Harry Connick Jr. Fell in Love With Music at a Very Young Age

harry connick jr First Time in
illustration: michael Hoeweler

Harry Connick Jr. begins the second season for his syndicated talk show “Harry” in September. The jazzman released his first album when he was 10 years old, and broke into the mainstream after recording the soundtrack to “When Harry Met Sally…” at 22. The album hit No. 1 on Billboard’s jazz chart, won Connick his first Grammy (for jazz male vocal performance), and was certified double platinum. The New Orleans native has also acted in numerous roles; wrote the Broadway musical “Thou Shalt Not,” was Tony-nominated as an actor for “The Pajama Game,” and mentored on “American Idol.” Variety first mentioned him on April 8, 1981, as part of the announced lineup for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, where at 14, he joined such legends as Cab Calloway and James Brown.

Do you remember the 1981 jazz festival performance?

The only thing I remember from that performance was there was a guy named James Booker, who was a really incredible musician from New Orleans and was a very good friend of mine. I don’t remember my performance, but I remember him performing and asking me to come up and play a song with him. That was incredible because I idolized this guy. Even though I knew him really well, for him to invite me up there and play and share the stage was something I’ll never forget.

Were you nervous?

I never got nervous. It’s like a “put me in, coach; I’m ready to play” kind of thing. I welcomed any kind of opportunity to play. I wasn’t nervous, but I was very excited.

Was having a mentor like him important?

Jazz is the kind of music that has a very broad and deep history. To have someone pass on information in such a direct way was priceless. In this kind of music, you can listen to all the records you want, but when somebody actually shows you the physicality of it, it’s unbelievable; it’s also incredibly inspiring because somebody who you admire so much is taking the time to give information to you, and that resonates with me now. When I see young musicians, I’m always inclined to tell them anything I can, because that’s how our music grows and evolves.

What was the best thing you learned from James Booker?

There were two. On a purely musical level, when I was 7 or 8 years old, I had small hands, like young people do, so I couldn’t reach these vast spans of notes that James could. I would say, “How do you do this, how do you do that?” so he would sort of amend the way he played to accommodate my little hands. I’d watch him play and he would give me specific musical stuff. The other thing was, this man was deeply troubled psychologically; he was a terrible drug addict and alcoholic and had a very, very sad life but was always, always kind to me. He made me feel unique and like I was the only person in the world. I never forgot the impact that he had on me, even given all his troubles. As a young man, I didn’t know all of this stuff, and as I got older I started to realize how incredibly troubled he actually was. I think all he wanted to do was make me better — and those are the types of things that stick with you.

How did you meet him?

It’s kind of fuzzy, but my mother and father were big music fans and they knew that I loved music, so they would always take me around to hear great musicians. My parents were both well-known politicians in New Orleans, so they would meet celebrities and presidents and governors, and I didn’t know who half of these people were. One day I’d be meeting somebody of enormous social significance, like a singer or an actor, and the next day I’d be meeting somebody who I thought was just as significant in that way and turned out to be the guy who changed my dad’s oil at a shop, so they presented people to me equally. My relationship with James was always one of deep respect and admiration, and he really loved my mom and dad. When my mother died — that was about a year before James died — he really was saddened. I would go hear him play or sometimes people came to the house. It was a very informal relationship, but it was very powerful.

When did you first know you wanted to be an entertainer?

It was way, way back. My dad was the district attorney for New Orleans and when he opened up his campaign headquarters in 1972 or so, I was 5 years old. I played “The Star Spangled Banner” in front of a couple hundred people and I remember looking over the piano, and hearing them applaud when I finished the song, and I said “I need to get some more of that,” because I love that feeling. All I did was play something that made me happy and it made other people happy. But that was probably the first time I understood that if I press down on these little white and black things on this box, people might like it. So I wanted to keep that.

Your career has expanded so much since you started, with acting, producing and the talk show. Were those all part of your early goals?

All I wanted to do when I was 5, 6, 7 years old was be a piano player and a singer. When I got into high school, I started doing plays and I started realizing how much I loved being on stage as an actor; then when I was about 18 or 19, I got cast in a film, and it was all using the same part of my brain — just in different ways. I loved being in movies, so I started doing more of that and then television. So for me, the kind of personality I have, everything kind of felt similar and very comfortable.

Do you consider yourself primarily a musician?

First and foremost, that’s what I do. But you know, people ask what do you want your epitaph to say, and I would just say an entertainer.

What was it like witnessing the success of the “When Harry Met Sally…” soundtrack?

That was crazy. This was back when there were no cellphones, internet, any of that stuff, so people had [different] ways of finding out about your music, whether it was on a TV show or the radio or a newspaper or magazine article. I went from selling 10,000 records, which is a lot for an unknown jazz piano player, to millions of records in a matter of months. I’d walk through an airport and people would say, “I know who you are,” or I’d hear my music in a shopping mall. You start getting invited to be on “The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson” and it was just a really, really fun time.

Is there a message you want your audience to take away from your talk show?

The whole idea is for them to feel better at the end than they did at the beginning. Our country is filled with such amazing people; there’s so much goodness out there. There’s a lot of division too, but I think the vast majority are decent people who love their families. I want to do a show that’s entertaining that celebrates those people. We don’t argue about politics; there are a lot of shows that do politics very well, but we don’t. It’s hard to make an entertainment show that is funny, uplifting and that makes people feel better.

Was there something about the show that you love but didn’t expect?

I knew I’d love it, but I didn’t know I’d love it this much. When people come up to me and say, “Thank you, we didn’t have anything to watch before this; this is something I can watch with my kids or my parents or grandparents” — it’s a really nice feeling.

What advice would you give to someone starting out in the industry?

I’d say lazy people work the hardest — in other words, do your work, learn your craft. If you cut corners, it’s going to come back and bite you, and you’re gonna wish that you had done the best that you could when you were focused on that. And that goes for anything, whether you’re going to be a journalist, an actor, a doctor. Work as hard as you can to understand your craft as best you can, so that when the opportunity does, in fact, arrive, you’ll be prepared for it.

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