Not a Battle But A Blessing…
The Damon Harris Story
By Barbara Payne
Damon Harris has survived a lot of abrupt transitions over the years,
but none quite so precarious as the one that disrupted his life several
years ago. Here is a man who might have some valid reasons to be
embittered or despondent, but he’s not. His name might not immediately
ring a bell, but he spent five years enthralling millions of fans during
the mid-1970’s -- a time when we badly needed entertaining.
As a second-generation member of the legendary Temptations, Harris’
poignant falsetto voice soared sweetly on one award-winning record after
another. He lived the magic of Motown in its heyday and shared the
group’s Grammys and American Music Awards. He had it all, but after
it was abruptly snatched away, the ghost of his lost dream was to haunt
him for almost two decades. Now, with age 50 just months away, Harris
has come face to face with another kind of specter – prostate cancer.
He has found the dedication and courage to share his experience with this
deadly disease in order to help other African American men learn how a
simple blood test might just save their lives.
Growing up in the 1950’s, as anyone who did it will tell you, can be
summed up in one word…it was magic. Families sat down for meals together,
they watched the wondrous new invention called television, and they marveled
at how “small” the world was becoming. Walt Disney and Ed Sullivan
were invited into homes all over America on Sunday evenings. Weekday afternoons,
children sat glued to the tiny video screen watching a band of talented
youngsters sing and dance with a Mouse.
Otis Robert Harris, Jr. – who was born in July, 1950 -- remembers the
50’s as a “kinder, gentler time” when parents were the absolute, unconditional
authority and home was someplace you’d choose to be.
“We would sit around the dinner table every night and catch up on the
day,” Harris said. “Mom would always do something to make the Sunday
meal special, and that family gathering was something we all looked forward
to…you just didn’t miss it. My parents were always there for me.
Strict? Yeah, but with lots of love. Also there in that wonderful
cornucopia of childhood memories, is music, something that became as important
to me as breathing.”
“I grew up listening to all kinds of music and yes, I sang in the church
choir as a kid. When it came to music,” Harris explained, “this was
my mother’s arena. Her passion for song and harmony had a huge influence
on my life, and I thank her for it today. She encouraged me to sing
around the house, which helped me gain confidence in my ability.
This really helped develop my talent at a time when music was about to
change radically in this country.”
“There really weren’t very many musical role models back then for a
Black kid. I still remember being spellbound listening to Maurice
Williams and the Zodiacs sing ‘Stay.’ That song is still around…I
can hear it in my head right now. And, there was James Brown’s ‘Lost
Someone,’ and Gene Chandler’s ‘Duke of Earl,’ and the voice
of “On Broadway,” Rudy Lewis of the Drifters. And everyone
remembers hearing Curtis Mayfield sing ‘Gypsy Woman.’ Why,
I remember Aretha Franklin back then when she was singing R&B and jazz.
This music laid the foundation for my future. It had so much more
than that overused word, soul. It was palpable… it had a life of
In 1960, Otis was still a decade away from a life-altering opportunity,
but the seeds were sown before he reached his teen years. Born and
raised in Baltimore, Maryland, young Otis listened to the radio to hear
the “black sounds” that were demanding more of his time and attention.
Just as he reached Junior High, a revolution took place in the music world
that catapulted black music onto center stage. The irresistible sounds
of The Supremes, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Marvin Gaye, The Four
Tops, The Temptations and other Black performers crashed right through
the unacknowledged – but no less real – racial barriers in the entertainment
business and captivated the country. The rhythms were primitive,
passionate and persuasive, and the groups’ choreographed performances taught
a generation how to ‘move’ to the new sounds.
|“Hear that tambourine mixed high on the second and fourth beats?
The horns, guitars and piano congested in the middle? The limber bass bouncing
around below like a pinball? That’s the Motown sound.”
