham that I think comes from a need to survive and matter; to try to find the positive when you're surrounded by something that doesn't necessarily promote self-assurance. And, you know, we do what we have to do. And we find our creative ways and how we express ourselves.
LYDEN: The story that you tell - you and Liza Minnelli grew very, very close over the years. She considers you just her best friend. And at one point, she's in rehab, and she asks you to come. You literally drop everything, fly across the country to be with her; and that's the process by which you learn that this also defines you, for at least that moment in time.
HARRIS: Absolutely. Because I was going there to be there for my friend because she has a problem, and she needs my help.
HARRIS: And of course, you know, they don't let you drink. They don't encourage the guests to drink. And so there I was, sort of detoxing and going through my own process. And after a week, when we went back to New York, I was having coffee with a person that was there as a help for her; and I just vomited it out - my whole drinking history. And I went back in tears to Liza's apartment, and stood in the doorway and just sobbed. And she said, what's wrong, honey? What's wrong? And I said, I'm an alcoholic. And she took me in her arms and rocked me and said: I know, baby, I know. And she had known all along.
LYDEN: Your experiences are so vivid. Some of these almost don't seem so long ago but of course, they were, you know, more than 30 years ago. And life has been good for a long time. You sound like you're extremely happily married...
HARRIS: I am.
LYDEN: You found a wonderful, supportive partner in Danny...
LYDEN: And the two of you have a little boy...
HARRIS: The best.
LYDEN: What are your lessons and hopes for him, would you say?
HARRIS: For my son, Cooper, my lessons and hopes for him are that he gets exposure to all kinds of people and all kinds of ideas, and all kinds of literature, and all kinds of art and all kinds of music and all kinds of religion; and then he gets to choose - that there is no right way; that his responsibility is to be a good citizen. I want him to be happy, you know. I just want him - I want him to know he's safe.
LYDEN: The book is called "Ham: Slices of Life." And Sam Harris joined me from our studios in Culver City, Calif. Thank you, Sam. It's been great speaking with you.
HARRIS: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "USE WHAT YOU'VE GOT")
HARRIS: (Singing) When you're a hustler, there is one thing you should know. You have to hustle every day...
LYDEN: This is WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.