Otis R. "Damon" Harris Jr., a Baltimore singer who performed with the Temptations during the 1970s and later used his own diagnosis of prostate cancer to help raise awareness of the disease in African-American men, died Feb. 18 from the disease at Joseph Richey Hospice. The Owings Mills resident was 62.
"Singing was his thing. When we were kids, his ambition was to be a singer for the Temptations. We did talent shows where we played Temps records and he'd sing," said Chuck Woodson, a cousin and broadcaster who recently retired as general manager of WFBR-AM 1590.
The son of a master barber and a housekeeper, Otis Robert Harris Jr. was born in Baltimore and raised near Clifton Avenue.
Mr. Harris attended Forest Park High School and graduated from Northwestern High School.
As a youngster, Mr. Harris went the gospel route and sang in the choir of Enon Baptist Church. When he was 15, he performed with the Tempos, a local singing group, and later the Young Tempts, a Temptations-like group.
In 1968, he established his own group, the Vandals, and began his career as a full-time singer. The Vandals eventually made three recordings.
"Whenever I could, I caught Temps performances at the Lyric and Civic Center," he told The Evening Sun in a 1972 article. He said the group had been a major influence on his singing life since he was 10.
Mr. Harris' professional life changed in 1971, when he went to Washington's Watergate Hotel to attend a national audition conducted by Motown Records.
"I never thought I'd be auditioning for a position with the Temps," Mr. Harris said in the interview.
He beat out 300 other candidates and landed the position of lead tenor singer as a replacement for Eddie Kendricks, who had been his idol and departed from the group in 1971.
"It took me a while to believe it. I had what he had, I also had talent," he told The Evening Sun. Mr. Harris made his hometown debut as a Temp on Feb. 4, 1972, when the group performed at the Lyric.
"Damon Otis Harris was his stage name," said Mr. Woodson.
Mr. Harris helped the Temptations have a hit in 1972 with "Take a Look Around" and win a Grammy for the best R&B performance for "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone," their last U.S. No. 1 hit in 1973.
Mr. Harris was also associated with some of the Temptations' greatest hits such as "Superstar (Remember How You Got Where You Are)" and "Masterpiece."
During his tenure with the Temptations, they recorded nine gold records and earned three Grammy Awards and two American Music Awards.
Accounts vary as to why Mr. Harris left the group in 1975, when he was replaced by Glenn Leonard.
"The whole Motown experience left me pretty disillusioned. … I couldn't accept the way the company functioned in certain respects," Mr. Harris said in a 1976 interview with Blues & Soul.
"I couldn't deal with a lot of things that the Temps as a group were subjected to," he said. "My hands were tied and even getting my complete release from Motown proved a problem. But the experience didn't leave me bitter," even though his contributions to the group's success were not mentioned when the Temps were inducted in 1989 into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
After leaving the Temps, Mr. Harris got back together in Philadelphia with the Young Vandals, which changed its name to Impact. Despite several songs that found favor on the disco circuit and showcased his ethereal falsetto, the group did not find the lasting critical success he had hoped for.
After issuing "Silk," a solo album, in 1978, he toured internationally as a solo performer, and then moved to Reno, Nev., where he earned a degree in music at the University of Nevada and taught special-education students at Earl Wooster High School.
Mr. Harris' father had died from prostate cancer in 1975, and in 1998, he was diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer at age 47.
"I saw my Dad die. I saw him suffer, but he never talked about it," Mr. Harris said in an interview earlier last month with Promise & Progress, a publication of the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins. "Black men didn't talk about prostate cancer."
After receiving the diagnosis, Mr. Harris went to the Reno chapter of the American Cancer Society and began what he told The New York Times in a 2000 interview was "my crash course in Cancer 101."
"This was God's designation and I had to accept it to overcome it," he told The Times.
He made it his life's mission through talking to support groups, churches and larger venues to educate African-American men about their higher-than-average risk of contracting prostate cancer, more so if there is a family history of the disease. To accomplish this goal, he founded the Damon Harris Cancer Foundation.
He wanted to help them overcome the stigma of the disease, especially its sexual side effects, and attain the same openness regarding breast cancer.
In a recent interview with Alexis C. Jolly, a Los Angeles writer who is the online content editor for Stand Up and Cheer, Mr. Harris said, "This is not a matter for a particular age or demographic. It's a matter for people. Period."
The Owings Mills resident was still writing music and performing when his health allowed. He played the keyboard and had returned to the studio and recorded "You Are My Woman" last year.
"He loved to read and read from a plethora of various genres," said a daughter, Erica Outlaw of Pikesville. "And he loved talking about his days with the Temps."
A wake service for Mr. Harris will begin at 11 a.m. Thursday at Enon Baptist Church, 601 N. Schroeder St., with funeral services following at noon.
In addition to his daughter, Mr. Harris is survived by two sons, Charles R. Harris III of Miami and Damon Harris of Owings Mills; three other daughters, Dana Harris of Baltimore, Toni Harris of Havre de Grace and Dominique Harris of New York City; a brother, Terry A. Harris of Baltimore; 14 grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun