Harry Connick, Jr.’s career has been studded with awards and recognition, including several multi-platinum and gold albums, Grammy, Tony and Emmy awards, Cable Ace, Golden Globe and Oscar nominations, and much more. A true American icon, there are few artists of Harry’s stature.
Harry grew up in New Orleans, and it is here you will find the roots of his love for music and performing. His early talent was shaped by study with such luminaries as James Booker and Ellis Marsalis, and he was but five years old when he began performing. Harry appeared on his first jazz recording at age ten, and left New Orleans for the Big Apple at 18. Within a year he released his self-titled major label debut for Columbia Records. His second album, 20, introduced audiences to his magnificent voice, and there was no turning back—Harry was on his way.
Harry’s first widespread success as a musician came when director Rob Reiner asked him to contribute the score to the 1989 smash film, When Harry Met Sally… The film’s success led to Harry’s first multi-platinum album, an accomplishment made even more impressive by the fact that it was also Harry’s first Big Band recording.
The full scope of Harry’s artistry emerged in the 90’s. His groundbreaking albums from this time are a diverse mix of his many musical talents. Original instrumentals and vocals on Lofty’s Roach Soufflé and We are in Love. Funk exploration on She and Star Turtle. Romantic balladry on To See You. As a fitting cap to this vibrantly successful decade, Harry seamlessly wove his talents together in the Big Band tour de force: Come by Me. The San Francisco Chronicle deemed the album, “…easily the crowning achievement of his career.” Come by Me debuted at #1 on the Billboard Jazz Chart and reigned there for several months.
Harry also made his film debut in 1990, opposite Matthew Modine, Eric Stoltz and John Lithgow in the drama Memphis Belle. The following year he appeared in Jodie Foster’s directorial debut, Little Man Tate, a project the Washington Post recognized as “…intrinsically poignant.” Harry changed tunes for his next film role, portraying a homicidal sociopath in 1995’s Copycat. The critics took notice, with the New York Times dubbing him, “…scarily effective,” and the Tampa Tribune naming him “most memorable” in a cast that included Holly Hunter and Sigourney Weaver. Next for Harry was a memorable role in the 1996 blockbuster, Independence Day, one of the highest-grossing movies of all time.
As he did musically, in the realm of film Harry ended the 90’s with a big bang. Cast alongside Sandra Bullock in 1999’s Hope Floats, Harry earned a Blockbuster Award nomination for Favorite Actor - Drama/Romance. The L.A. Times agreed, proclaiming there to be “…no doubting Connick’s impact.” Harry then switched gears, lending his voiceover talents to the critically acclaimed feature, My Dog Skip and the animated, The Iron Giant. Harry conquered yet another film genre with Linda Yellen’s improvisational film, The Simian Line. Variety found his performance with costar Lynn Redgrave to be, “…achingly honest.” Harry was nurturing an acting talent that seemed limitless—and unstoppable.
With vast success on the jazz charts, great crossover success on the pop charts and a growing roster of impressive film credits, the new millennium dawned bright for Harry.
As a new decade began, Harry’s triumphant trend continued. After exploring the wonders of childhood on Songs I Heard, a Grammy-winning reflection on favorite music of his youth, Harry released the jazz quartet album, Other Hours, an instrumental collection of Tony-nominated songs Harry composed for the Broadway musical “Thou Shalt Not.” Working alongside choreographer and director Susan Stroman, Thou Shalt Not marked Harry’s debut as a composer/arranger and lyricist for live theatre. The album was the first in a Connick on Piano series released by Marsalis Music, and Thou Shalt Not debuted on Broadway in 2001.
Switching gears again, Harry channeled the spirit of Christmas in a second blockbuster holiday album, Harry for the Holidays, which spawned a hugely successful US tour in 2003 and was broadcast as an NBC television special. Harry then changed his tune to one of romance on his collection of ballads, Only You.
In May of 2003, a series of sessions at Hollywood’s legendary Capitol Studios saw Harry applying his diverse skills as vocalist, pianist, composer, arranger and orchestrator on Harry for the Holidays and Only You. From a piano once graced by Nat King Cole, Harry led his Big Band, often augmented by a full string orchestra, through two diverse programs.
