Forget Josh Groban and Michael Bublé. Harry Connick Jr was the original heir to the legends of the past. For an entire generation, he was the dreamboat whose voice soundtracked 1989’s When Harry Met Sally and a series of bestselling jazz albums. He was the new Sinatra, without the messy Mob connections, a global star at 22. An effortless transition to the big screen had them swooning in the aisles from Memphis Belle and Independence Day to Hope Floats, a wholesome hottie with plenty of soul to keep things interesting. Thirty years later, Harry has three Grammys, two Emmys and 28 million albums. He’s been happily married to Jill Goodacre since 1994 and they have three daughters, Georgia Tatum, Sarah Kate and Charlotte. Add in sister Suzanna and Louisiana Supreme Court justice mum Anita and he has always been surrounded by women. He happily admits “I mostly gravitate to women because I find them more interesting.”
The feeling is reciprocated from twenty-something colleagues all the way to my somewhat older mother, who universally sigh when I mention the interview. Sure, he comes packaged in six strapping feet of floppy-haired, sleepy-eyed Southern charm, but why does everyone wish they were Sally to this Harry?
I discover everything for him comes down to love. It starts with his upbringing and ends with his faith.
“We were raised in New Orleans blind to everything – colour, sexuality, creed. Mardi Gras is a devout Catholic day but in New Orleans has become an extraordinary celebration of life, love and difference. These things co-exist in all of us. We are complex creations, but people have so many issues with what is different from them. I try to love as deeply as I can and believe in everyone. That is what makes me happy. I truly love my wife and children. I have relationships with men and women in my life I truly love.
“I try to think about what Christ wanted. Man, he loved everyone. He didn’t judge. I think about what some Catholics say about gay people and I don’t believe that is what the man we worship wanted. I also don’t believe in ‘tolerance.’ It implies there is something to overcome. Just love a person for who they are.”
Harry Connick Jr interview and new album
Harry Connick Jr with Sandra Bullock in Hope Floats
Music was his first great love and he made his ‘professional’ debut onstage aged five, playing piano at a political rally for his father. Joseph Harry Fowler Connick Sr was seeking election as the district attorney of New Orleans Parish – a post he then held until 2003.
“I loved the piano from three or four. At the event, I played the Star-Spangled Banner and I didn’t want to stop. My dad had to pull me away. I’ve always been obsessed with the idea you can press this little key down and a sound comes out and, man, sometimes it makes you feel something wonderful.”
Harry played with the New Orleans Symphony at nine and recorded his first album at ten. The rest may be history but I don’t doubt it when he says, “I’d be happy if all I did was play for myself, the fact that it touches other lives in an honour.”
The new album is a true labour of love and Harry orchestrated every note, every instrument. It’s a staggering achievement.
Harry Connick Jr has been making music since he was a kid
“There are 550 pages of scores. Not just the actual notes but the phrasing. It’s fine to freestyle on a New Orleans funk album, but for an orchestra? Man, there is so much that can go wrong but it is so exciting to still be creating at 52 and evolving. It’s art, there is no final chapter and it’s thrilling to be uncomfortable and afraid.”
I tell him my favourite track on the album is Begin the Beguine, hastily clarifying it’s not because it’s the only one where he doesn’t sing!
His sleepy baritone remains as beguiling as ever elsewhere, but when he simply plays the piano you can feel the music pouring out of him. It is breathtaking.
His manager, the same since he was a teenager, tells me she still loves to watch Harry disappear at the keyboard, lost again in his private rapture.
Harry Connick Jr and Jill have been married since 1994
In public, Harry just as passionately defends art in all forms as funding is cut in schools and coverage decimated in the media: “There are no statistics to art. It’s not a football score. It’s hard to articulate to people who are not wired that way but it’s about humanity.
“Art takes over where words fail. It unites us but it has always co-existed next to the most difficult and troubling parts of life. When people try and clean up parts of society they see as ugly, imperfect or just simply different, you lose something.
“A journalist asked me if it bothered me Porter was writing songs about men and I was like, ‘First, why would it? Second, we are talking about one of the great composers of all time. How offensive to assume everything he wrote was from personal experience. If I could only write autobiographically I’d have a very narrow perspective. The whole point is to fantasise, explore different lives. I often imagine different versions of myself, with a different life, sexuality, faith. That’s what artists do.”
Harry Connick Jr loves New Orleans Mardi Gras
Harry’s faith is at the heart of his love and compassion for all, but he struggles with the human flaws implicit in organised religion.
“I’m proud to be Catholic but we’re going through a horrible time. What is going on? I’m not a perfect Catholic and I miss lots of Sundays but I feel better when I come out.
“Some people automatically see me as a Bible thumper. Other want me to counsel them. I asked New York’s Cardinal Dolan, ‘Why me? I’m so flawed. Why look to me?’
“He said, ‘That’s’ why. You’re trying to figure it all out.’ All I believe is that whatever your faith, surely everyone wants to be more like Jesus or Gandhi. Well then, we need to deeply love everyone. And not because we’re told to. You have to find it inside yourself.”
Porter, of course, wrote many of these tracks in the 1930’s, a phenomenally liberal time across Europe and America. It was swiftly followed by Nazism in Germany and McCarthyism in Hollywood as any sense of ‘other’ was persecuted.
As communities and faiths across the globe are painfully divided once more, does hope still ‘float’ for Harry?
Harry Connick Jr, wife Jill and their three daughters
“I’m not impervious to sadness or tragedy. I’m highly flawed. I’m insecure. My faith is complicated. But I’m always hopeful, maybe too much. I like the way it feels.
“It sounds nuts, but I still feel like I’m 18. I feel like Willy Wonka. Anything is possible. Life must be lived, we must dream and love.”
Not even the horrors exposed by the MeToo movement can dim the hopes of this father of three: “My daughters are strong women. I don’t worry about them looking after themselves but I remind them not everything needs to be public, These days, with social media you can say or do something foolish and your life and career is over.
“Even with MeToo, people’s lives are being ruined by hearsay. That is not fair but there had been an epidemic of women being treated as prey. It’s amazing this dialogue has started but we all know in the quest for good, invariably innocent people will get hurt. There needs to be more dialogue on all sides.”
Perhaps, ultimately, there just needs to be more men, more fathers, more Christians like Harry.
Harry Connick Jr ’s new album A Celebration of Cole Porter is out in the UK on October 25