Brian McCollum, Detroit Free Press Pop Music Writer
By the time Otis was ready for high school, the 1960’s were in full
swing and Motown owned the music world. In the ninth grade, he had
put together “The Tempos,” and they traveled locally and performed at school
dances and proms.
was what you would call a third quarter student. Most of the year,
studying was just about the last thing on my mind. But, then, at
year’s end, I would hit the books enough to bring in the grades I needed
to get by. That is, in everything except music. I always made
the grade in that class. My mind had been abducted by music.
It played in my head all the time. I was always singing to myself,
or rehearsing out loud. I couldn’t get enough of it. By then,
the Temptations had hit the ‘big time’. They were all I could think
about. That’s what I wanted to be and I wouldn’t be satisfied until
I realized my dream. I became expert at singing just like the Tempts’
singer Eddie Kendricks…I mean, I sounded just like him with his high falsetto.”
Otis steadily gained popularity with his singing and athletic prowess;
a heady combination for a teenage boy. By High School, however, he
was fast losing interest in academics. He formed another singing
group in the late 1960’s, and called it the Vandals, after the nomadic
tribe that ravaged Europe during the Middle Ages. The name, he explains,
was a warning to other groups that if they dared to try to compete on stage
with them, they did so at their own risk.
In 1969, Ronnie Isley had the group change its name to the “Young Temps,”
when they made their first recording with the Isley Brothers’ record company.
They worked hard to promote their record and became what those in the ‘business’
called an “East Coast Commotion.” They sold about 5,000 singles before
Motown objected about the similarity to their established artists’ name
– The Temptations – and the record had to be recalled.
Things went from bad to worse at school. Otis became an unrepentant,
habitual truant and his parents and school authorities had tried just about
everything to reform him in time to get enough credits to graduate. He
says he remembers that an Assistant Principal was especially persistent
in urging him to come back to class.
“I remember her asking me, ‘Otis, what is going to happen to you if
no one wants you…’ I wasn’t in the least bit concerned about school.
I had really developed a taste for the music business,” Harris said. “Who
would blame me? Music and girls…what a great way to socialize.
As singers, we could go places Blacks didn’t get to go. We performed
in all the white schools. Funny thing was, our band members were
like a mini-United Nations. We had Italians, Irish Catholics, Jewish
kids – a real mixture of cultures. The singers were all black
kids, and the band members were all white. We didn’t share the same
dressing room back then but everything managed to come together when it
came time to perform. And there were times, believe me, that we were
glad to have the white kids with us. We were in places we would never
have dared to go alone.”
“I really rode the wave, but by the time I was twenty, I had become
disenchanted with the band, and ultimately resigned. I had a daughter
by then and I knew it was time for me to settle down. I just didn’t
see ‘it’ happening for me. I couldn’t visualize the career in music
I wanted so desperately, and it didn’t take me long to realize how important
it was to overcome the stigma of not having a high school diploma.
The Temptations were still in my heart, and their music was on my lips,
but I had a child to support and needed to figure out how I was going to
As fate would have it, just as Harris was teetering on the brink of
giving up his dream, he happened to run into the former girlfriend of his
idol, Eddie Kendricks. Marvé Braxton told him that The Temptations
were not happy with the singer who had replaced Eddie in the group, and
were holding auditions. She said the singers were performing at the
Carter Baron Amphitheater in Washington, D.C. and she thought she could
set up a meeting for Harris.
“I didn’t believe her at first,” Harris remembers. “This was something
I had wanted to happen for so long, I was afraid I was just hearing what
I wanted to hear. Marvé called me back later that evening
and invited to meet with them at the Watergate. I can tell you I
was stunned when she said they wanted to hear ME. When I heard Melvin
Franklin’s booming base voice in the background saying to come on over,
I finally believed it was really going to happen. I have no memory
of how I got to Washington, but I know I did it in record time. And
then, there I was…in the same room with them – Otis Williams and Melvin
Franklin, two of the original members of The Temptations. Looking
back, I was in such a state of awe, I am surprised I could talk, think
or sing at all.”
