Harry Connick Jr: When Harry Met Music

Musician Harry Connick Jr. started young. That’s not always the case, of course, for every legendary songwriter and performer, but it was so for the New Orleans-born crooner. For as anyone who has ever visited the Crescent City knows, the bayou births songs. Melodies are in the ether. Rhythms emanate from the cobblestone streets. This is the world that Connick Jr. came into as a young person, and he took it just about as early as humanly possible. In New Orleans, anyone who is interested in music has immediate access to some of the greatest versions of it around, especially live performances. Artists roam the streets with instruments in tow, capable of playing and passing a hat at any moment. But for Connick Jr., his education, in a way, began even before that. Before he was born, his parents owned a record store. It was tradition for them to have albums playing in the house seemingly at all times. So, Connick Jr. began to play his own songs beginning at 3 years old.

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“I’ve been deeply involved in it ever since,” he tells American Songwriter. 

For some young players, parents must crack the proverbial whip. They have to push their children to sit down and plunk along in the hopes of improving day by day. But for Connick Jr., his life was more prodigious. He was prolific at an early age. He says his mother and father didn’t need to incentivize him. He found the piano in their home and began pounding away. This led him to begin recording his own records by the age of 9 and, around that same time, performing with organizations like the New Orleans Symphony Orchestra (what is now the Louisiana Philharmonic). Truly, these are monumental feats for anyone, let alone someone who hadn’t yet hit his first double-digit birthday. 

“They didn’t have to nudge me much,” Connick Jr. says of his folks. “We had a piano in the house, and I just loved it. It was something I gravitated toward. At any given moment, I’d just sit down and play. My parents recognized that, and I started taking lessons really young, at 5 or 6 years old.”

It was also at that time that he began to head down to locales in the city to hear live music. His parents, who both worked as lawyers, would bring him to local hotspots during the day, like the city’s French Quarter. Connick Jr. would be bold enough to even sit in with the bands. He was “immersed” in the city’s sounds from that point onward. And while today, he jet-sets from Broadway stages to television studios and beyond, Connick Jr. says he keeps the city that grew him up in his heart. He’s even created the Musicians’ Village charity with Branford Marsalis to foster affordable housing opportunities for musicians there. 

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“It’s where I was born and raised,” Connick Jr. says of New Orleans. “So, it’s profoundly important to me. I go there [these days] about once a month to see my dad and visit with my family. It’s just my home, even though I don’t live there anymore. I still feel very connected to New Orleans.”

Connick Jr. released his latest record, Make It Merry, a collection of Christmas songs he recorded during the 2020 pandemic, in November. He also undertook a six-week tour late in 2022, playing cities from Hershey, Pennsylvania, to San Francisco, California, bringing holiday cheer across the United States. But for the 55-year-old Connick Jr., one gets the sense that these tracks are but the tip of the iceberg when it comes to his bag of tricks and the number of songs he could pull out at any moment. He’s a pro’s pro, someone who would be doing the work whether he was getting $1 million or a passerby’s spare change during a busking session in his home city. For Connick Jr., who grew up with traditional holiday elements from presents underneath a Christmas tree to midnight Mass, the season is meaningful. He was joyous to go out on the road and celebrate it. But when the trip was over, it was all about family. 

At home, one imagines Connick Jr. wearing a thick Christmas sweater, a mug of mulled cider with a cinnamon stick poking out, hair handsome but somehow a bit messy, sitting at a black grand piano, flames dancing in the fireplace and his fingers tickling the keys. In a way, he’s the perfect voice to bring Christmas classics to life. He’s a natural crooner. He boasts a vibrant voice that can only be controlled so much. Yet, he says, it’s not a performance tactic he intentionally sought to hone or refine. Instead, it’s what comes naturally, tumbling off his tongue like the lyrics to the jaunty “Jingle Bells.” It’s a gift. But it’s also something he likely mastered implicitly after so many gigs early on and absorbing so much music in the city that raised him. 

“I just sing like myself,” he admits. “I didn’t try to define it in any way. I just opened my mouth and whatever came out, came out. When I was a little kid, I used to imitate Louis Armstrong because he was my hero. And as I got older, my voice changed. But I wasn’t trying to sing a certain way. That’s just the way I sing, I’ve always been comfortable with it.”

To date, Connick Jr. has released dozens of albums. He’s won three Grammy Awards and two Emmy Awards. He’s appeared in films like Independence Day with Will Smith and television shows like the NBC sitcom Will & Grace. Amazingly, he released his first album in 1977 when he was just 10 years old. That record, Dixieland Plus, was recorded live in New Orleans in late October of that year with a local Dixieland band. While making it, Connick Jr. was already studying with local piano masters Ellis Marsalis (father to Wynton and Branford) and James Booker. Connick Jr. released his next LP, Pure Dixieland, two years later and his self-titled album in 1987. But it was 1989 when things really began to take off with the release of the When Harry Met Sallysoundtrack. (He later provided songs for movies like Godfather III and The Mask.)

