The first time Harry Connick Jr. stepped onto the Hollywood Walk of Fame was almost by accident. It was his first visit to Los Angeles, and he was en route to a session at the iconic Capitol Records Tower, just a few steps from the Walk of Fame’s epicenter at Hollywood and Vine.
“When you’re actually walking down that street and see all those names — Judy Garland, Nat King Cole, John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart — you realize that these people walked down these same streets; that they’ve had some of the same feelings that you’re having as a young performer,” Connick says.
The New Orleans native’s trademark Southern drawl has lightened since those early days, though his rich, smooth baritone hasn’t. “It just kind of makes it real. For somebody like me who has such a deep respect for the entertainment business, it’s a really big deal.”
When he returns to the star-studded sidewalk Oct. 24 to see his name alongside theirs (Connick’s will live near 7080 Hollywood Blvd.), it will be as a successful career performer of that particular vintage: the kind for whom no venue or stage is the wrong size, and no audience ill-suited. The kind willing to take a leap into any medium as long as it brings people some joy.
Connick’s versatility as a musician, actor and the word he’ll bring up again and again — entertainer — is old-school, classic Hollywood. “Basically you had to do all those things back in the day,” he says. “Look at Sammy Davis Jr. who, to me, was the No. 1 of all time. I don’t think anybody had his level of ability to all-around entertain. It was really about craftsmanship and star power. That’s why those folks will never be surpassed — there’s no demand for that level of skill anymore.”
A multiple Grammy and Emmy winner, he’s two short of the elusive EGOT — though not for lack of effort: he’s been nominated for two Tonys, and performed “Promise Me You’ll Remember” from “The Godfather III,” which was nominated for an Academy Award for original song. He’s also acted in several films, including 1998’s “Hope Floats,” opposite Sandra Bullock, but so far without a nomination.
As a singer and pianist Connick has mastered the art of nostalgia with a wink (sometimes literally) and a smile, helping to keep jazz music in the pop conversation with his irreverent yet approachable interpretations of everything from songbook standards to New Orleans funk. He’s often compared to Frank Sinatra, but Connick’s suave charm doesn’t expire when he steps off stage; instead he insists, more than three decades into his career, that he still takes performing as seriously, and gets as much pleasure out of it, as he did when he was a prodigy in the Big Easy.
“Every day I wake up and feel like my career is just starting, which is an incredible luxury in this business,” says the 52-year-old. “I still get the same sense of excitement that I got then, and I guess that’s about all I can ask for.”
Connick recalls his debut vividly: at 5 years old, when he played the “Star Spangled Banner” at a campaign event for his father, who was then New Orleans’ district attorney. He wasn’t nervous, he recalls, and the applause just made him eager to come back for more.
“I had nothing to be afraid of,” he says now. “My personality type was such that it was exciting to me, and I kind of bypassed the whole nervous thing. Even as a little kid, that’s what I craved. All I really wanted to do was perform.”
New Orleans was the ideal incubator for the precocious jazz fiend, one that he felt allowed him to experience all corners of the music world unfettered. While it might sound wild that an elementary schooler was a regular at French Quarter jazz clubs, Connick describes it as “a very benign and welcoming situation,” where people of all ages communed around music.
In the small city’s even smaller musical community, Connick was a beloved young star. He played with jazz pioneer Eubie Blake while still in single digits, and sat in with traditional jazz bands, funk groups and modern jazz ensembles at venues including Tipitina’s and the now-defunct Tyler’s. One particularly notable gig found the then-9-year-old playing Beethoven with the Louisiana Philharmonic. By high school, Ellis Marsalis, the patriarch of one of the city’s most esteemed musical dynasties (see: Wynton, Branford, Delfeayo and Jason), became his mentor.
“It’s hard to say specifically what I learned, because I learned everything,” he muses. “I was around music constantly. I had a kind of unique upbringing and such incredible access to a wide array of talent.”
But New York was where the action was, and where Connick moved almost as soon as he turned 18. There was an element of culture shock, though, for the prodigy as he sought his first record deal.
“In the musical community in New Orleans, there was a color blindness — if you could play, [your race] really didn’t matter,” Connick says. “But in New York, there was definitely kind of a black community and a white community of musicians. You would think it would be exactly the opposite. Once I went to sit in with a blind musician, and he leaned over and asked, ‘Are you white or black?’ It wasn’t upsetting because you have to consider the reason it got like that — a sense of territory and personal pride that I can completely understand.
“I had just never seen it before. Clearly there’s systemic racism everywhere, but in the circle I rolled in [in New Orleans], as corny as it sounds, you just saw people for who they were. Not that it’s not there, but people realized that there can be horrible things and wonderful things in society, and embrace differences and similarities.”
