When certain artists arrive on the recording scene, it is immediately evident that they will have an enduring presence. For example, Beyoncé, Usher, Mariah Carey, Justin Timberlake and Alicia Keys. And there are plenty of reasons why artists such as Smokey Robinson, Prince, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder and Gladys Knight are still going strong.
John Legend, singer-songwriter-musician, has what it takes to become a mainstay, just as one of his heroes, Marvin Gaye, was and would still be had he not left us.
“At the end of the day, there’s only a few major stars in the music business, and then there’s all these people that are aspiring to be that,” Legend said.
One of the major elements of his consistent success is his voice, which bares no similarity to anyone else’s, present or past. With it, Legend can express the deepest of emotions and create any mood the song calls for. There is no more perfect example than “Ordinary People,” his 2004 breakthrough hit from the pivotal album “Get Lifted.”
JOHN ROGER STEPHENS was born in Springfield, Ohio, in 1978. Like so many other African American artists, he got his first singing experience in the church, but in his case it was at a very early age (7) and, amazingly, he started playing piano when he was only 4. He seems to have been born for this business.
People naturally wonder why he gave himself the name “John Legend” once he entered show business. Well, the decision was not ego driven. As he explained, it had much to do with the maturity of his voice.
“John Legend is a nickname that somebody started calling me,” he said, then added with a smile, “and part of it was because I sound like an old man when I sing!”
For the record, he is 34 although he looks considerably younger.
After graduation from high school he was offered scholarships to Georgetown University, Morehouse College and Harvard University. However, he opted for the University of Pennsylvania, although he was not a music major; rather, he studied English with a focus on African American literature.
DURING HIS college years Legend was part of a group called the Counterparts. They sang jazz and pop a cappella as does Take 6. At one point the group recorded a song titled “One of Us,” with Legend on lead, that found its way onto a compilation album titled “Best of Collegiate a Cappella.”
However, pursuing a career alone was more to his liking.
“I always saw myself as a singer-songwriter, a solo artist,” he said. “That’s why working with other artists was never satisfying for me.”
So he began landing engagements in Philadelphia as well as Boston, Washington, D.C., and other cities.
Around that time he also had the good fortune to be introduced to Lauryn Hill who was launching a solo career following the disbanding of the Fugees. She asked him to play on “Everything Is Everything,” a cut on what would go on to become a hugely successful album titled “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.”
Legend describes this as his “first big break.”
Prior to that, he recorded a live album independently, “Live at Jimmy’s Uptown.” That was in 2001, and since there was no distribution arrangement, he sold the CDs at his concerts which is not an uncommon thing for new artists to do.
After that he made a demo tape that he sent out to an array of record companies. He got the chance to meet up-and-coming artist Kanye West and subsequently signed with West’s record company. His style was, of course, nothing like West’s, nor was his personality or inclinations.
LEGEND’S FIRST album, “Get Lifted,” was released at the tail end of 2004, featuring production by West, will-i-am and Dave Tozer. It was an immediate success and sold an impressive 116,000 copies within the first week of its release. Once it reached the 500,000 mark, which didn’t take long, “Get Lifted” was certified Gold by the Record Industry Association of America (RIAA). It also sold well in several other countries.
That album earned Legend the first three of his nine Grammy Awards, but he was not focused only on his own recordings because he was featured on the albums of numerous other artists, among them Mary J. Blige, the Black Eyed Peas and Jay-Z.
Legend’s highly anticipated second album, “Once Again,” was released in the fall of 2006. It, too, was a critical and commercial success, and like its predecessor, crossed over onto the Pop charts. It received Platinum certification from the RIAA in recognition of reaching the million sales mark.
By now it was clear that John Legend was in for the long haul, as proven by the success of his third release, “Evolver.” There was also an award-winning collaboration with the Roots (currently the house band on Jimmy Fallon’s late-night TV show) titled “Wake Up!”
Legend, who does a lot of philanthropic work, is looking forward to Sept. 3, which is when his next album will be released. It had been scheduled to come out earlier, but Legend decided to push the release date back.
Perhaps what John Legend is about musically can be summed up in five words he once spoke: “I want to move people.”
Steve Holsey contributed to this story.