Damon Harris: Soul singer who joined the ranks of his boyhood idols, The Temptations

"The Temptations had been the most major influence on me. I was very proud to be where I was"

When Damon Harris auditioned for the Temptations in April 1971, the Motown vocal group were in a state of flux.

Eddie Kendricks, the first tenor whose yearning falsetto on “The Way You Do the Things You Do”, “Get Ready” and “Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me)” had become such a feature of their trademark sound, had left; and his original replacement, Ricky Owens, wasn’t working out and would soon return to his Los Angeles group, The Vibrations. Paul Williams, the Temptations’ baritone, had finally retired because of ill-health and been replaced by the versatile stand-in Richard Street, joining founder members Mervin Franklin – the bass vocalist – and Otis Williams – “the tenor in the middle” – as well as Dennis Edwards, who had taken over from David Ruffin as the other lead tenor in July 1968.

Harris was only 20, but he had previously led the Young Tempts, a Temptations soundalike outfit, whose 1970 cover of “Too Busy Thinking About My Baby” for The Isley Brothers’ T-Neck Records had attracted the attention of Motown’s legal department and forced a hasty name change to The Young Vandals. “I first met Dennis Edwards in Baltimore through a mutual friend and I sung for him,” Harris told Blues & Soul magazine in 1972. “Then later on, I met the entire group in Washington, D.C., and I did an audition for them. Fortunately, I was the one chosen to come into the group,” recalled the silky-voiced Harris, who had grown up idolising Kendricks and now found himself stepping into his shoes. Edwards, Franklin and Street had out-voted Otis Williams, who felt that Harris might be too young to handle the assignment.

“Since I was ten years old, The Temptations had been the most major influence on me,” said Harris. “I always listened to them and I always said I wanted to be like them in respect of being an entertainer and being able to perform like they always did. I just never ever thought I was going to be where I was, but I was very proud.”

Within weeks, he had not only perfected The Temptations’ tricky vocal interplay and elaborate stage routines, but was also recording at Motown’s legendary studio, Hitsville USA, with Norman Whitfield, the group’s demanding producer and songwriter, and the visionary architect of the group’s “psychedelic, cinematic soul” sound. “Superstar (Remember How You Got Where You Are)”, Whitfield’s not-so-veiled attack on Ruffin and Kendricks, and the first single Harris contributed to, made the charts on both sides of the Atlantic, but its subject matter should have served as a warning to the new recruit. However, he undeniably brought an injection of youth and enthusiasm to subsequent Temptations hits like 1972’s harmony-rich “Take a Look Around” – and helped them win the Grammy Award for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with the symphonic “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone”, their last US Pop No 1, in 1973.

Indeed, his tenure spanned a purple patch of releases which included the bestselling albums Solid Rock and All Directions (both 1972) and four US R&B chart-toppers: the majestic, socially-conscious title track of their Masterpiece album (1973); the funky “Let Your Hair Down” from the 1990 album (1974), their last Whitfield-conceived release; the infectious “Happy People”, featuring the Commodores; and the hypnotic “Shakey Ground”. The latter two both came from A Song for You (1975), the album produced by Jeffrey Bowen and Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr., on which Harris co-wrote “I’m a Batchelor”.

Accounts differ as to how Harris fell out with the rest of the group and was replaced by Glenn Leonard in 1975. “We were sorry to have to drop him, but, again, no one man is greater than the group,” reflected Otis Williams, who is now the sole original Temptation and the only surviving member of their classic Sixties line-up since Paul Williams, Ruffin, Kendricks and Franklin have all died.

Talking to Blues & Soul in 1976, Harris wasn’t as diplomatic. “The whole Motown experience left me pretty disillusioned and I really couldn’t accept the way the company functioned in certain respects. I couldn’t deal with a lot of things that the Temps as a group were subjected to. My hands were tied and even getting my complete release from Motown proved a problem. But the experience didn’t leave me bitter,” said Harris, whose contribution was not acknowledged when The Temptations were inducted into the Rock and Rock Hall of Fame in 1989.

