Harry Connick Jr and his eldest daughter, Georgia, are soaking up some early morning sun.
The deep blue Indian Ocean rolls onto Cottesloe Beach in Western Australia as they stroll across the sand, chattering, laughing, taking a little father-daughter time out from Harry’s schedule as the newest judge on Australian Idol.
The women in Harry’s life mean the world to him. That’s why he brought his eldest daughter – who had long dreamed of seeing Australia – along for the Idol auditions.
His whole family – wife Jill Goodhew, and Georgia’s sisters, Kate and Charlotte – will also be here in February when the competition kicks off in earnest.
“My wife and my girls,” he says, “they are a constant source of joy and inspiration for me. There’s nothing else that comes even close.”
Harry has always lived in a world of women. He can’t imagine life any other way and he believes it’s influenced the man, the musician and the father he’s become.
“I was surrounded by women growing up,” he explains, with that slow, warm New Orleans drawl. “First, my mother and my sister – my mother was a very bright, strong, driven woman – but also a lot of other female family members who were powerful people, who commanded my respect. That’s the only way I knew women. My perception, from the time I could think, was that women were in a place of power and commanded respect.”
Harry’s mother, Anita Livingston, was extraordinary. Born into a New York Jewish family, she met Harry’s dad, Joseph Connick, in Morocco after World War II. She was travelling alone through Europe and North Africa, seeing the world, helping with the reconstruction, picking up work here and there. She’d just moved across from Turkey when they met. Joseph was building an airport with the US Corps of Engineers.
“It was crazy,” Harry says. “They had an unlikely love story. My father is a devout Catholic and my mother was Jewish. They decided to elope in Morocco. They got married in 1953 and my dad brought her home to New Orleans. It was very unusual then for a Catholic to marry a Jew, but they had the greatest love story ever.
“When they moved to New Orleans, they both wanted to go to law school, but they didn’t have any money to support themselves while they studied, so they opened a record shop. Back then, if you were lucky and had the business right, it could be a pretty steady source of income. So they called it Studio A Records, and my mum would go to class while my father minded the store, and vice versa.
“They both became lawyers. My dad eventually became the District Attorney of New Orleans and my mother became a judge. Me and my sister, Suzanne, came along and they were very, very happily married.”
Both Harry’s parents loved music. There were professional musicians in Anita’s family, and she’d played flute when she was younger. When they were in North Africa, she’d bought Joseph a mandolin, which he still treasures, and which Harry just recently played on his album, Alone With My Faith (more on that later).
On weekends, as far back as he can remember, the Connick family would go into the French Quarter to listen to music. They went to jazz clubs – Tradition Hall, the Maple on Bourbon, Mahogany Hall, Crazy Shirley’s. Harry had played piano since he could reach the keys. By the time he was six or seven, he was sitting in with bands on a Saturday afternoon – the kid was a jazz prodigy.
“Those clubs play music all day long,” Harry says, still with a wide boyish smile. “Bourbon Street is a really family-friendly place, so I could go into a club and play my music and it was really normal. We were welcomed in.”
Harry was just 13 when Anita died from ovarian cancer, which still kills too many women. It was devastating, but today he says he is just grateful for the years of unconditional love and encouragement she gave him.
“I only had her for 13 years but I have so many memories,” he says solemnly.
“When I would perform as a kid, seven or eight years old, my mum would always be there in the audience, and I could tell how proud she was of me. She made me feel like the most important person in the world. It was just this overarching theme in my childhood that my mother loved me and believed in me and helped me to feel like I had limitless potential. That’s one of the most invaluable gifts you can give to a child, I think – to let them know they’re loved and supported, that their opinion matters and that their desires and dreams are just as important as anyone else’s. I cherish that to this day.”
Harry studied music, first at the New Orleans Centre for the Creative Arts with Ellis Marsalis and James Booker, then at the Manhattan School of Music, and he immersed himself in the New York jazz scene. He was snapped up by Columbia Records and released his first album at 20. Two years later, he was asked to create the soundtrack for When Harry Met Sally. The film was a smash, and the handsome young piano player was a star.
While still recording (both original music and jazz standards) and touring, he tried his hand at acting and went on to roles in film, television and on Broadway, including Little Man Tate with Jodie Foster, the terrifying Copycat with Holly Hunter and Sigourney Weaver, and recurring roles In Law and Order SVU and Will and Grace. To date he’s sold more than 28 million albums, won three Grammy Awards and two Emmys, and been nominated twice for a Tony.
But before any of this, Harry was cooling off in a hotel swimming pool, still bright eyed and a little naïve at just 22, when he set eyes on the woman who would change his life. Jill Goodacre was a Victoria’s Secret model. Really, she was the Victoria’s Secret model – the one with whom Chandler was trapped in an ATM vestibule in an episode of Friends.
