Singer and songwriter
Born John Stephens, December 28, 1978, in Springfield, OH. Education: University of Pennsylvania, B.A., 1999.
Addresses: Record company —Sony, 550 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10022. Website —http://www.johnlegend.com.
Played piano on "Everything is Everything" by Lauryn Hill, 1998; performed as backup singer or pianist on songs by Kanye West, Jay-Z, Alicia Keys, Janet Jackson and others, early to mid-2000s; released Get Lifted , 2004; released Once Again , 2006.
Awards: Grammy Award for best new artist, Recording Academy, for "Ordinary People," 2006; Grammy Award for best R&B vocal performance, Recording Academy, for "Ordinary People," 2006; Grammy Award for best R&B album, Recording Academy, for Get Lifted , 2006; Soul Train Music Award for best male R&B single, for "Ordinary People," 2006; Soul Train Music Award for best male R&B album, for Get Lifted , 2006.
John Legend has taken his striking voice, love of old-school soul vocals, self-confidence, good looks, and friendship with hip-hop rising star Kanye West, and fashioned a career as an R&B singer whose music sounds fresh and classic at the same time. Even before recording his own material for a major label, Legend established a reputation as a session musician for and collaborator with many of the biggest stars in R&B and hip-hop. His debut album, Get Lifted , released in late 2004 on his 26th birthday, won three Grammys and widespread critical praise.
Legend, whose real name is John Stephens, was born in Springfield, Ohio, and turned to music almost immediately. "I was playing at church and taking piano lessons at three," he told an interviewer for Jet . "I was performing at church when I was six, singing songs, leading the choir, doing solos and playing the piano. I was doing everything." His grandmother complemented his classical training on piano by teaching him gospel songs.
After graduating from high school at age 16, Legend left Ohio to attend the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. While there, he participated in Counterparts, an a cappella group at the university that received national recognition. He also became the choir director, pianist, and head of the music department at Bethel AME Church in Scranton, Pennsylvania, a position he kept for nine years, until around the time of his major-label debut. When he was 19, a friend who was also friends with hip- hop and soul singer Lauryn Hill introduced him to Hill and had him play piano for her. Impressed, she invited him to play piano on the recording of her song "Everything Is Everything." After that, he tried out for her band, but was not hired.
In 1999, at age 20, Legend graduated with an English degree and moved to New York City to work as a management consultant. Meanwhile, he began playing in nightclubs, selling self-produced CDs of his music at his shows. A longtime musician friend introduced him to Kanye West, and Legend helped West write some of the songs on his highly successful debut album, The College Dropout .
Legend's music recalls earlier generations of African-American music: church music, classic soul, R&B and gospel, as well as hip-hop. He told Ebony that '70s soul giants Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye are his role models. Chicago poet James "J" Ivey began calling him Legend because of his old-school soul sound, and when the name began to stick, Legend decided it would make a good stage name. Legend, as either a background singer and pianist, appeared on songs by West, Jay-Z, Alicia Keys, Janet Jackson, and other hip-hop and R&B stars. West signed Legend to his record label, GOOD, took the title of executive producer on Legend's first major album, and co-wrote its first single, "Used to Love U."
Get Lifted , Legend's debut on West's record label, was released on the singer's 26th birthday, December 28, 2004. It included guest vocals by West, hip-hop star Snoop Dogg, and, on the song "It Don't Have to Change," Legend's family—"my uncles, my dad, my brothers, my sister, my mother, my aunts, my grandmother, and my cousins," he told fellow singer Joss Stone in an interview for the magazine Interview . Legend celebrated the release of the album with a free concert, which also included his family, in a park in his hometown of Springfield.
Critics raved about the album. His voice, which could rise from deep and dusky to soaring and clear, impressed, as did his clean, traditional musical arrangements. Tom Sinclair of Entertainment Weekly boiled down Legend's appeal to the very essence of soul music: "Like Ray Charles, Legend joins the spiritual and the secular in satisfying, sexy ways," he wrote. "Almost every tune seduces with catchy hooks and soulful singing that sidesteps the melismatic overkill that's murdering R&B."
Though his music owes much more to classic soul than hip-hop, writers detected the influence of his rapper friends in Legend's confidence and his cocky stage name. "When I was younger I thought I was supposed to have a record deal by age 19 or 20," he told Stone in Interview . "When it didn't happen, I would get frustrated, but I would keep working and progressing and making new songs and recording new demos. And I kept thinking, 'These people are stupid. They should've signed me a long time ago.'" His good looks also helped his success grow. People named him one of its 50 most eligible bachelors in 2005, and he admitted to an interviewer that he was meeting a lot more women now that he had achieved some fame.
Legend toured with his friends West and R&B singer Usher and also opened for Keys on her tour in 2005. A trip to London impressed discerning British soul fans. "With his distinctive hair, reminiscent of an ancient tree on an exposed hillside that's been blown into shape by prevailing gale-force westerlies, and wearing a cool light check jacket, jeans and trainers, he oozed charisma and confidence," gushed David Cheal of the Daily Telegraph. Hollywood Reporter critic Gary Jackson, who had been wary of the buzz about Legend, was similarly disarmed after a show at the House of Blues in Los Angeles. "Legend actually lived up to the hype with a searing, overwhelming, and authoritative performance that harbingers truly great things for years to come," he wrote. Legend told Jet he sensed the power of his performances. "I feel like my shows are a combination of a revival to some extent—it's kind of spiritual," he said. "People go away and feel touched and energized."
In 2006, Legend was invited to perform at the Grammy Awards. The slot gave him the chance to meet singers he looked up to. Former Beatle Paul McCartney politely interrupted his rehearsal to tell him his song was beautiful, and Legend also met alternative-rock singer and pianist Fiona Apple and professed his admiration. That night he won three Grammies, for best new artist, best R&B vocal performance, and best R&B album.
By that fall, Legend was ready to build on his success. His new album, Once Again , set for release in October, displayed a surprising range, reported a Rolling Stone writer who heard a preview. While mostly focused on mellow piano-based soul music, the website also reported that some tracks were reminiscent of early-1960s pop and even the cool ballads of the late alternative-rock crooner Jeff Buckley.
John Stephens , self-released, 2000.
Live at Jimmy's Uptown , self-released, 2001.
Live at SOB's New York City , DCN, 2003.
Solo Sessions Vol. 1: Live at the Knitting Factory , self-released, 2004.
Get Lifted , GOOD/Sony Urban Music/Columbia, 2004.
Once Again , Sony, 2006.
Daily Telegraph (London, England), May 17, 2005.
Ebony , April 2005, p. 26.
Entertainment Weekly , January 14, 2005, p. 85.
Hollywood Reporter , August 22, 2005, p. 25; March 6, 2006, p. 20.
Interview , August 2005, p. 100.
Jet , March 21, 2005, p. 62.
Newsweek , January 24, 2005, p. 66.
"Hear Our Talk With John Legend: Kanye in the Studio, Loving Stevie Wonder and More," Rolling Stone , http://www.rollingstone.com/news/story/11135026/hear_our_talk_with_john_legend_kanye_in_the_studio_loving_stevie_wonder_and_more (August 13, 2006).
"JL Biography," johnlegend.com, http://www.johnlegend.com/biography/shtml (August 13, 2006).
"John Legend Back Once Again," Vibe , http://www.vibe.com/news/news_headlines/2006/08/john_legend_back_once_again/ (August 13, 2006).
"John Legend Rules R&B," Rolling Stone , http://www.rollingstone.com/news/qa/story/9363402/john_legend_rules_rb (August 13, 2006).