A year living at the 92nd Street Y, bumming around whichever piano bar would have him, was a small price to pay, though, for a Columbia Records deal that resulted in his 1987 self-titled debut — all piano with an assist from legendary jazz bassist Ron Carter and producer Delfeayo Marsalis.
His brash, unpretentious style was immediately polarizing within the jazz community, but there was no denying his pedigree and reverence for the music’s forebears. Carmen McRae and Dr. John appeared on his sophomore album, “20,” which was named for his age at the time of the session.
What took him from jazz world anomaly to superstar, though, remains one of his best-known credits: Rob Reiner’s classic 1989 film “When Harry Met Sally.” Connick was responsible for the soundtrack, a twist of fate that, like his first trip down Hollywood Boulevard, was almost wholly unintentional. He was brought in to play some incidental music, but when such artists as Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald — whose vintage recordings are featured in the movie itself — became unavailable for the soundtrack release, Connick filled
in the gaps.
The resulting album not only won the 21-year-old singer his first Grammy, but also crystallized a mainstream jazz resurgence via Connick’s sophisticated, cosmopolitan and straightforward take on the genre’s classic sounds. Connick became the face of a movement that was doing the impossible: making jazz popular. “It Had to Be You” suddenly seemed as appropriate a soundtrack for a ’90s romance as it was for “Casablanca.” Connick was appearing on Letterman while doing a stint at the Algonquin, reinvigorating a fantasy of old-fashioned, big city glamour with irresistible earnestness.
Connick’s next two vocal albums went double platinum; by late 1990, he had three albums on Billboard’s pop chart simultaneously. If the jazz heads were skeptical, Connick had found a massive audience that wasn’t.
“Now, performance is looked on by a lot of jazz musicians as something that’s kind of corny,” Connick says. “You can’t expect people to go and listen to music and not have any entertainment. I mean, I’m happy to do that, and I know a lot of people who will go to a club just to listen. But if you want to reach a wide audience, you have to consider a wide audience. That’s what the pop musicians realized: They said, ‘We don’t necessarily have to be the best musicians in the world, but we love to entertain people.’”
His unlikely star turn brought him the opportunity for his big- and small-screen debuts, confirming his stature as a vintage star for the contemporary era. And 30 million albums sold, 10 jazz chart No. 1s, a long arc on a hit sitcom (as Debra Messing’s on-screen love interest on “Will & Grace”) and his own daytime talk show later, Connick still keeps gamely stepping back into the spotlight. He says he’s never felt like he needed a break.
“It was always about the challenge of what the spotlight meant, not the spotlight itself,” he says. “It was about why I’m out here. Have I done everything I need to do to maximize the gifts I’ve been given?”
Connick recalls one of his stints on Broadway, when a castmate mouthed to him from the wings that she was tired — understandable, he admits, given the Great White Way’s eight-show-a-week grind. “But I thought to myself, ‘Well, you should go home!,’” he says. “This isn’t for people who get tired. You’re in the wrong business. The audience paid money — and they had a lot of decisions on how to spend that money — to come sit and let you take them away from their troubles. That’s something that’s almost sacred to me, which is why I don’t miss shows, I don’t go on late, and I don’t phone it in. I realize what an incredible honor it is…
“Which goes back to this star,” he continues. “This isn’t some … ,” Connick pauses, considering his words. “It’s an opportunity for publicity, of course, but it goes way deeper than that. It’s a brotherhood and a sisterhood of entertainers.”
The bedrock on which Connick has built his remarkably consistent career is, like his career, based on traditional values. He’s been married to Jill Goodacre since 1994; together they have three daughters and have lived in Connecticut for almost 30 years.
Says Connick: “For me, the stronger that part of one’s life is, the more creative you can be — the better artist you can be. Despite what a lot of people think, in my opinion, it’s very hard to create art in the throes of chaos and sadness and depression. The deeper I connect with my family — and every day we grow deeper and deeper in love with each other — the freer I am to be more creative. The pain is inevitable, and that’s what you learn when the things that matter come to the forefront.”
It’s his family, Connick says, that frees him to keep putting on a show, to offer an escape to anyone who might be seeking solace.
“People should underestimate the difficulty,” he notes. “It’s like watching a football game: If my quarterback throws a pass to my favorite wide receiver, all I want to see is a touchdown. I don’t really want to see the years and years and years of preparation; I want to see a great catch. I’m kind of aware of how difficult that is, but I don’t really need to know. I just want to see the result.”
As much as the diehard New Orleans Saints fan projects ease and levity onto his own work, receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame is proof positive of how seriously he’s taken his craft his entire life.
“I never talk about politics, and I won’t,” he concludes. “But when they talk about our president as an entertainer, I think … no, no, no, no. You don’t know what that means. Be very careful with that word. Some things that you see in politics may be entertaining, but being an entertainer is … that’s like calling yourself a doctor when you’re not. It’s hardcore. It’s a lifelong quest to uphold that honor of taking people somewhere else.”