The storyboard of his life could have been the workings of James Michener. But you’ll find a real and accomplished man, here. His passions for music, New Orleans, and his beloved family are center stage in this one on one with Paul.
Sit back and enjoy the words of The Singing District Attorney; The great Harry Connick Sr.
Now we’re going to take you down to New Orleans, Louisiana, the home of our special guest, Harry Connick, Sr. We hope you enjoy the interview. Ladies and gentlemen, it is an honor to welcome our very special guest, the one and only Mr. Harry Connick, Sr. Thank you so much for inviting me into your home and letting me do this interview with you.
You’re very welcome.
Who is Harry Connick, Sr?
Well, I was a professional lawyer. I was the District Attorney in the city of New Orleans for twenty-nine years and I had been a legal aid attorney before that and before that, an assistant United State Attorney but somewhere along the line that ever-present desire to sing cropped out from time to time but nothing professionally. While I’m a lawyer and I practiced law and I was a federal, I mean a federal and a state prosecutor I still, uh, loved to listen to music and to sing. So, I guess I’m like many, many other people. I have various interests and different interests, but two of them are law and politics and…and…and music….popular music.
Where were you born?
I was born in Mobile, Alabama, March the 27th of 1926. My mother and dad were from Mobile. My grandparents were from Mobile except before that we had some people from Ireland who were our ancestors. But when I was two years old, my dad, who was working at that time for the United States Corp of Engineers, was transferred from Mobile to New Orleans. He brought my mother and my older brother and my younger brother and myself over so we’ve lived in New Orleans since 1928.
Can you remember some of the early records that you listened to that you especially liked?
Glenn Miller, I guess. But, you know, before that even we…I used to hear things on the radio and…Bing Crosby and Rudy Vallee…and some people….I don’t even remember who they were specifically…but Russ Morgan and his band and, uh, Guy Lombardo use to play on,uh, New Year’s Eve from the Astoria Hotel, the ballroom in the Astoria Hotel in New York City. What I really remember vividly, I guess, was Glenn Miller….some of his music and uh, a moonlight cocktail and in mood and things like that and, of course, Benny Goodman. I guess, the Dorsey Brothers and things that they did; ‘Pinetop Boogie Woogie’ and things like that. And then The Warriors came and I remember that Harry James became very prominent and he had some good singers with him. Dick Haymes was one of the singers and Frank Sinatra for a short while even, and Helen Forrest was his vocalist and you had Ray Eberle with the Jimmy Dorsey Band and Helen O’Connell sang with him and did a lot of duets. And then Glen Miller…they had the different bands. He had the singing groups, The Pied Pipers and the Modernaires . I didn’t know it at the time but the songs that appeal to me uh, I guess, were also written for the war effort that was going on at that time, were written by Sammy Cahn. The lyrics were written by Sammy Cahn. I mean, they still play them and people still record them but in war years too, you have to remember that they were writing music for the war…for the people at home and actually in combat and overseas. Songs like ‘Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition’ and ‘Don’t sit under the apple tree with anyone else but me,’ ‘Kiss me once and kiss me twice, and kiss me once again…”it’s been a long, long time’ and things like that. I remember those and I remember particularly a song, I was living in Atlanta at the time because my father had been transferred during World War II. He was stationed in Atlanta before they sent him overseas. Louis Jordan and his Tympany 5 had a song called ‘Ration Blues’ and rationing in World War II was what affected everybody. I’m not kidding you. Gasoline and automobile tires and meat steak and beefsteak and butter and all of the automobiles, you couldn’t get them anymore. And anything made with rubber or metal was rationed and out of that came a song by Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five called ‘Ration Blues.’ I use to sing it when I would do some of my shows but it goes “Baby, baby, baby what’s wrong with Uncle Sam? He’s cut down on my sugar now he’s messing with my ham. I’ve got the ration blues. I’m blue as I can be,” and things like that and you had ‘Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.” The Andrews Sisters did that so that was very much ingrained in me when I was a kid but because the only thing…we never saw those people and we only heard them and big medium, of course, was radio. I would glue my ear to my…I had a radio in my room when I was in high school and when I was youngers, I used to get home in time to listen to ‘Little Orphan Annie’ and some of these serials that use to run on a daily basis but after a while I got a little bit older and I started to get home to listen to the Chesterfield Show. I think Harry James was on that, and Benny Goodman had a show and the different big bands were very much in demand for radio time. Records were still 78rpms. In fact, I use to buy them. I had no phonograph, but I would buy them and I would buy the books that they useto sell. They use to sell a songbook, they called them, and they would have all the songs…all the popular songs of the day in it and I’d buy those and I’d listen…look up the song when I would hear it on the radio. So I had a great, great love and fascination for big bands and for singers and such is that. I liked other music too but coming from New Orleans, I think I heard Blues all of my life. We lived in an integrated neighborhood. I lived on Plum Street. The street behind us was Oak Street and part of that was…not part of it, a lot of it….was occupied by black folks. We would hear their music, especially on Saturday night. There was no air conditioning in those days…this was the 30’s. Whatever they played, they played loud (laughs) and it would drift through the neighborhood. You could hear it, you know. So I was exposed to some varying, various kinds of music.