talent must have carried him through, because within the week, he was the
newest, second generation Temptation. At age 21, he was somewhat
astonished to be replacing his idol in the music group that had bewitched
him for more than half his life. The roller coaster was cresting
the hill and he was holding on for dear life. Unfortunately, some
of the things that should have been important to him were left behind on
the platform. His name was one of them. Since there was already an
Otis in the group – Tempt’s founder Otis Williams – the newest member borrowed
the name of the Greek God of Music, and Damon Harris was what appeared
on record albums, entertainment news and in fan programs from that time
“Looking back now, I have to wonder how someone so young could have
survived being thrust so abruptly into the entertainment world. Don’t
get me wrong,” Damon urged, “while I was dealing with some serious ambivalence,
this was a good time for me…a GREAT time. In some ways I worried
I didn’t deserve it, although I certainly enjoyed being a Temptation.
After all, I had gone from being an ardent fan to the ‘real thing’.
Imagine living modestly in Baltimore, Maryland one day and then having
a chance to travel all over the world – First Class in 747’s, mind you.
I even went to Disney World. I loved the stage time and performing.
The first time I sang those first few notes of “Get Ready,” our
opening song, I had to pinch myself to be sure I wasn’t dreaming.”
“Even now, all these years later, I get goose bumps remembering those
early days with the group. I met people I was used to seeing on television
– Bill Cosby, Johnny Carson, Flip Wilson, Sonny and Cher. Sure there
was a lot of stuff going on around me, and yeah some performers were into
drugs. But, I owe my strong values to my parents and the fact is
that neither drugs nor alcohol ever appealed to me. It was an awakening,
however, to discover that I had a better upbringing than some of my idols.
While most of the folks I worked with and encountered along the way were
great, I also learned one of life’s major lessons: people are just people,
after all. It’s kind of sad to say that I admired the music business
so much more before becoming a part of it.”
Damon says that when he finally got his head on straight in the middle
of the initial whirlwind, he understood that there was a simple formula
he needed to follow. “I realized that I had to maintain what all
those millions of people who bought the Temptations’ records expected.
This was a responsibility, a stewardship if you will. I had an obligation
to help preserve the memories. This music, after all, helped define
a generation of Baby Boomers…it is timeless and yet it reflects the times
in which it was performed.”
the five years (1971-75) that Harris was a Temptation, the group enjoyed
many popular successes. He was one of the lead singers on the Grammy
winner, “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” and was a key part of the sound
that helped sell millions of records. They brought home nine gold
records, three Grammy Awards, and two American Music Awards. Then,
as suddenly as it all started it was over. Damon was replaced, a
Temptation no more.
“I’ve only just recently learned why,” Damon commented. “I always thought
it was something I said to Motown’s Barry Gordy. Turns out it was
a problem with Otis that I had no clue even existed. I was crushed.
I kept asking myself what I was going to do now. I had a new marriage
and a new son to support. I wanted to be a Temptation until I got
old. I was on the top of the world and then, brutally and without
warning, at 25 I was yesterday’s news.”
As sometimes happens, life got even tougher for Damon. Eight months
after leaving the group, his father died. Within a year he had lost
two of the most important things in his life.
“I was with him at the end,” Damon explained, “but he really didn’t
let my mother and I know how seriously ill he was. We knew that Dad
was a diabetic, but he didn’t even tell his wife that he had prostate cancer
or that he had to undergo a prostatectomy. Perhaps 25 years ago,
this subject was simply taboo, or he may have been too embarrassed to tell
her what he was going through. In the end, he suffered a miserable
and excruciating death. I guess I put the whole thing out of my mind
until I heard myself being diagnosed with the same disease that killed
Someone without Damon’s firmly instilled values might have sought solace
in drink or drugs, but he just became increasingly depressed. He
had lost his compass in his father, and his young wife wasn’t filling the
much-needed role of confidante. His earning power had evaporated
into thin air like so much stage smoke.