Harry, like Chandler, was mesmerised. He emerged dripping from the pool, introduced himself and invited the smart, savvy beauty out for lunch. Harry knew this was the woman he would spend his life with. That night, Jill told her mother she’d met the man she was going to marry.
At the time, he suspects, a bystander at that swimming pool might have wondered how long this mad match would last. “She was 25 when we met,” he explains. “I was 22. As you’re probably aware, women in general are just more socially advanced than guys, especially when they’re young. Girls seem to mature a lot faster and guys … we just act like goofballs a lot of the time. So, when we met, the three-year age difference didn’t really reflect the disparity in experience and maturity. I think she was much more advanced than a typical 25-year-old, and I was much less advanced than a typical 22-year-old.”
Nonetheless, they married in New Orleans in 1994 and over the years, Harry believes, a little of Jill’s good sense has rubbed off.
“She was always very confident, very calm, very observant. And watching her made me realise, over time, that I could possess those qualities too, in addition to all the things that made me unique.”
Is that the secret to their success?
“That, and a bunch of stuff … I deeply love and respect her, and I’m infinitely fascinated by her. I’m a big fan of her as a human being and I like to know what’s going on in her brain – I’m interested in her. I respect her so much and I guard our marriage with everything I have and take it very seriously, which means I protect it.
“She’s seen me change and evolve and most of that due to her. She loves me, and that is the most precious gift in the world – to be loved by somebody who you love. So we take it seriously. This isn’t some kind of thing for Instagram. This is for the rest of our lives.”
With all that in mind, it came as a frightening shock in 2012 when Jill was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“She went in for a regular sonogram and mammogram,” Harry told Irish talk show host, Ryan Tubridy, “and they found a cancerous tumour … I lost my mother from cancer, my wife had cancer – it was terrifying – but she went through treatment … and we’ve used that experience to tell as many people as we can, ‘Please go get checked; get checked early; get checked often. It saved her life.” And now she’s been ten years cancer-free.
Like his father, Harry is a committed Catholic, but while Jill’s battle with cancer was frightening, it didn’t shake his faith. Nor, ultimately did living through those very dark early days of the COVID pandemic in the United States.
“I know 14 people,” Harry says quietly, “whether they were friends or family members, who died from COVID during that first year and a half – the priest who married me and Jill and my Uncle Dan and my teacher Ellis Marsalis. I could go on. It was a very, very dark, scary time. I don’t think my faith was ever tested but it certainly made me think about my faith and how grateful I was to have it. I’m a firm believer that there is some kind of plan. Not that God caused people to die, but it must mean something that is outside the realm of my comprehension, and I am glad I have faith in painful times.”
Harry’s strategy for coping in those days was to immerse himself in his music. He spent months in his home recording studio, making an album of both original and classic religious and gospel songs called Alone With My Faith.
“It was a time of great introspection,” he says, “and I thought it would be comforting for me to record those songs, and then if some other people could get some comfort, it might be good for them too. So that’s why I decided to do it.”
The album includes a version of Amazing Grace that hums and swings with an earthy jazz sensibility that breathes life into those age-old lyrics. And Harry says that, yes, his relationship with God and his spirituality find voice in his music. For him music has also been a journey towards finding his own singular voice.
“In some ways,” he says, “I think it just boils down to living your life and finding out who you are and then being okay with that – with all your own idiosyncrasies and strengths and insecurities … Over time your influences start to fade away and your personality comes through. For a person who plays music like I play, it takes a long time for that to happen. It takes a long time to develop your own style but it’s worth the wait if you get to a point where you can express yourself freely … What comes out is me. It’s not going to sound like anyone else, and I’m at a point in my life where that’s what I want, as flawed or imperfect as it may be.”
Aside from the women in his life, perhaps the biggest influence on the man Harry has become is his dad, Joseph, who he calls every day on the phone from wherever he is in the world and sees just as often as he can.
“He’s still going strong,” Harry says with affection. “He’s 96 and he’s still my number one source of friendship and counsel and advice. He’s my hero.”
He’s influenced the way Harry has raised his girls and lived his life in so many ways, but perhaps the best advice Joseph ever gave him was the simplest.
“He used to tell me to be on time and be nice to people,” Harry says with a chuckle.
“It sounds pretty easy but if you show up on time, that says a lot. It’s about respect. And if you’re kind to people, no matter who they are, what they do, where they’re from, that says something too. It’s something that’s important to dad and me, and it was important to my mum. It’s about loving people and being kind to people. Life is too short to have any kind of hate or angst or judgement. It’s been a pretty good life philosophy.”
Australian Idol screens from Monday January 30 on Channel 7 and 7plus.
Read this story and many others in the February issue of The Australian Women’s Weekly – on sale now.