Harry Connick Jr has been singing songs by Cole Porter for many years. He tells Ed Power why he’s finally made an album of some of those classics.
Even when he isn’t singing, Harry Connick Jr radiates luxuriant qualities of finger-clicking, toe-tapping charm. His speaking voice is a honeyed burr and he is polite in that old school way. Old school, of course, has been the Harry Connick Jr selling point since he won a Grammy at age 22 for his jazzy crooning on the When Harry Met Sally soundtrack.
That set him on a trajectory to international fame, record sales in excess of 30 million and a parallel career on the screen. Thirty years later he remains a natural-born smoothie.
“I always wanted to be famous,” says the singer, who has lived with the ‘new Sinatra’ tag from his days as a teenager burning up the stage in his native New Orleans. “When it actually happened there was a lot to sort through. When people you don’t know are asking you for pictures and autographs… It’s amazing. But you are trying to get your balance.”
He is now aged 52 with several distinguished decades as a musician but also as movie star and television personality behind him. Connick Jr’s latest release leans into his reputation as the link between Sinatra and Michael Bublé. As per the title True Love: A Celebration of Cole Porter is Connick Jr’s valentine to one of America’s great songwriters.
Many of the classics are here: ‘Anything Goes’, ‘In the Still Of the Night’, ‘Just One of Those Things’. Connick Jr throws himself into the material, on which he is accompanied by a stomping big band. If you like that sort of thing, you’ll love this.
“I was singing those songs before I even knew they were his,” says Connick Jr.
Connick Jr is one of the outstanding modern interpreters of the Great American Songbook. His life, though, reads more like a great American novel. He was born in New Orleans, the son of a district attorney father and Louisiana Supreme Court judge mother.
“They were great parents. I wouldn’t say they were strict,” he says. “They were loving and supporting. We had rules to follow — don’t get me wrong. But it was a great home for me and my sister. They supported us in everything we wanted to do.”
His musical abilities became apparent early. By five he had already mastered the piano. “There were some musicians on my mom’s side of the family. My grandmother did some singing. And I had an Uncle Joe on my mother’s side, who was a composer. They were pleasantly surprised that I could play. But it made a little bit of sense.”
However, talent at times proved more curse than a blessing. Music came easily to him. He didn’t always appreciate his gifts.
“I had a classical education and would always leave everything until the last minute,” he says.
“I had to work on my work ethic and discipline and things like that. That took me a minute. I did come easily very easily to me. You learn very quickly that no matter what kind of talent you have, there’s no substitute for work.”
He was already a celebrity in New Orleans and could have built a more modest career from there. But he moved to New York at age 18 determined to break through on a wider stage.
It was very different to NewOrleans. He realised for the first time that the multi-racial, non-judgmental neighbourhood in which he was raised was not at all typical of America. The blinkers came off.
"We were aware there was diversity. It was something to be celebrated. There was racism and bigotry everywhere, especially inthe American South. But it wasn’t something that precluded us from forming relationships with whoever we wanted to.”
Overnight success was a lot for him to take on board. He was soon on his way to becoming a matinee idol, too, with his starring role in 1990’s Memphis Belle, alongside Matthew Modine, Eric Stoltz, Sean Astin and Billy Zane (they were never referred to as the ‘frat pack’). Other parts would follow in Little Man Tate, Independence Day and PS I Love You, as well as a long-running spot on sitcom Will and Grace.
The acting was never part of the master plan, he reveals. It was, however, something in which he had interest from his short-pants days.
“I started playing music really early on,” he says. “I was also doing high school plays. I was always interested in acting. It was just a matter of what was going to be theentrée into it. It turned out to be Memphis Belle. I thought I would like it. And I loved it.
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I always have ideas for several different types of albums. This time, I decided to do a songbook, which led me to do a deep dive into the composers who resonate with me. A few things about Cole Porter stood out. He was one of the few who wrote both words and music, his lyrics were witty and conveyed multiple meanings, he would break rules with melodies and chords, and he could write songs for specific situations in shows and movies that could then take on a life of their own. It became clear that he was my number one. Full video at the link in bio.
He stayed close through it all to his hometown. Here disaster loomed. The neighbourhood where he grew up was close to the levees holding back the Mississippi. When Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, the devastation was biblical.
“Lakeview was very near where the levee broke. It was completely destroyed,” he says, shaking his head. “It’s sad when you have a reality that is literally washed away. It’s an uneasy feeling to see your entire childhood just not be there any more. It’s weird… very eerie.”
He has made is own mistakes too. In December 1992 he was arrested for arriving at a New York airport security checkpoint with a 9mm pistol. He spent a day in jail and had to make a public information video warning against breaking gun laws.
He credits his marriage in 1994 for bringing stability to his life. He and former Victoria’s Secret model Jill Goodacre are still together and have three daughters, aged from23 to 17.
“Every industry is tumultuous, everyone has problems. There are successful and unsuccessful marriages, in every walk of life. You hear about them in show business because we’re in the public eye. My wife is everything.
“Family is everything. Everything falls in line after that. I’m really lucky to have them.”
True Love: A Celebration of Cole Porter is Connick Jr is out now