John Legend, one of the top R&B performers working today, earned his stage name by having a vocal style that recalled the soul singers of old. A child prodigy from a small Midwestern town, Legend worked as a backup singer and session musician for some of the leading singers in hip hop and R&B before making his own mark as a solo artist. His young career has been marked by critical praise and financial success.
Legend was born John Stephens in Springfield, Ohio. He came from a working-class family—his father was a factory worker and his mother a seamstress—and showed an interest in music from an early age. His mother directed the local church choir, his grandmother was the church organist, and his father and brother were drummers; at the age of four John asked for piano lessons so he could join in the musical fun. By the age of seven he was singing and playing in the church choir; by the time he was eleven he was leading the choir.
Legend's talents were not restricted to music. Although he was homeschooled until the age of six, Legend was also an academic star, winning the city spelling championship in the fourth grade and graduating from high school at the age of sixteen as his class's salutatorian. The fact that he was always young for his school class earned him the nickname "Doogie Howser," after a television show about a teenager who becomes a physician. However, his musical talent kept him from being a social pariah: In addition to being salutatorian, he was also his high school's prom king.
Graduated from the Ivy Leagues
After his early graduation from high school, Legend attended the University of Pennsylvania. There, he joined the student a cappella group, called Counterparts. He also became the director of the choir for the Bethel AME Church, outside of Philadelphia. Both positions allowed him to hone his craft as a singer and musician while majoring in English, with a concentration in African-American Literature.
In 1998 he accompanied a friend to a recording session for Lauryn Hill's debut album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. His friend, a backup singer on the album, bragged about Legend's musical prowess; Hill was sufficiently impressed with his keyboard skills to give him a part playing piano on the song "Everything Is Everything," which would later become a huge hit.
Hill asked Legend to audition for her band, and while he was willing to drop out of college to go on tour with Hill, he didn't make the band. "When I was younger I thought I was supposed to have a record deal by age 19 or 20," Legend later told Joss Stone in Interview magazine. "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."
When Legend graduated from college the following year, he took a management consulting job with Boston Consulting Group. Although the job paid much better than what most of his peers were making straight out of college, Legend's passion for music did not fade. After spending his days preparing spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations for his consulting clients, he would spend his nights pursuing nightclub gigs along the Boston-Philadelphia corridor. He lasted three years in the consulting job before quitting to pursue music full time.
Discovered by Kanye West
During his nightclub period, Legend released two independent albums under his given name, the self-titled John Stephens (2000) and Live at Jimmy's Uptown (2001). Selling the discs at his gigs and through his Web site, Legend sold thousands of copies, but his big break came in 2002, when his college roommate, DeVon "Devo" Harris, introduced Legend to his cousin, hip hop producer Kanye West.
West and Legend became fast friends and collaborators. Through West, Legend got opportunities to play piano and provide backup vocals for established artists such as Janet Jackson, Alicia Keys, and Jay Z, and even earned cowriting credits on songs with Keys and Jackson. Legend was also lending his considerable talents to West's debut album, College Dropout. During one studio session for West's album, Chicago poet and spoken word artist J. Ivy heard Legend sing. Ivy dubbed him "the Legend" because he sounded like a soul singer from the old school. The name stuck, and afterward John Stephens adopted the stage name John Legend.
College Dropout proved to be a major hit, and West founded his own label, G.O.O.D. ("Getting Out Our Dreams") Records, under Sony/BMG. G.O.O.D.'s first album was Legend's major-label debut, Get Lifted, which West executive-produced. Released in the last week of 2004, Get Lifted was a major critical success, but its commercial success built slowly. The album's major hit was the ballad "Ordinary People"; it also featured the West-penned "Used to Love U" and a duet with Hill, "So High." Legend's sentimental favorite on the album was the gospel-inflected "It Don't Have to Change" a recording that featured fifteen members of Legend's extended family singing with him.
Get Lifted garnered eight Grammy nominations for Legend, who along with his mentor, West, and Mariah Carey, earned the most nominations at that year's awards show. Legend took home three awards: best new artist, best R&B album, and best R&B male vocal performance for the song "Ordinary People," which he performed at the Grammy ceremony.
At a Glance …
Born John Stephens on December 28, 1978, in Springfield, OH; son of a factory worker and a seamstress. Education: University of Pennsylvania, BA, English, 1999.
Career: Bethel AME Church, choir director, 1995-2004; session musician and backup vocalist for various artists, 1998—. Boston Consulting Group, management consultant, 1999-2001(?); G.O.O.D. Records, recording artist, 2004—.
Awards: BET Award, best new artist, 2005; Soul Train Music Awards, best male R&B single, for "Ordinary People," and best male Ramp;B album, for Get Lifted, both 2006; Grammy Awards, best R&B male vocal performance, for "Ordinary People," best R&B album, for Get Lifted, and best new artist, all 2006, best R&B vocal performance by a duo or group, for "Family Affair," and best male R&B vocal performance, for "Heaven," both 2007.
Addresses: Office—c/o G.O.O.D. Records, Sony Music, 550 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10022.
