Music News & Reviews

Her father wrote ‘Great Balls of Fire.’ Now this Lexingtonian is on ‘American Idol.’

Amelia Hammer Harris, who lived in Lexington from 2001 to 2006, exits her “American Idol” audition with her golden ticket to Hollywood and her guitarist, Nick Chilli Haze.
Amelia Hammer Harris, who lived in Lexington from 2001 to 2006, exits her “American Idol” audition with her golden ticket to Hollywood and her guitarist, Nick Chilli Haze. ABC

Amelia Hammer Harris’ “American Idol” audition has been viewed more than half-a-million times on YouTube and earned effusive praise, but she won’t look at it.

“Being my own toughest critic, I can’t really watch that audition tape anymore,” Harris says of her performance of the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.” “But I’m also cool with it and glad that I tried to tackle a big song that’s really inspiring to me. It was a lot of fun, and then obviously my outfit is just slightly ridiculous.

“Having that outfit with that song, I hope I look back at that in 30 years, and I hope that I’m not embarrassed but instead am just like, ‘Yeah, you knew who you were, and you owned it.’”

The ensemble — a floral “statement” jacket over a graphic print top with a green scarf and gold, velvet, bell-bottom trousers — certainly enhanced the vibe of the 1969 classic and didn’t deter the “Idol” judges or anyone else from heaping praise on the one-time Lexington resident and SCAPA student.

“I’m surprised that you’re still here and not a major artist, already,” judge and chart-topper Katy Perry said. “You have a presence and a style, a unique sound, and you’re beautiful. I would like to say that this is Top 10 material right now.”

Pop culture website Decider took it a step further with the headline, “Is Amelia Hammer Harris Already the ‘American Idol’ Frontrunner?”

Harris, 27, was born in New York and lived in Lexington from 2001 to 2006, though much of her family — including her four brothers and two sisters — still reside here. She frequently returns to visit, though she says not as much as she’d like to.

Starting at Glendover Elementary School and ending with her freshman year in the School for Creative and Performing Arts at Lafayette High School was a key time in her life, she says. The groundwork for her current success was laid at SCAPA Bluegrass, the late-elementary and middle school division of the program, particularly by longtime choral director Millie Fields, she added.

“I had such good training, and it’s such a cool school with it being so small and focused on all the students. I’ll never forget Ms. Fields there. She kind of saw that I had this very kind of angelic, classical, high-pitched voice, so I started doing a lot of classical music training there, and I fell in love with classical music,” Harris said.

But while Lexington was a great training ground, it did not provide Harris the opportunities she was seeking, having worked professionally in New York before moving to Kentucky.

“When I was in New York, I was kind of a work horse, and my mom was like, ‘You should have a front yard and a back yard and play like a normal kid, and we should move back to Kentucky,’” Harris recalls. “But then she was like, you’ve been her five years, and you’ve got your manners and your Southern hospitality in your bones. Now we can go back to where there’s a lot more opportunity.”

So in her sophomore year, her mother Sherry Harris moved her back to New York for a year, and then to Los Angeles to try another hub of entertainment, and to connect with her father.

This came up on “Idol.”

Harris’ father is Jack Hammer, born Earl Solomon Burroughs, a songwriter and performer best know for co-writing the Jerry Lee Lewis classic “Great Balls of Fire.” Harris did not know her dad until he reached out to her when she was 15.

She grew to love her father and his music, saying some of her favorite songs by him were more obscure numbers that he recorded in Europe. She didn’t really intend to bring him up on “Idol,” but when the judges asked if there was music in her family background, her dad came up.

“I want to make my own legacy,” Harris said of Hammer, who died in 2016. “I never wanted to be pinned as a girl who made it with help from her father, because it’s also so far from the truth. So I try not mention it as much as I can, but there’s no escaping my history.”

After moving to Los Angeles for her last years of high school, Harris ended up settling there, even though she says New York suits her personality better, working and training, getting gigs like playing Joanne in the Royal Underground Theatre Company’s 2011 production of “Rent.”