You have two recordings available and you sing a lot of the Tin Pan Alley kind of songs, and as far as I’m concerned, of all the songs that have been written those are my personal favorite.
I like ‘em too.
I love those kinds of songs and so I wanted to ask you, do you have a favorite songwriter?
Not really. Again, growing up in New Orleans you’re exposed to this music. There’s a certain sound to most of that music. They call it a street beat. When I started to work, about 1990, I think I was 65 then. It’s a hell of a time to get started in a singing career, but it came about quite by accident, and if you’re interested I’ll tell you, but I was working in clubs in New Orleans at a place called ‘Maxwell’s Toulouse Cabaret.’ I worked there for five years. I also worked at, uh, Roland von Kurnatowski, who is a big fan of Tipitina’s…he owns Tipitina’s now, as a matter of fact. He had a club on Decatur Street. I sang there for five years, a couple of nights a week, three shows a night. So a lot of people caught… tourists come to town….most of the songs people play…are use to anyway, were New Orleans songs or New Orleans style. I was attracted to that and it was something that I think had great appeal but I still liked the, uh, the stand and so I don’t know of any particular artist, composer, let’s say. I know that I like, uh, I like that music.
This is very hard for a lot of people to answer, but could you name a favorite song?
Uh, I tell ya…I think it’s impossible (laughs). I’ve tried to do that and if I’m listening to Frank Sinatra sing something, whatever it may have been, you know, that would be my favorite song at that time and if I played a Dick Haymes record, ‘Mam’sell,’ or something like that, then that would be my favorite song. And, but, you know…it’s so hard to distinguish degree of, I guess acceptance to music. It’s, it’s so individual, but I’m fickle as hell when it comes to, comes to saying which is my most favorite songs. A song, maybe a song would be my favorite song for some while but time will pass and it will be another one. I don’t even remember which…I do like ‘Moonlight Serenade’ if it’s the vocal version of that. Sinatra sang that. Sinatra did so many incredible songs. So did Haynes and so did Crosby and so did, uh, Andy Russell from those days and those fellows so it’s hard to say.
I wanted to ask you about this record store that you owned.
Or, actually, there were two.
At one time, that’s right. We, when, uh, I had worked in, uh, Casablanca in Morocco. I’d gone over there as a civilian after I did my tour of duty in the service during World War II when I was over there and I came home. I got married in Tangier…married to the mother of my two dear children…and we came home and I was in bed. I was, I was laid up and in poor…I had tuberculosis and it was a prolonged period of bed rest…very strict bed rest in addition to the medication and my wife, Anita, wasn’t from here and so we came back…we were uprooted very summarily in Casablanca, or Neuaseur actually where I was working. We were brought back home after long circuitous route finally ended up back in New Orleans. She wanted to work and she went out to find a job and it was very difficult for her to, uh, get work because at that time, also to today, in a certain extent, New Orleans is extremely provincial and if you don’t know somebody…it’s less of that today so don’t anyone who hears me not come to New Orleans for a job but, uh, she couldn’t get a job and so she came to the hospital one day and said “You know, I think I’m gonna open up a record shop, with greeting cards and little electronic equipment like recorders and things such as that.” So I said, “Okay,” so she did. She did it on her own, God bless her. I came home shortly after she opened and after I was able to recover, I went down and worked with her but that’s how that came about and then after a couple of years…I mean…it was a small business but it was a very successful business and it helped me get through law school and helped Anita get through undergraduate law school too. We, uh, after a couple of years, we opened up a second business…a branch of it…and all we did was lease space in another building. We had two businesses and one day we were sitting down at supper and I think we both came to the realization that this is really not what we wanted to do with our lives and we wanted to be able to give something and do more, accomplish more so I told her that I’d like to go to law school. I’d go to undergraduate school and get my degree. I wasn’t thinking too much of law school at that time cause law school came about while I was finishing up my undergraduate work at Loyola and, anyway, she had gone to Monmouth College in New Jersey and we both decided to go back to school so we split shifts. I would work in the afternoons and she would work in the morning. I…my classes were scheduled eight o’clock in the morning till noontime and her classes, she arranged to have them in the afternoon till five or six o’clock or whatever. So I’d go to school early in the morning and she’d go to work and I’d walk in at twelve-thirty. I’d pick up special orders, incidentally, on the way home for kids who would come in and want a record today and we didn’t have it. They would have it tomorrow and…so…we had a great special order department and, uh, so I’d walk in and take over and she would walk out, you know, and we would meet that night at home and we went through that for about four years but it was worth it so it was a good business, and a successful business but one that was very limiting from a challenging point of view, you know?
Yeah. You wanted to do something that would be more meaningful to you.