Evolved as an Artist
Despite his early success, Legend did not rest on his laurels after his first album. A self-proclaimed "workaholic," he spent much of 2005 on tour, opening for West's College Dropout tour and Keys's Diary of Alicia Keys tour. While Legend had been singing his whole life, he had never faced the rigors of singing ninety minutes per night, every night, as he would on tour. As he told Margaux Watson in Entertainment Weekly, "My voice was hurting…. I had to get [a vocal coach] because I'd never sung so much in my life." As a result of this vocal training, Legend's voice, which was often described as "raspy" or "raw," changed: "My tone got smoother and cleaner," he told Watson. "I didn't plan to [change my style]. I had to switch it up."
That new style, which was featured in the performer's follow-up to Get Lifted, entitled Once Again, proved to be as popular as the original style. Legend's smoother vocals are evident on tracks such as the spiritual meditation "Show Me" and the Grammy-winning "Heaven." The album, which lacked a breakout single like "Ordinary People," nonetheless matched Get Lifted's multiplatinum sales, thanks in part to Legend's relentless touring. As he told The Guardian's Angus Batey, "It always amazes me that I stand out among other artists for working hard. Shouldn't everybody work hard? Why wouldn't they work hard?… If you don't seize this opportunity, it's going to go away. You might not be as smart or you might not have as good a record, but there should be no excuse for not working hard."
Legend's hard work has not been limited to the studio or the stage but also includes the business side of the recording industry. In an innovative arrangement, his third major-label release, the concert album Live from Philadelphia (2008), was created as an exclusive for the Target department store chain. In 2007 he started his own record label, HomeSchool Records, to be distributed by Atlantic. The first artist Legend added to the HomeSchool talent stable was the British rapper and singer Estelle; the second was his younger brother, who performs under the name Vaughn Anthony. In addition to these business ventures, Legend is also active in charity, founding the Show Me Campaign to help end poverty in rural Tanzania, and representing the Gentleman's Fund, a consortium of five charities established to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of GQ magazine.
John Stephens, self-released, 2000.
Live at Jimmy's Uptown, self-released, 2001.
Live at S.O.B.'s, DCN, 2003.
Solo Sessions, Vol. 1: Live at the Knitting Factory, self-released, 2003.
Get Lifted, G.O.O.D./Sony Urban Music/Columbia, 2004.
Once Again, G.O.O.D./Sony, 2006.
Live from Philadelphia, Sony/BMG, 2008.
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Guardian (London), June 22, 2007.
Interview, August 2005, p. 100.
Jet, November 6, 2006, p. 60.
Newsweek, September 4, 2006, p. 58.
People, November 6, 2006, p. 109.
Sydney Morning Herald (Sydney, Australia), June 4, 2005.
USA Today, February 3, 2006, p. 11D.
Washington Post, February 9, 2006, p. C01.
Gentleman's Fund, http://thegentlemensfund.com/main.asp (accessed April 14, 2008).
Official John Legend Web Site, http://www.johnlegend.net/ (accessed April 14, 2008).
Show Me Campaign, http://www.showmecampaign.org/index1.html (accessed April 14, 2008).
"Legend, John." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/legend-john-0
"Legend, John." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved May 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/legend-john-0
Singer, songwriter, pianist
Aprotégé of one of hip-hop music's most innovative figures, John Legend performs not hip-hop but R&B, much of it in the old-school vein exemplified by classic figures such as Stevie Wonder. An Ivy League graduate, he is active in musical genres whose other performers have often attended only the school of hard knocks. His positive lyrics—he writes much of his own material—explore the intricacies of romance and human emotional life, and they roost high on popular music sales charts among songs drenched in sexuality and violence. What has enabled John Legend to buck trends and surprise audiences is sheer talent: equally gifted as a vocalist, songwriter, and pianist, he has created music with deep roots in African-American traditions, seeming fresh even as it refers to styles of the past.
Legend was born John Stephens on December 28, 1978, in Springfield, Ohio. Friends and family called him Johnny. The confident nickname John Legend was bestowed upon the singer in 2002 by Chicago poet J. Ivy, who recalled to Scotty Ballard of Jet that "I heard one of his songs and I'm just blown away like everyone else. … I introduced myself … and I said … ‘you were amazing, you sound like you were from the old school. … You're a legend! As a matter of fact, that's what I'm going to call you, the "Legend."’" The name stuck.
Legend's father was a factory worker and a drummer and visual artist on the side. As a boy, Legend's musical education had gospel and classical sides, as he took formal piano lessons but also honed his performing instincts with membership in a church choir at age six. His mother was the director, his grandmother the organist, his grandfather the pastor. By age 10 or 11 he was directing choirs himself. The church "is such a great training ground for young black musicians," Legend explained to Lorraine Ali of Newsweek. "You have an audience, it's an important part of the service, and it makes you wanna be a better musician. If you're good in the church, people know you all around your area." Indeed, Legend had a regional reputation by the time he graduated from high school.
