John Legend made his first auspicious appearance on a Chicago
stage in February 2004, duplicating the keyboard and backing vocal
parts he performed on the debut album by his friend Kanye West,
which had been released a week earlier.
"I remember that night
really well," Legend recently said of that show at the House of
Blues. "It was something special, playing with Kanye in his
hometown, celebrating the release of 'The College Dropout.' "
But that was only the first in series of high points in the
months that followed: By early 2005, Legend would be a major star in
his own right, having sold almost 2 million copies of his debut,
"Get Lifted," and snaring three Grammys, including Best New Artist.
Now, with his second album, "Once Again," the 27-year-old singer
and songwriter is sealing his reputation as one of the most talented
new voices in R&B, and he's returning to Chicago fronting his own
nine-piece band and headlining at the Riviera Theatre on Thursday.
"It's been a heck of a ride," Legend said with a laugh. "And
Chicago feels like family. If I'm not a favorite son, well, at least
I'm a second cousin."
Start as session piano man
Born John Stephens in Springfield, Ohio, the musician can be
forgiven for choosing such a boastful stage name, since he seemed
destined for success early on: He graduated from his high school as
the salutatorian at 16 and served as both prom king and president of
the student council. While studying African-American literature at
the University of Pennsylvania, he served as the music director at a
local church, and wound up befriending some impressive members of
Philly's burgeoning neo-soul movement, including a former Fugee who
tapped him to play piano on her 1998 hit, "The Miseducation of
Lauryn Hill." But it was another fortuitous meeting that led to his
"I met Kanye in 2001 in New York City; he had just
moved out here, and his cousin, Devon Harris, went to college with
me and was my roommate in New York at the time," Legend said. "It's
a very small world. Kanye wasn't famous yet: He was still a young
producer trying to make it, and I met him before his big break came
when Jay-Z used his song as the first single on 'The Blueprint.'
After that, he really became an in-demand producer, and he was able
to use his position to get me work. He would bring me in to play
piano on the records he was producing for other people."
Legend joined West in the studio to contribute to albums by Talib
Kweli, Common and Mary J. Blige, among others. In between, the
keyboardist helped the producer with his own project. "At the time,
it was just a demo, because Kanye didn't have a record deal as an
artist yet. But that demo became 'The College Dropout,' and I was
singing on those tracks back when he was still recording in his
apartment in Newark, N.J. We met back then and we just kept working
together, and obviously, he blew up, and he was able to bring me
Compared to R&B greats
If Legend benefitted from the spotlight West shone on him, he was
more than ready to seize the moment. With its old-school emphasis on
live instrumentation, lushly crafted melodies and lyrics that were
more about romance than sexual conquests, "Get Lifted" seemed like a
breath of fresh air on an R&B scene dominated by stale synthesized
sounds and raunchy, pandering seductions. Critics compared him to
soul greats Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Sam Cooke, and record
buyers were just as enthusiastic.
"It's an honor to hear those
kinds of comparisons, and I'm absolutely flattered, but I don't let
it go to my head too much," Legend said. "I know that my career
can't be compared to Stevie's anytime soon, just because I'm only
two albums into it. I have a lot of dues to pay before I can really
be compared to Stevie or Marvin. The best thing [about the success
of 'Get Lifted'] is it makes you believe that good music can sell.
There's still a lot of mediocre music that sells, but at least it
makes you know that if you do something that is really quality
music, it can actually sell."
Expectations were high for "Once Again," but Legend denied that
he felt the pressure while writing and recording. "I wasn't trying
to live up to reviews; I wasn't trying to live up to Grammys; I
wasn't thinking about all of those things when I was writing the
album. For me, the writing process was very much a creative,
artistic process: It was really about the music, and I was just
trying to make the best songs I could make."
For inspiration, the artist listened to the R&B greats critics
were comparing him to, as well as surprising favorites such as
indie-rock heroes Jeff Buckley and Sufjan Stevens and pop great Tony
Bennett. "When I think about music, all those genres and
classifications and even eras, the divisions between them are very
blurry to me," he said. "I don't really see any divisions; I really
feel like they're all the same thing -- they're all music. When I
write and arrange my music, I'm always subconsciously referencing
all those different elements, so when people try to put my music in
a box, it always frustrates me, because I don't think of music in
boxes like that.
"Every day, I would go to the studio with the producers, and we
didn't have any rules about where we were going to go with the
music; we just tried to come up with something that we would be
excited about -- something special. That was the only aim, and I
figured if we did that, the minimum would be that we would do as
well as 'Get Lifted' creatively. As long as we did that, I felt like
everything else would come together."
Poetry and melody trump all
If some of Legend's new songs can veer toward the saccharine --
witness "Each Day Gets Better" and "P.D.A. (We Just Don't Care)" --
the beauty of both the lyrics and the melodies is undeniable in
others such as "Stereo," "Save Room" and "Show Me." The latter is
particularly striking as a song that is partly a bedroom confession
to a lover and partly a prayer to a higher power. "Maybe we'll
talk / Some other night," Legend sings. "Right now, I'll take
it easy / Won't spent my time / Waiting to die / Enjoy the life I'm
"When it feels right to me, when I feel proud of
every line in the song, when I don't feel like I'm getting bored or
I didn't say the right thing or I took the easy way out on the
lyrics -- that's when I know I've written a good song. Some things
just sound so beautiful that it seems transcendent to me, and 'Show
Me' is one of the songs that feels like that. ...
" 'Show Me' really just came in one burst -- a night, or maybe a
night and a half. You can't overthink these things, and you know
from the basic groove and the basic chorus whether or not the song
is right. That's the beginning. If it doesn't have those things,
then it's not going to be a great song, no matter how profound the
lyrics are or whatever else. With 'Show Me,' as soon as I got that,
then I knew it was going to feel good."
And how much of his material comes from personal experience?
"It's not autobiographical all the time -- there are elements of
autobiography, and there are some elements that I just choose to
make up or incorporate from books and movies or whatever, just like
any fiction writer might do," Legend said. "But it's always my
sensibility, my perspective, and the way that I would say things. In
that sense, it's always me."
Legend: Other R&B sounds juvenile, 'silly'
As outspoken and occasionally controversial in interviews as his
friend Kanye West, John Legend hasn't hesitated to offer his
opinions on the state of R&B, taking his peers to task for a lack of
creativity in their music and a pervasive disrespect toward women in
"I hate what's on the radio right now," Legend said
in a recent interview with the New York Daily News. "So I've put my
bet on being different."
I asked him to expound on these and other comments.