The movie, which stars Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal, was written by Nora Ephron and directed by Rob Reiner. And it was Reiner, Connick Jr. says, who hired the musician to play some “incidental” improvised piano licks for the film. At the time, there was no intention for him to provide the songs to the movie’s recorded soundtrack—a role that would earn Connick Jr. a Grammy for Best Jazz Male Vocal Performance. He didn’t write music for the movie score ahead of time; he simply made it up for the scenes Reiner gave him. The director did ask the musician to sing “It Had to Be You” for the movie. But then, because of esoteric contractual reasons, the songs in the movie by other artists weren’t allowed to appear on the soundtrack. Reiner asked Connick Jr. to stop in, sing all the songs from the film, and have them be the musical accompaniment made for sale after its release. 

Harry Connick Jr. (Photo by Georgia Connick)

“I just went in and played the piano parts Rob Reiner asked me to play,” says the modest Connick Jr. “I just went into the studio and sang the album and that’s how it happened. Just like making any other record, really.”

Throughout his career since, movies have remained a big part of his creative life. Television, too. His first credited movie role was in the film Memphis Belle, where he played Sgt. Clay Busby. His role as Captain Jimmy Wilder in Independence Day came in 1996. Dozens more have followed. As for TV, the first role Connick Jr. played was as Russell Boyd in the popular sitcom, Cheers, in 1992. He played himself in the popular ’90s kids show, Ghostwriter. And his character Leo Markus was introduced on Will & Grace in 2002 and continued for years. To add to that, Connick Jr. has performed more than a handful of times on Broadway, from concerts to staged musicals. When it comes to the duality of being an actor and a musician, though, Connick Jr. says the two lives often complement one another. 

“I think they inform one another,” he says. “Any kind of experience you have is going to help. When I do films—like, in the way you understand scripts and how you develop characters and how you memorize lines and arc monologues or scenes—those are the things that aren’t dissimilar to singing a lyric. And lyrics are very important to me.”

In terms of his favorite roles, Connick Jr. says he doesn’t focus on one in particular. Indeed, he is not a look-back type of person. He stays in the moment, he says. So, his favorite is the movie he’s “doing at the time.” In fact, he just finished one, The Islander, in which he plays a musician named John, a songwriter. In the movie, he got to write and perform music, too. But while these skills do interact and interweave, they also employ different skill sets, he says. And he enjoys both. Connick Jr. has also enjoyed a great deal of success because of the roles he receives and the work he’s done to meet their requirements. 

“I’m deeply grateful,” he notes. “That’s something that’s a part of my thoughts every day.” But despite the constant reminders of gratitude, Connick Jr. says he doesn’t linger on any specific accomplishment. “I don’t think about it too much. I live in the present. I make music, whatever project I’m working on. I go forward. I don’t think about the past too much. I do have great memories and I get to revisit them when asked. But I don’t spend time thinking about it. I’m an onwards and upwards kind of guy.”

Known for his buttery-smooth voice and knack for catching a listener’s ear with comforting artistry, Connick Jr. has a great deal of experience entertaining the masses throughout his life. The artist has been doing it for something like five decades now and he shows no signs of slowing down or stopping. Fresh off his holiday release and accompanying tour, Connick Jr. says he took a day or two off and then set out on his future jobs: more Broadway work, television and film work, and more music. He’s a dynamo when it comes to output. He’s in the sweet spot where expertise meets talent and drive. Laurels? He ain’t resting on them. Nope.

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“Numbers-wise,” Connick Jr. says, “I feel like I’m 25. I take good care of myself. I have my health. Experientially, obviously, I’ve definitely been around the block a few times. That’s all good. But I don’t think too much about the past. I spend a lot of time just being thankful and trying to get better at all the things I love to do.”

To be a legend means, more than anything else, consistency. Maintaining excellence for an extended period is the toughest task. Anyone can find a diamond in the rough, but the trick is to be able to do so repeatedly. Yes, for decades. For Connick Jr. that has been the mark of his career, to be sure. It’s no simple task, of course. But in this way, he’s something of a content factory. An artful assembly line. For him, to be able to produce work is ultimately the most enlivening. Where might he be without it? Perhaps lost. That truth is likely the subtle, unnamable quality that drove him as a young child. Some burning, curious furnace that alerted his attention to the 88 keys on the piano in his home, to the records spinning on the turntables, and to the performers just outside his window. That impetus made life a little bit better for everyone who encountered it, but for Connick Jr. most of all. Today, he knows that. And he couldn’t be more appreciative. 

“I’m so thrilled to be able to do this every day,” he says. “I love music so much. I love performing it. I love writing it. I love recording it. It’s just a blessing for which I am eternally grateful.” 

Photos by Georgia Connick

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