He was only 16 at the time. An academic whiz who won Springfield's city spelling bee in fourth grade, he moved on to the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, majoring in English. He sang in the university's a cappella vocal group Counterparts. To help pay the bills, he worked as choir director, head of the music department, and pianist at Bethel AME Church in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Even before he graduated he was dabbling in the world of popular music as well: through a mutual friend (backup singer Tara Michel) he met 1990s hip-hop star Lauryn Hill, who hired him to play piano on her song "Everything Is Everything." With visions of bigger things, Legend auditioned for Hill's band but was turned down. He graduated from Penn in 1999 and landed a management consultant position with Boston Consulting Group in New York.
The job paid some $50,000 a year, well above average for a newly minted college graduate, but Legend's interest in music nevertheless began to take up more and more of his time. He made appearances at New York clubs such as Jimmy's Uptown and SOB's, releasing recordings of the shows on his own label. His versatile talents and well-known contacts landed him session work with vocalists Alicia Keys and Janet Jackson, rapper Jay-Z, and hip-hop sensation Kanye West, who signed Legend to his G.O.O.D. label and shepherded Legend's career as executive producer of his first album, Get Lifted. West, Legend explained to Jennifer Odell of People, "has great instincts. He gives me a lot of good advice on the creative level. We critique each other's song productions. He also gives me good advice on dealing with the record industry."
Get Lifted appeared in the last week of 2004 and featured guest appearances by West (who co-wrote its leadoff single, "Used to Love U"), hip-hop veteran Snoop Dogg, and, in a nod to Legend's gospel background, members of his own family on the track "It Don't Have to Change." A major influence was Stevie Wonder, whose 1972 Talking Book album Legend has named as a favorite. Reviewers praised the album's classic R&B sounds, subtly updated with production touches and a confident attitude that marked the creative presence of hip-hop. Get Lifted slowly built in popularity. Its most identifiable song was "Ordinary People," a ballad about the rocky passages that are a feature of every romantic relationship. Accompanied on piano by Legend himself, the song quickly gained currency as a wedding number.
"Ordinary People" also brought Legend one of his three Grammy Awards in 2006 (it was classified as a 2005 release), that for Best R&B Male Vocal Performance. He also snared coveted nods for Best New Artist and Best R& B Album. Legend used the initial proceeds from his album sales to pay off his college loans. He was named to People magazine's list of 50 most eligible bachelors in 2005, and his touring schedule, which included such prestigious dates as a benefit concert at New York's Museum of Modern Art, accelerated sharply. All the activity put a strain on Legend's voice, and at one point he was put on complete vocal rest by a voice coach—any benefits he might have reaped from his eligible bachelor status were temporarily dampened by having to write out conversations with his dates instead of talking.
Partly as a result of the changes that were occurring in his voice, Legend aimed toward a more diverse sound for his sophomore release Once Again. "My tone got smoother and cleaner," he told Margeaux Watson of Entertainment Weekly. "That's why I sound different on my new album. I didn't plan to [change my style]. I had to switch it up." Neither vocal changes nor the common music industry sophomore slump put a dent in Legend's creativity, as he delivered a set of songs that ranged from ballads to hip-hop-spiked jams to pop, the Motown sound, and even Brazilian bossa nova. "It's kind of all over the place, but it feels like it belongs together," he told Watson. The album was produced by will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas, who had also contributed to Get Lifted.
Once Again gained traction in early 2007 and eventually exceeded its predecessor's chart position, reaching number three on Billboard's album sales chart and earning platinum status for sales of a million copies (as had Get Lifted). Legend again contributed the bulk of the songwriting, with some songs based on his own romantic life. The most impressive aspect of Legend's young career was that many of his recordings seemed stamped with the imprint of classic status. "Legend," noted Ali, "just may be one of those rare talents who get better with each record."
For the Record …
Born John Stephens on December 28, 1978, in Springfield, OH; son of a factory worker and a homemaker, seamstress, and church choir director. Education: University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, graduated 1999 with major in English.
Worked as session vocalist and pianist, appearing on recordings by Kanye West, Alicia Keys, Jay-Z, Janet Jackson, and other, early 2000s; signed to G.O.O.D. label; released album Get Lifted, 2004; performed on Grammy awards show, released Once Again, 2006.
Awards: Grammy Awards: Best R&B Male Vocal Performance, for "Ordinary People," Best R&B Album, for Get Lifted, and Best New Artist, 2006; Best R&B Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group, for "Family Affair," and Best Male R&B Vocal Performance, 2007; BET Award, Best New Artist, 2005; Soul Train Music Awards: Best Male R&B Single, for "Ordinary People," and Best Male R&B Album, for Get Lifted, 2006.
Addresses: Record company—G.O.O.D. Records, c/o Sony Music, 550 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10022. Website—Official John Legend Website: http://www.johnlegend.com.
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, G.O.O.D., 2004.
Once Again, G.O.O.D., 2006.
Newsmakers, issue 1, Thomson Gale, 2007.
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People, March 21, 2005, p. 56; June 27, 2005, p. 80; November 6, 2006, p. 109.
"JL Biography," Official John Legend Website, http://www.johnlegend.com (March 31, 2007).
"Legend, John." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/legend-john
"Legend, John." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved May 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/legend-john