When Harry Connick Jr. was growing up in New Orleans, his mother would drop him off at school with the same parting words every day: “Be a leader.”
“She never explained it to me, and I never asked her what it meant,” Harry says. “But she said it to me all the time. ‘Be a leader. Be a leader.’ I would get out of the car and think she was saying, when they blow the whistle to come in from recess, be the first one in line.”
It would be many years, Harry says, before he began to understand that what his mother was saying was, “Do what’s right.” “That might not be the thing that everybody else is doing. I understand that now. It was an incredible lesson to drill into my head at an early age.”
A lawyer and later a judge who also owned a record shop with Harry’s father, a New Orleans’ longtime district attorney, Anita Connick exerted an enormous influence on her son though she passed away from ovarian cancer when Harry was just 13 years old. In both little things and big things, Harry says he has tried to follow the example she set.
“The big things are staying true to who I am. That means not changing the type of music I play. When pop music was popular, I had lots of opportunities to go down that road. That’s not what I chose to do. I chose to play the music I grew up playing, which was jazz.”
He offers an example from his three-year stint as a mentor and judge on American Idol. “It might not have been popular,” he says, “but if there was a 16-year-old girl who was singing lyrics that were inappropriate, I’d feel comfortable asking her, ‘Are you aware of what you’re singing about?’ That took the show in a different direction. Everybody’s partying and having fun and then this stick-in-the-mud is saying, ‘You should know what you’re singing.’ But that’s what I believe, so I’m going to say it. Stuff like that comes up every single day.”
His beliefs are on full display in Harry, his daily syndicated entertainment show, which premiered the day after his 49th birthday. Now in its second season, Harry is built around the things that its host and bandleader love: “Music, entertaining people, talking to everyday folks and being inspired by great women. We always wanted to entertain, uplift and inspire. Those were the words that we kept going back to.”
The show includes a regular segment that spotlights community leaders—Rachael Steffens, a high school senior who gave up her spot in the band to help a blind musician be a part of the marching procession; Major Christina Hopper, the first African-American female fighter pilot in combat; and Georgie Smith, an interior designer who has created homes for hundreds of foster kids who have aged out of the system.
“I’ve spent my life around amazing people who have done fantastic things for their communities. They weren’t necessarily well known for those things, but I certainly thought they deserved to be recognized.” At a time, Harry says, when there’s “an unbelievable amount of divisiveness, negativity and vitriol, I thought, let’s do a show that’s inclusive while celebrating our diversity and the incredible things that we have in common. I know I get tired of turning on the TV and having to switch the channel because there’s so much ugliness, and I think other people do, too.”
A Performer on All Stages
For all that Harry has in common with his audience and with us, his is a singular career. He started learning the keyboards at age 3; when he was 5 years old he took the stage for the first time, playing the national anthem in front of a couple of hundred people at one of his dad’s campaign stops. “When I finished everyone was clapping,” he said.
“I loved the sound of that applause so much that I thought to myself, ‘What do I have to do to get that again?’”
Four years later he performed a Beethoven concerto with the New Orleans Symphony Orchestra, and at 10 he recorded his first album with a local jazz band. The singer-composer would go on to sell more than 28 million albums, earn 14 Grammy nominations, winning three, including his first for his work on the soundtrack of When Harry Met Sally.
Between composing, recording and touring worldwide, he also branched out into acting. His first leading movie role was opposite Sandra Bullock in the 1998 romance Hope Floats. Two decades later Sandra would be the first guest on his TV show. Harry shared the story of how he learned that he’d landed the co-starring role, after an audition in Texas. He was flying back to Los Angeles with Sandra when she began to unbutton her shirt. At first Harry thought she must be feeling hot, but she continued undoing the buttons of her shirt one by one. Finally, she pulled her shirt apart and written on her stomach were the words, “You got the part.”
On TV, he appeared in both dramas—Law & Order: Special Victims Unit—and sitcoms—as Dr. Leo Markus on Will & Grace, where he seemed to offer Grace (Debra Messing) a happily-ever-after ending when they wed in the final season of the original series. Alas, that was not to be. As the reboot of the series revealed, the marriage didn’t last, though, as a knockout final kiss showed, their chemistry did. Endlessly versatile, Harry won two Emmys for concert shows, as well as a Tony Award nomination for his starring role in the Broadway revival of the musical The Pajama Game.
Family Commitment to Giving Back
If performing is something Harry has done his entire life, so is reaching out to others. “That goes back to my dad,” he says. “We’d be at a grocery store, pulling out of the parking lot and there’d be an older person struggling to put her bags in her car. My dad would stop the car and say, ‘Go help that woman.’ When you’re 10 years old, that’s the last thing you want to do. But there was no arguing with him.”