“American Idol” was always on her radar — she recalls watching it with her family when she was living in Lexington — but she waited for the time to be right to audition. And of course, there was a skip of a few years between the show’s cancellation by Fox in 2016 and revival by ABC this season.

“I’m really glad that I did it as a more mature adult because it’s a lot,” Harris says. “It’s a lot of pressure, and I think it’s really important to remain yourself.”

A few years experience gave Harris the perspective to stay true to what she wanted to do, namely music of the 1960s and ’70s, presented the way she wanted to do it. It also put her in something of a mentoring role to younger competitors, particularly during the show’s “Hollywood Week” of elimination rounds, which she’ll be seen in Sunday night.

“Among the young kids, there’s some running jokes of them calling me mom, which is adorable, because I would be like behind them with water and be bringing them tea because I felt like I was trying to keep everyone afloat,” Harris says. “You don’t realize how maternal you are until you’re caring for 16 year olds who are losing their voices, because they’re singing so much.”

One competitor she made a particular connection with was fellow Kentuckian Layla Spring, a Marion County 16 year old.

“She’s so sweet, and she’s so much more classic Kentucky than I am,” Harris says. “She’s so adorable, and it’s so nice to have her around, because she sounds like my whole family.”

Amelia Hammer Harris 3
Amelia Hammer Harris greets the “American Idol” judges, including Lionel Richie, after her successful audition for the show. Eddy Chen ABC

Both Spring and Harris are still in contention, as far as what has been shown on TV goes — the broadcasts are still in the midst of pre-recorded rounds, before live competition begins. Harris says the heaping helpings of praise helped give her confidence moving forward, though the judges also offered some guidance.

Judge and icon Lionel Richie cautioned, “If you ever had to go deep, this is that moment in your life, because it’s probably going to require you to find a couple avenues you didn’t know you had.”

Perry added, “Get focused. It’s time to put pause on everything else, and hone into winning ‘American Idol.’”

Richie also joked, “I probably have that jacket too.”

‘The Voice’ update

Livia-Terrence battle
Livia Faith and Terrence Cunningham sing “Stars” by Grace Potter and The Nocturnals. Tyler Golden NBC

Stanton high school student Livia Faith was eliminated from contention on the NBC singing competition show “The Voice” in Tuesday night’s episode. In the show’s second round of televised competition, the “Battle round,” singers on each team sing a duet, after which the celebrity coach of their team chooses which singer to keep. Faith, 17, was paired with Terrence Cunningham, 36, a Los Angeles-based singer who has worked extensively as a professional musician. His blind audition of “My Girl” scored the highest chart position of any singers thus far this season on iTunes, and the prognostication website Gold Derby had dubbed Cunningham the top competitor on coach Alicia Keys team.

The duo sang “Stars” by Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, and earned high marks from the coaches for their collaborative performance, and Faith was complimented for the strength and maturity of her performance. But Keys chose Cunningham. In battle rounds, coaches do have the ability to steal competitors other coaches eliminate. But by the time Faith and Cunningham squared off, all of the other coaches had used up their steals, so it was the end of the line for the Oldham County teen.

Before exiting, Faith said that being on the show, “is the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”

Kaleb Lee
Kaleb Lee Paul Drinkwater NBC

▪  But, there is one Kentucky connection left on the NBC show. Kaleb Lee is listed as being from Ormond Beach, Fla. But his hometown is Benton in Western Kentucky. He and his wife and family lived in Owensboro for a while before moving to Florida. Lee was eliminated from coach Blake Shelton’s team Monday night singing Tom Petty’s “Don’t Do Me Like That” with Nashville’s Pryor Baird. But Lee was stolen by Kelly Clarkson, and will be in the upcoming “Knockout Rounds.”

Also, Harlan native and Season 10 winner Jordan Smith has been announced as a mentor on this week’s “Knockout Rounds.” “The Voice” is broadcast at 8 p.m. Mon. and Tues. on WLEX-TV 18 (Spectrum Ch. 8).

Rich Copley: @copiousnotes


“American Idol” 8 p.m. Sun. and Mon. on WTVQ-TV 36 (Spectrum, Ch. 10).

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader