Harry Connick, Jr. is a man of many moods, all supremely musical. Look no further than his recent Columbia albums for proof. After exploring the wonders of childhood on his 2001 Grammy®-winning Songs I Heard and the spirit of the Christmas via his recent blockbuster Harry for the Holidays, Connick now turns to the matter of romance on his new collection of ballads, Only You.
Connick applied his diverse skills as vocalist, pianist, composer, arranger and orchestrator in a series of sessions in May of 2003 at Hollywood’s legendary Capitol Studios that produced both Harry for the Holidays and Only You. Working from the piano once graced by Nat “King” Cole, Connick led the members of his working big band, augmented in several instances by a full string orchestra, through two diverse programs. “It’s all music,” he said in explaining the challenge, “and a matter of subtly switching gears, because a different kind of passion goes into singing ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ than ‘Only You.'”
The initial inspiration for Only You came from Don Ienner, President, Sony Music U.S. According to Harry, “Donnie’s the one who said, ‘Why don’t you do an album of songs from my generation?’ and I decided to give it a try. That involved collecting suggested material, deciding which songs felt right for me and picking those I liked.”
Along the way, Connick realized that many hits from the early years of rock ‘n’ roll had a much older pedigree. “Part of what I wanted to do on this record,” he admits, “was to focus on songs that had their second success in the Fifties. ‘My Prayer’ is a great example. I know that most people associate it with the Platters, but I knew the Ink Spots’ version from the Thirties as well. That’s why I picked things like ‘My Blue Heaven’ and ‘I Only Have Eyes for You,’ songs I remember hearing as a kid that have a real history.”
All twelve songs on Only You are delivered with Connick’s unique blend of taste, imagination and passion. He turns the Drifters hit “Save the Last Dance for Me” into a swinging ballad, drops a hint of samba into “My Blue Heaven” and calls upon solo cello to realize the mood of “My Prayer.” “I was trying to deal with the colors of each piece — the hues, for lack of a better word,” he explains. “All of the writing was done that way, using just what was needed.” Examples abound, none better than the soulful section work concertmaster Bruce Dukoff evoked from the string players on “My Prayer” and Jerry Weldon and the rest of the Connick band’s saxes deliver on “Goodnight My Love.” “I gave Jerry the lead on ‘Goodnight My Love’ because he just understands that type of playing,” Connick emphasizes, and it is Weldon who takes the majority of the horn solos throughout the disc, with Jimmy Greene’s tenor featured on “Only You” and Dave Schumacher’s baritone on Allen Toussaint’s “All These Things.”
While Connick’s own instrumental contributions are understated — “I always forget to write myself into the arrangements,” he jokes — his vocals are front and center, and more moving than ever. “These songs are hard to sing,” he says, “and they brought out new things in my voice. There is nowhere to hide on something like ‘The Very Thought of You.’ You just have to fill up your lungs and sing, without worrying about the details of how each phrase should be inflected. What came out was my voice in a way I haven’t heard it. It was like going back to when I was first learning to sing, like the way I sang ‘Stardust’ on 25. I really sang these songs, and I’m proud of it.”
One major difference between Connick’s singing here and on his 1992 version of “Stardust” is due to his evolving approach to art. “There was a time when I wouldn’t let life experience into the music, because I thought that art was completely internal,” he says. “To a great extent, I still think that’s true, because otherwise artists would just be chasing sunsets. But now, I find myself drawing on personal experience more than ever before. When I sang ‘Other Hours,’ I was thinking of the more difficult times in my life, and when I sang ‘Only You’ and most of the other songs, I was thinking about my wife Jill.
“For the first time, I wasn’t acting the emotions, I was feeling them. It was a solemn, calm place, a very good place, without a lot of the baggage about what other people would think of the music that I used to take into the studio. This is my turn, and I’m enjoying it.”
Only You is just the latest chapter in Connick’s celebrated and uncommonly diverse career. Growing up in New Orleans, he studied piano with keyboard legends James Booker and Ellis Marsalis. A performer from the age of five who made his first jazz album at age ten, Connick moved to New York at age 18 and quickly made his self-titled Columbia Records debut at the head of a jazz trio. His next effort, 20, added Connick’s vocals to the mix, and his singing was also featured on his first big-band album, the multi-platinum When Harry Met Sally.
In the ’90s, the full scope of Connick’s artistry emerged. His albums featured original instrumental and vocal music (Lofty’s Roach Soufflé and We Are in Love, respectively), explored funk (She and Star Turtle) and romantic balladry (To See You), and then pulled all of these strands together in the decade-ending tour de force Come by Me. Recent years have seen further triumphs, including his Grammy®-winning reflection on favorite music of his youth, Songs I Heard, and his recent jazz quartet triumph Other Hours. This last disc, the first of a “Connick on Piano” series to be released by Marsalis Music, contains instrumental versions of the Tony Award®-nominated songs Connick composed for the Broadway musical Thou Shalt Not. Harry for the Holidays, his recent seasonal album, also led to a successful television special of the same name broadcast by NBC on Thanksgiving night, and a hugely successful US tour in November and December of 2003.
At the same time, Harry Connick, Jr. the actor has made a major impact in theatrical films and on television. His Hollywood credits include Memphis Belle, Hope Floats and Independence Day, while his small-screen triumphs include the ABC production of South Pacific and his recurring role on NBC’s Will & Grace.
All of these achievements — not to mention his album sales of over 20 million, his three Grammy® awards and his nominations for Tony Awards®, Emmy, Oscar®, Golden Globe® and Cable Ace Awards — reflect a creative energy that make Harry Connick, Jr. unique in the world of contemporary entertainment. Only You, with its emotionally compelling performances, keeps Connick’s string of triumphs alive in his most heartfelt musical creation to date.