“I was young, humiliated, unbearably hurt and completely without answers.
I take full responsibility for it now, but somehow I allowed my marriage
to slip away. I guess I just drifted without much direction.
I couldn’t accept that the brief fame I had was gone and that it was time
to get on with my life. The months turned into years and, until I
decided to go back to school, it was all just a blur. Interestingly
enough, it was Bill Cosby who inspired me to Temple University.
Without completing my formal education, I felt for a long time that something
was missing from my life. So, I completed my GED and enrolled at
Temple, Cosby’s alma mater. This time around, it was different.
I studied. I was interested in learning.”
Damon says his liberation from the depression that had gripped him for
years began on campus. He changed his major several times – from
pre-law to music to criminal justice -- but he was felt alive and on track
again. Then, as he tells the story, fate stepped in once again.
A friend from Baltimore contacted Damon with the news he was working
in a production called “American Super Stars,” and invited him to come
to Reno to see the show. He did and fell immediately and irrevocably
in love with the high desert town. Figuring it was Kismet that he
discovered where he wanted to live, Damon decided to relocate and transfer
to the University of Nevada at Reno to continue his education in music.
“I know it sounds trite, but I truly believe it was God’s work that
I came to Reno at all,” Damon professed. “I am convinced that my
life would have taken a totally different course if I had ignored the inner
voice that urged me to make the move.”
Once in Reno, Damon attended classes and took a job working with severely
challenged, Special Ed kids. The interaction with the youngsters
restored some of the self-esteem that had eroded during the “missing” years.
He felt pride and purpose with these special children, and returned the
affection he found in their eyes a thousandfold.
The first hint that something was wrong came after Damon had been playing
with a friend’s young child.
“I didn’t do anything really strenuous, this kid was just bouncing around
in my lap and suddenly I felt a really sharp pain in the right side of
my pelvis. I figured the child had stepped on something he shouldn’t
have and that the pain would go away. It didn’t. By the time
I got home, it was the writhe-on-the-floor-can’t-get-up kind of pain.
I took some aspirin and it subsided a little, but did not go away.
Nothing made it better for very long. I’m the kind of person who’s
never been sick in his life, so this was something new to me. I did
my best to ignore it and kept going to school and to work. It wasn’t
long before the kids noticed I was dragging my right leg because I couldn’t
hide the pain any longer. I was in denial, though. That kid
had damaged something and it would get better…that’s what I kept telling
Finally, Damon gave up and went to see a doctor at the University Health
Clinic. “After doing a basic exam and reviewing the results of a
PSA test, the doctor said my PSA numbers were through the roof and asked
what I knew about prostate cancer. I told her my dad had died of
it. She referred me to a urologist for a digital rectal exam (DRE)
and another PSA test. That doctor -- who said the numbers couldn’t
be right – was astonished that the results of the second test were even
higher. He predicted that the biopsy would reveal a malignancy
in the prostate gland.”
“Now, here is where it all came apart,” Damon recalls quietly.
“That test was incredibly painful, both physically and emotionally.
Here I was, 47 years old, my life hanging in the balance, away from what
family I had left, and alone. I was reliving the loss of my father
by experiencing his disease and trying to imagine what I would say to my
mother; how would I tell her that she might lose yet another man in her
life. I couldn’t even say the word, much less tell anyone else about
it. Yet, there it was…staring me in the face. The diagnosis
was indisputable…I had cancer. I felt different immediately, like
everything was surreal; I could actually feel the separation as it was
happening. And it occurred to me that here was another abrupt transition.
My life was going firmly in one direction when the tracks were switched
without warning, sending me careening off on another trajectory.”
“We all recognize our birthday as the beginning of our life. But,
I have come to realize that my life experienced a new genesis when I learned
I had cancer. Not just any old cancer, but inoperable cancer in its
late stages that had metastasized to the lymph system. There weren’t
any symptoms that I ignored. It wasn’t that I didn’t get medical
attention early enough. It was something else I didn’t do…with my
father’s prostate cancer history, I should have gotten a PSA test at age
40. It just didn’t occur to me. I cried then,” Damon says,
“because I remembered that Dad would never have wanted this to happen to
me and Mom would be heartbroken.”