“It’s all music,” he said in explaining the challenge, “and a matter of subtly switching gears, because a different kind of passion goes into singing `Oh Little Town of Bethlehem’ and `Only You.’”
Initial inspiration for Only You came from Columbia Records president Donnie Ienner.
“Donnie’s the one who said, `Why don’t you do an album of songs from my generation?’ and I decided to give it a try. That involved collecting suggested material, deciding which songs felt right for me and picking those I liked.”
Along the way, Harry realized many hits from the early years of rock and roll had a much older pedigree.
“Part of what I wanted to do on this record,” he admits, “was to focus on songs that had their second success in the 50’s. `My Prayer’ is a great example. I know that most people associate it with the Platters, but I knew the Ink Spots’ version from the 30’s as well. That’s why I picked things like `My Blue Heaven’ and `I Only Have Eyes for You,’ songs I remember hearing as a kid that have a real history.”
The twelve tracks on Only You are delivered with Harry’s unique blend of taste, imagination and passion. He turns the Drifters hit “Save the Last Dance for Me” into a swinging ballad, drops a hint of samba into “My Blue Heaven,” and calls upon solo cello to realize the mood of “My Prayer.”
“I was trying to deal with the colors of each piece – the hues, for lack of a better word,” he explains. “All of the writing was done that way, using just what was needed.”
Examples abound, none better than the soulful section work concertmaster Bruce Dukoff evokes from the string players on “My Prayer” and Jerry Weldon and the rest of the Big Band saxes deliver on “Goodnight My Love.”
“I gave Jerry the lead on `Goodnight My Love’ because he just understands that type of playing,” Harry emphasizes.
Indeed it is Weldon who takes the majority of horn solos throughout the disc, with Jimmy Greene’s tenor featured on “Only You” and Dave Schumacher’s baritone on Allen Toussaint’s “All These Things.”
Harry’s own instrumental contributions are understated, but his vocals are front and center and more moving than ever.
“I always forget to write myself into the arrangements,” Harry jokes. “These songs are hard to sing, and they brought out new things in my voice. There is nowhere to hide on something like `The Very Thought of You.’ You just have to fill up your lungs and sing, without worrying about the details of how each phrase should be inflected. What came out was my voice in a way I haven’t heard it. It was like going back to when I was first learning to sing, like the way I sang `Stardust’ on 25. I really sang these songs, and I’m proud of it.”
A major difference between Harry’s singing here and on his 1992 version of “Stardust,” is his evolving approach to art.
“There was a time when I wouldn’t let life experience into the music, because I thought art was completely internal,” he says. “To a great extent, I still think that’s true, because otherwise artists would just be chasing sunsets. But now, I find myself drawing on personal experience more than ever before. When I sang `Other Hours,’ I was thinking of the more difficult times in my life, and when I sang `Only You’ and most of the other songs, I was thinking about my wife Jill. For the first time, I wasn’t acting the emotions, I was feeling them. It was a solemn, calm place, a very good place, without a lot of the baggage—about what other people would think of the music—that I used to take into the studio. This is my turn, and I’m enjoying it.”
Only You is but the latest chapter in Harry’s celebrated and uncommonly diverse career. His recent albums evidence not only his range as an artist, but also his refusal to rest on his laurels. Harry possesses a talent as full as it is distinctive, an ability to entertain not limited to music alone.
As an actor, Harry continues to have a major impact in theater, film, and television. In 2001, Harry wrapped filming on Life Without Dick, a dark romantic comedy costarring Sarah Jessica Parker, and starred in the ABC production of South Pacific. Harry took his success on the small screen even further with a recurring role on NBC’s Will & Grace.
In the world of contemporary entertainment, Harry Connick, Jr. exercises a creative energy that is undeniably unique. Despite the stunning pace of his work and the extent of his accomplishments, Harry is still finding new ways to express himself artistically.
“Right now, I’m just taking my time to keep learning my craft,” he says.
His accomplishments speak for themselves: album sales of over 20 million and endless accolades in the music, film, television, and theater worlds. There simply is no stopping the marvel that is Harry Connick, Jr.