He was born Otis Robert Harris, Jr., in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1950, but changed his first name to Damon when he joined The Temptations because “the group already had an Otis.” As a teenager, he gigged with local group the Tempos, before moving on to the Young Tempts. In 1972, when Smokey Robinson left the Miracles, Harris recommended his childhood friend Billy Griffin, who wound up replacing his childhood hero, like he had the previous year.

Following his stint in The Temptations, Harris teamed up with the erstwhile Young Vandals and renamed the group Impact. In 1976, they signed with WMOT – the acronym stood for We Men of Talent – the Philadelphia production company behind Blue Magic and Major Harris, and released an eponymous album distributed by Atlantic. His wonderful falsetto helped “Happy Man” and “Give a Broken Heart a Break” find favour on the disco scene, but, despite containing his excellent vocal arrangement of the Hall & Oates composition “Sara Smile”, their 1977 follow-up, The Pac Is Back, didn’t perform well. In 1978, he issued his well-titled solo debut, Silk, which failed to turn him into a soul balladeer to rival Teddy Pendergrass.

He moved to Reno, Nevada, where he resumed his studies and, after graduating, taught troubled youngsters. In the Nineties he returned to performing Temptations hits, but was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He spent the last decade of his life raising awareness of a disease which affects a much higher proportion of African-American than white men.

Otis Robert Harris, Jr., aka Damon Harris, singer and songwriter: born Baltimore, Maryland 17 July 1950; married 1973 Christina Combs (marriage dissolved); died Baltimore 18 February 2013.

News
Denny Miller in 1959 remake of Tarzan, the Ape Man
people
Arts and Entertainment
Cheryl despairs during the arena auditions
tvX Factor review: Drama as Cheryl and Simon spar over girl band

News
Piers Morgan tells Scots they might not have to suffer living on the same island as him if they vote ‘No’ to Scottish Independence
news
News
i100Exclusive interview with the British analyst who helped expose Bashar al-Assad's use of Sarin gas
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Sport
Angel Di Maria celebrates his first goal for Manchester United against QPR
Football4-0 victory is team's first win under new manager Louis van Gaal
Arts and Entertainment
art
News
newsIn short, yes
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script
tv'Thomas comes right up to the abyss', says the actor
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris claimed the top spot in this week's single charts
music
Sport
BoxingVideo: The incident happened in the very same ring as Tyson-Holyfield II 17 years ago
News
Groundskeeper Willie has backed Scottish independence in a new video
people
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor poses the question of whether we are every truly alone in 'Listen'
tvReview: Possibly Steven Moffat's most terrifying episode to date
News
i100
Life and Style
Cara Delevigne at the TopShop Unique show during London Fashion Week
fashion
News
The life-sized tribute to Amy Winehouse was designed by Scott Eaton and was erected at the Stables Market in Camden
peopleBut quite what the singer would have made of her new statue...
Sport
England's Andy Sullivan poses with his trophy and an astronaut after winning a trip to space
sport
News
peopleThe actress has agreed to host the Met Gala Ball - but not until 2015
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Teaching Assistant for KS1 & KS2 Huddersfield

£50 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: We are looking for flexible and i...

Teaching Assistant for KS1 & KS2 Huddersfield

£50 - £65 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: We are looking for flexible and...

Primary Teaching Supply

£130 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS2 Supply Teacher r...

Year 1/2 Teacher

£130 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS1 Teacher required,...

Day In a Page

These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week
The fall of Rome? Cash-strapped Italy accused of selling its soul to the highest bidder

The fall of Rome?

Italy's fears that corporate-sponsored restoration projects will lead to the Disneyfication of its cultural heritage
Glasgow girl made good

Glasgow girl made good

Kelly Macdonald was a waitress when she made Trainspotting. Now she’s taking Manhattan
Sequins ahoy as Strictly Come Dancing takes to the floor once more

Sequins ahoy as Strictly takes to the floor once more

Judy Murray, Frankie Bridge and co paired with dance partners
Wearable trainers and other sporty looks

Wearable trainers and other sporty looks

Alexander Wang pumps it up at New York Fashion Week
The landscape of my imagination

The landscape of my imagination

Author Kate Mosse on the place that taught her to tell stories