“I knew at some point that I had to accept it and continue on for as
long as God allows. There was no point in wallowing in the grief
that most certainly was surrounding me, but somehow I came to grips with
what it was…and began to verbalize the questions. What do we do now?
How long do I have to live?”
Damon says he remembers hearing the doctor say one to two and a half
years. He was quick to agree with the doctor not to approach it that way,
but to see how he would respond to treatment. He couldn’t help thinking
how many more options he had than his father had a few decades earlier.
“I could almost hear him telling me to square my shoulders and stand
tall. I intuitively understood that I had to take this one
day at a time…that adopting the right attitude would play a crucial role
not only in how I would do with treatment, but in my quality of life, as
well. It didn’t take long to discover, however, that the hormone
treatment was disfiguring my body. I developed a belly and gained
a significant amount of weight. I no longer recognized myself in
the mirror and I fought hot flashes and ‘zipping’ pains. But, however
uncomfortable and challenging, I was, after all, alive.”
As the treatment progressed, Damon said he had the eerie feeling at
times of wanting to come right out of his skin. It was as if something
in his chemistry was unsettled and couldn’t adjust.
“I would suddenly just shudder, and visualize how the hormones were
at war with my system. Funny…now about two years later I don’t give
much thought to it anymore. I have some important goals I want to
reach. I want to be able to remain independent, and I don’t ever want to
be a burden on anyone. I guess you might say that I have become a
little obsessed with my legacy. You see, a couple of the other Tempts
died and left their families without anything. That’s what the lyrics
of the song I was best known for – “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” – were all
about; you know… ‘all he left us was alone.’ I refuse to live out
that lyric. I am going to break that mold.”
“I am determined to make a difference. I want to be remembered
for something more than some musical memories. I want to help men
learn more about prostate cancer, and emphasize to African American men
that they are at even greater risk for this disease than their white counterparts.
I want them to understand how important it is to get an annual PSA test
by the time they are 40. I am pursuing my new obsession through the Damon
Harris Cancer Foundation which was originally established by my attorneys
to help offset some of my staggering medical expenses. The Foundation has
since has evolved into a tool to help accomplish a broader objective –
that of reaching out to black men about prostate cancer. I’m starting to
accept some speaking engagements to share my experience with others and
to encourage men to do the right thing when it comes to protecting their
health. I really want to emphasize the importance of funding in research
for this deadly disease. I want awareness of prostate cancer to equal
that of breast cancer and to have equity in the amount of money dedicated
to finding its cure, as well.”
“In an e-mail to my website, a woman recovering from breast cancer
told me that she considered her cancer diagnosis a blessing in many ways.
I think she’s right. I am content knowing that, coupled with all
the other abrupt transitions in my life – the peaks and the valleys – I
have faced some challenges and I have met them. There are so many
paths I could have taken, but this is the one that was ultimately set for
me in order that I might accomplish some important goals. Who am
I to argue? I choose to view my circumstances as a blessing rather
than a battle, and I’m making the most of my life. While I am concentrating
on reaching young African American men – and maybe making a lifelong difference
in their lives – I don’t have much time to focus on my own aches and pains.
While I treasure the music and my years as a Temptation, I hope that my
real legacy will be found in the men who will live long and healthy lives
in the future because of something I do today.”
He has exorcised the ghosts of his relinquished stardom and enjoys the
opportunities to perform that now come his way. Damon says he has
found a new kind of peace and purpose. There is a new woman is his
life who returns his deep feelings, and who he credits with bringing him
through the darkest of times.
“There are many ways to share one’s God-given talents, and I am content
discovering some new ones.”
For more information about the Damon Harris Cancer Foundation, please