Harry Connick Jr. has spent his entire career doing much more than what people expect of him – except once. When the 22-year-old jazz-pop wunderkind (he made his first record at age ten) from the Big Easy was tapped to perform songs for the soundtrack of When Harry Met Sally, he delivered pretty much exactly what the film required: a fresh and competent take on romantic standards, the perfect counterpoint to a story about an all-too modern love affair. People wanted to know: who was the man behind the smooth, Sinatra-esque vocals? When they saw him, they – at least, the women and the gay men – wanted to see a lot more of him. Connick, a born overachiever, was happy to oblige, in his half suave, half southern-fried way.
Over the past 20 years, Connick has recorded 21 albums; in addition, he’s appeared in over 20 films, co-starred on Will & Grace for four seasons, and worked on Broadway as both a performer and a composer. He pops up everywhere, from TV specials to PSAs on the importance of obeying gun laws. The record that guaranteed he would not become a just a footnote in show business history, coming hard on the heels of his success (and Grammy award) for Harry/Sally, was We Are in Love, which showcased Connick as a songwriter and bandleader as well as singer and pianist. Those who think Michael Bublé originated the role of “post-rock pop-standard hottie” have obviously forgotten the tizzy Harry caused with his deliciously square lyrics (check out “Recipe for Love” or “Heavenly” for examples) and his old-fashioned earnestness about music and love: he publicly gushed over his underwear-model girlfriend (to whom he has been married since 1994) and declared he would never take an acting role which required him to kiss a co-star, as that would constitute cheating. Obviously, Harry reconciled his ambitions as an actor with his moral code over time, sucking face with quite a few Hollywood leading ladies, but he has remained true to his musical roots – classic vocals, jazz piano, New Orleans flavor, big band sound.
We Are in Love is still Connick’s most successful non-holiday-themed album, having gone double platinum in the US and winning him his second Grammy. Obviously, it must have had appeal outside of the realm of dreamy teenage girls. Not that its popularity among said teenage girls is insignificant. Some of the young ladies who bought the record (on cassette) had, like myself, been raised listening to the type of songs Connick recorded; it was kind of a kick to hear someone in our age category – remember, Harry was only 23 – sing and embody the swinging style of traditional pop. On the other hand, for thousands of other teens, the inevitable comparisons of Connick’s sound with Sinatra’s may have been the first time they ever asked the question, “Who’s Sinatra?” If even a fraction of them were turned on to Frank, Bing or Tormé because of We Are in Love, Connick has justified his existence. Indeed, Tony Bennett owes Harry a solid too – the swell of interest in standards the younger man sparked among the MTV generation certainly helped lift the elder statesman out of fuddy-duddy status and sweep him onto his now legendary performance on Unplugged.
Is We Are in Love a ground-breaking musical achievement? Not really, and Connick’s star as a musician has never quite returned to the heights it achieved in the early ’90s – though he has seen six of his subsequent albums go platinum or better. (And has only gotten better looking with time.) But he deserves credit for the breadth of his ambition – not just singing, playing, and leading a band, but writing new material as well – and the success he achieved in following it. Bublé may be hard on his heels, but isn’t there yet; Jamie Cullum is similarly multi-faceted, but has yet to prove himself on this side of the Atlantic. Perhaps the best example of Connick’s mojo is this: on the day We Are in Love was released, Connick’s label also released Lofty’s Roach Souffle, a record of jazz instrumentals by…Harry Connick Jr. Though conventional wisdom might dictate that releasing two albums by the same artist on the same day – especially in a niche genre – is bad business, that the audience would be loath to purchase two records at once, no doubt the Louisiana charm and all-American eagerness that made him so irresistible to fans was also deployed to convince the bosses at Columbia that if one Harry Connick record was good, two would be even better. The double-whammy climbed to the #1 and #4 spots, respectively, on the US Jazz Charts. We were in love, all right.