New Orleans singer and piano man Harry Connick Jr. always wanted to be in the limelight.
He got his wish. At age 9 he was playing with the New Orleans Philharmonic. At 19 he cut his first CD.
It wasn’t because of some extraordinary talent, Connick believes.
“I had incredible opportunity. I had very supportive parents, and when they said, ‘Practice,’ you know you practiced,” he says.
All that practice paid off as Connick has gone on to record 24 albums, sell 25 million copies and become ranked among the top best-selling male artists in the U.S. by the Recording Industry Association of America.
He’s also co-starred in movies including “Hope Floats” and “Independence Day” and has written film soundtracks, the most famous of which is his luscious mix for “When Harry Met Sally.”
For a taste of his talent, PBS’ “Great Performances” on Wednesday will present “Harry Connick Jr. in Concert on Broadway.” It features Connick’s big band and a 12-piece string section, with the keyboardist on both a grand piano and upright honky-tonk.
“I’m one of those personalities who had to be at the center of attention all the time,” he says.
“My dad tells a story of when I was in the fifth grade. He came to kind of check up on me in school because he had heard that there was some disciplinary issues. And he kind of peeked in the door, and the class was in session, and I was in the back of the class at a table with about three other kids.
“And after the class was over, my dad went to the teacher and said, ‘What’s going on? Why is Harry Jr. in the back of the class?’ And she says, ‘Well, he won’t listen to me, so I’ve just decided to let him do his own thing back there.’ ”
Eventually Connick learned that attention wasn’t everything.
“But the thing is, when you have the kind of tutelage that I had, like Ellis Marsalis and James Booker and those kinds of people, they don’t care about being the center of attention,” he says. “All they care about is that you’re the best at your craft.
“So the problem occurs when you are the center of attention and you don’t know what you’re doing.”
Connick says he keeps learning more about what he should be doing onstage.
“It takes a while to learn how to play. And I’m still learning. … So I never felt like I didn’t belong onstage as a performer,” he says.
“But as a musician, I’ve been in situations in a jam session at somebody’s house where I was, like, ‘Oh, man,’ you know? And I’ve played with people who weren’t afraid. … Ellis Marsalis, two of his sons were some of the meanest, cruelest critics I’ve ever had. And these were people I’ve known my whole life. And they would say things like, ‘You know, you really should think about another vocation.’ ”
Connick says he doesn’t worry about pleasing everyone when he’s performing.
“It doesn’t matter what arena you play in, whether the Super Bowl or whatever, you just got to play the game,” he says.
“I don’t know why people continue to come to my shows, to be honest with you. And I’m not saying that to be facetious. I’m not fishing. I’m being really serious.
“Because some people think of me as a guy who sings. Like, one of my daughter’s friends said that I sing vintage pop.
“And some people think of me as a jazz musician, and they want to ignore the singing part of it. Some people, very few people, don’t care about the singing at all and kind of acknowledge the orchestrations and things like that, which is as much a part of what I do as the singing.
“So, man, I can’t even think about satisfying anybody. That happens when I’m onstage. … I just go out and try … to build a relationship.
“It’s like being on a date or something. You know, you gotta ask a lot of questions, and you gotta be considerate and polite. And as the evening goes on, you kind of reveal a little bit more of yourself.
“That’s why, when a lot of people see me play, they say, ‘You’re a real stiff at the beginning of your shows.’ And I probably am, because you don’t want to come into that date with your shirt unbuttoned all the way down.”
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