Helping others, he says, is a longtime Connick tradition. “There’s a famous family story from the early ’40s of my dad helping this guy who had molasses in a mule-drawn cart. The cart slid and all the molasses fell on the road. This man was stuck, literally, trying to pick up the pieces of his livelihood. My dad was in a car with some friends, and he said, ‘Stop the car.’ His friends were, ‘Why? We’re not going to help that old man.’ And my dad said, ‘Let me out of the car.’ And that goes back to my parents’ parents. It’s an awareness that when you’re called to action, you have to step up.”
When Hurricane Katrina devastated Harry’s beloved hometown in 2005, he answered the call. “Now that I have the ability to reach a lot of people, there was no question that I was going to do everything I could,” he says. He helped organize NBC’s live telethon A Concert for Hurricane Relief and was named honorary chair for Habitat for Humanity’s Operation Home Delivery, a long-term effort to rebuild homes for families left stranded along the Gulf Coast. In collaboration with musician Branford Marsalis, Harry launched Musicians’ Village, a neighborhood of Habitat-built homes that also includes the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music, a performance, education and community venue.
At a U.S. Senate hearing, Harry spoke passionately about his commitment. “New Orleans is my essence, my soul, my muse. I will do everything within my power to ease the suffering of my city and ensure she one day recaptures her glory.”
The Women in Harry’s Life
Today Harry and his wife of 23 years, former model Jill Goodacre, have imparted the importance of serving others to their three daughters, Georgia, 21, Kate, 20, and Charlotte, 15. “We were in Starbucks the other day and there was some woman who had a tray of drinks,” Harry says. “I told Charlotte, get up and walk that woman to her car. And she came back five minutes later and said, ‘Oh, that woman was so nice. We were talking about all kinds of things.’ You have to be taught that things like that are socially appropriate. Now, the last thing I want to do is paint me or my family as saints, because we’re far from that. But these kinds of things are important and we continually work on them.”
Recently, Harry and Jill went public, in both the pages of People and on Harry, about a family crisis: Jill’s diagnosis with breast cancer in October 2012. Having passed the five-year milestone with no recurrence, they were ready to share their experience in the hopes of possibly helping other women by spotlighting the benefit of additional screening. In Jill’s case, an annual mammogram came back clear, but because she has dense breasts, a sonogram was recommended. And it was that test that detected she had stage I invasive ductal carcinoma. Treatment was a lumpectomy followed by radiation. “To get the all-clear after five years was just an incredible relief to us,” Harry says. “Jill is the backbone of our family. If she’s hurting or she’s in trouble, then we all are.”
So, what’s the biggest challenge Harry is facing now? “Oh, man,” he says, pausing for a moment before continuing. “I don’t know whether this is my ego driving me, but I want to be a better dad, a better husband and a better entertainer, all of the things I do. That requires a lot of humility, a lot of patience and a lot of listening. And for a person who likes to be the center of attention, sometimes those things can be challenging. But it’s not all about me all the time, and there’s a lot I can learn from the incredible women in my life. It’s a good challenge and one that I enjoy.”
Harry on Happiness
Be consistent, he says, in hitting the right notes day in and day out.
Composer, crooner, TV host, actor, humanitarian, husband, father of three. Harry Connick is way too busy to teach a course in happiness, but he could. “I think it’s the little things you do every day without fail,” Harry says, “that provide the foundation upon which your happiness can be built.”
- I try to eat well. That’s directly in line with my mood. I’m a real sugar guy, but if I eat a lot of sugar, that’s going to negatively impact everything else. So, I try to be smart about my food choices. Breakfast, today, for example, was scrambled egg whites and Irish oatmeal.
- I always work out, every single day. I have a streak going where I haven’t missed a day in 7 ½ years. Even when I’ve had a torn Achilles tendon or the flu, I always do something. Some days it’s not much. I’ve been out at a business dinner where I haven’t had a chance to exercise all day and I’ll do calf raises under the table for a half hour. The physical benefits of working out are great, but the mental discipline of maintaining a routine is what helps keep me grounded.
- I focus on details and fundamentals. For example, I don’t have to write the music for my show, but I do. It takes a lot of time to orchestrate and arrange music for a 10-piece band. That means every note for every instrument and how do they play the note: do they hold it long or short? Do they play it loud or soft? The time I put into that and the attention to details that has to be paid is something that I think informs other parts of my life. Some people might equate it to prayer. You get into a zone. A bomb could go off and you’d never notice it. I think it’s important to find the thing in life that will bring you that.