Yeah. I think we felt we had something to give. She…my wife, Anita, was a very bright lady, smart, as I said, and she was very good with people. She was very helpful to people. She helped people. She…they…people would come into Studio A, our record shop, and they were outright mean sometimes, some of them, and I use to tell her, I said, “Here comes your grouch. (Laughs) You take care of this one,” you know. So she would…she’d laugh and she’d gotten…after a while that guy became a regular customer and he’d say, “I’d like for your wife to wait on me.” (Laughs) I said, “Okay,” and, uh, we made some good friends that way…friends that…that…that…people that after we closed the record shop were still friends. We lived in a great neighborhood and there was a lot of young kids and a lot of family people so this was in one of the shops in Lakeview but anyway, she was good about that, you know. Did I answer your question?
Did you ask me a question?
Did I answer your question? (laughs)
Oh…yes…you sure did…you sure did. You mentioned a second ago, you said “your two lovely children.” One of the recordings that you made was a duet and it’s the song ‘Rocky Mountain Moon’ and it’s a duet with Mr. Harry Connick, Jr. Was there ever a time when you thought “You know what? Harry Connick, Jr.’s going to be a musician.”
Oh, immediately…immediately. Not when he came out of the womb, but shortly thereafter (laughs). What demonstrated that to us was his incredible time. My wife, his mother, noticed it when he was in a high chair. He couldn’t have been two years old. We brought records home from the Studio A record shop and we’d play them so we had a lot of music going and he would sit there sometimes and start…if he had spoon or something in his hand and he’d start hitting on the tray that was on his high chair and Anita, one time, said, “Oh, listen to that.” I said, “He is very noisy,” you know (Laughs), and she said, “No, no…listen to it.” We looked at each other. She said, “His timing is impeccable.” His mother…she came from a family of musicians. Her brother was a very good, a very accomplished musician. So he would come in and stand at the foot of our bed sometimes and, when he was maybe four, and I had a mandolin that Anita had given to me when I was in the hospital, in Dartmoth(???)Memorial Hospital down here in New Orleans. It was called a Nick Manoloff method of playing the mandolin and I tried and tried and tried and I could play a few things but anyway, I brought it home with me and he would get that though. He wanted…he wanted that, you know. So I let him have it and we would be in bed and he would come in…I remember him vividly sometimes and what he was wearing. He would come in and stand at the foot of the bed and start singing whatever…’Raindrops’ or whatever and he would strum and he…it was the same thing…no playing…he just strummed…and he said, “Listen Mom. Listen Papa,” and so we would listen and he would be finished and we would try to go back to sleep. We said, “That was good.” He says, “You want to hear another one?” (Laughs) So we did that…we knew very early on when he…we would go to different places where they had pianos and he’d sit down. So finally a fellow…a good friend of mine…my campaign manager named Dan Kelly…my wife had done a lot of legal work for him…he wanted to show his gratitude by giving us a piano, a piano for Harry really and he sat down there and he would play and play and he would pick out the songs. I think ‘When the Saints go Marching In’ was the first song he really played and he was…then he developed like that…but that was when he was six and seven old.
This is an interesting question I think because everyone that answers it seems to give a different answer. What is it you like about music?
Oh…I like…the music that I like…I like the structure of it. I like the lyrics to it. The lyrics to me…Cole Porter and Johnny Mercer…you were mentioning ‘Rocky Mountain Moon.’ That’s a Johnny Mercer song. Not one of his best songs but, uh, nevertheless a good one and typical of Mercer I think. But, uh, those songwriters had an incredible ability to compose songs that had true, wonderful meaning and they conveyed a particular thought so that’s what I was attracted to. And then the arrangements I guess is what, you know, what impressed the hell out of me. With Fletcher Henderson and some of those people who arranged for these big bands were just incredible and that and then someone like Nelson Riddle comes along and some of the things that he did…absolutely incredible. It’s so…it’s so…it draws you. It’s so listenable and I like that and that’s what…that’s what does it. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t like other kinds of music or that the lyrics are not good. It just means that they’re not very deep a lot of times. There’s not a lot of meaning to some of these things. They’re too repetitious, you know, and, uh, but if you listen closely to the lyrics of the songwriters, Harry Warren and Hammerstein and whatever those people wrote…and believe it or not, I think Sammy Cahn, who wrote popular…pop music also wrote some wonderful songs, you know, that…they’re very serious. So, that’s what…I think the combination of lyrics and music, the arrangement…plus the melodic aspect of the song is just…
My final question for Mr. Harry Connick, Sr.: Thanks to the technology, this broadcast is going out all over the world. What would you like to say to all of the folks who are listening in?
Well, listen to the old folks sometimes (Laughs). Listen…get…they’re still available. They’re on the internet now but…you know…the Harry James and the good jazz music we had too. And..but above all, and more than anything else…and I’m being very serious, listen to Harry Connick, Jr. (Laughs)
And Sr. (Laughs)
Thank you very much.
TRANSCRIBED BY LORI DOMINGO