He is a legend, John Legend that is. Neo-soul singer and pianist John Legend combined the raw fervor of contemporaries Cody ChesnuTT and the burning precision of D'Angelo. Born John Stephens, Legend was a child prodigy who grew up in Ohio, where he began singing gospel and playing piano at the tender age of five. Legend left Ohio at 16 to go to college in Philadelphia, and it was there that he first found a larger audience. Not yet out of his teens, Legend was tapped to play piano on Lauryn Hill's "Everything Is Everything" in 1998. After completing college, he moved to New York, where he began to build a loyal following playing in nightclubs and releasing CDs that he would sell at shows. He also became an in-demand session musician, playing and occasionally writing for a wide array of artists, including Alicia Keys, Twista, Janet Jackson, and Kanye West. It wasn't until West signed the young talent to his new label that he adopted the Legend name with 2004's Solo Sessions Vol. 1: Live at the Knitting Factory. Get Lifted, his first studio album, was released later in the year.
John Legend Serves Up Both The Ordinary And The Wonder-Ful
Singer/songwriter shoots Kanye West-helmed clip for 'Ordinary People.'
Few people can be higher than R&B newcomer John Legend is right now. With his debut album, Get Lifted, near the top of the albums chart, Legend's feet are barely touching the pavement.
"I'm amazed," Legend said of the album's success. ''I knew it would do well, but I thought it
would be over time with word-of-mouth and not right out of the gate."
The singer/songwriter aims to stay on track with his second single, "Ordinary People." The sparse song, co-written by Will.I.Am of the Black Eyed Peas, features only Legend's voice and piano.
"Hip-hop stations that are playing Lil Jon all day are also playing my song," Legend marveled. "I really appreciate the fans, because that song was built by fans requesting it. People seem to really relate to the lyrics and are often dedicating it to their significant others."
For the single's forthcoming video, Legend says mentor/video director Kanye West wanted to keep things simple.
"I'm in an all-white room sitting at a black piano in everyman, ordinary clothes playing the piano," Legend explained. "It's simple, but beautifully and complexly shot. Actors play out family scenes to show conflict and the ups and downs of relationships as I sing. Overall, it's visually arresting."
While Kanye has co-directed several of his own clips, "Ordinary People" marks the first time he's directed a video for another artist.
"He did a phenomenal job," said Legend. "He and [fellow video director] Chris Milk came up with the concept. I let them do their thing. As an artist, my job is to be myself and perform."
Fans will soon be able to see Legend sing "Ordinary People" live when he hits the road with Alicia Keys for her Diary Tour in late February.
"My label and everyone were keeping their eyes open for tours that made sense for me," Legend said. "When we heard Alicia Keys was going on tour it almost made too much sense. I have been very lucky to be on some great tours with Kanye, Usher and now Alicia. I'm just putting forth the effort to show more and more people who I am."
In the midst of promoting Get Lifted and preparing for the tour, Legend has also gotten the opportunity to do a little film and TV work. The singer recently portrayed a young Stevie Wonder on NBC's "American Dreams."
"It was interesting," Legend said of playing the music icon. "I had to do some acting in trying to impersonate him. It was an honor to do. Any time you get to cover a Stevie Wonder song it's an honor. He was a young man when he recorded the song and sang much higher than I sing now, so that was a challenge. I just hope I did him justice."
The Stevie Wonder connection continues with Legend covering Wonder's classic "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing" for the soundtrack to the Will Smith film "Hitch."
"People keep asking me to cover Stevie Wonder — I am going to have to ask them to slow down," Legend said with a laugh.
With a full calendar, Legend still doesn't seem satisfied. He said he's already planning his next set.
"I hope to release an album early next year," he said. "I have already started writing a few songs."
John Legend: Living up to his name
John Legend finally makes it as an R&B star
Just a year ago, the singer who now stands as music's first major breakout star of 2005 got the thumbs-down from every major American label.
"You like to think the music speaks for itself," 26-year-old John Legend says. "But for the last year and a half, it obviously wasn't because I was not getting a deal."
So what turned things around?
Two words: Kanye West.
John Legend is West's vocal protégé. He appeared as guest singer on a clutch of key songs that the hip-hop producer oversaw. But only when West became a mainstream star last year with his own CD, "The College Dropout," did he have the clout to get Legend a deal.
"Kanye's success showed everyone that our camp could make viable records which sold and got critical acclaim," Legend explains. "It's a combination of the music and the buzz."
That combo helped Legend's debut CD, "Get Lifted," open at No. 7 on Billboard latest Top 200 Album list, the top debut of the week.
With his agile voice, ingratiating lyrics and striking melodies, Legend deserves the acclaim.
But the debut was also helped by Columbia Records' decision to release the album during Christmas week — when no other new CDs appeared.
Legend's dare of a stage name didn't hurt.
Born John Stephens, the singer was first given his nickname by the rap poet J. Ivy, who felt he recalled the soul greats of old. West encouraged him to change his name for good.
"I was the last person who wanted to take it," says the singer. "I didn't want to come out of the gate telling everybody I'm a legend, because I'm clearly not."
After getting his demos dismissed for several years, however, Legend knew he had to use anything to get people talking.
The young Stephens grew up in Springfield, Ohio, where his family sang or performed in church choirs. "That shaped my music and the way I look at life," he says.
At the same time, he was so serious about his studies, he got into Philadelphia University at age 16. "I was not yet a man and very sheltered," he says. "[At school] I got to know the world, through all these very interesting, diverse, smart and ambitious people."
He was lucky enough to be in Philly when the neo-soul movement was gestating there, through the work of performers like Jill Scott, Musiq and The Roots. Inspired by their work, Stephens, then a senior, performed his first local show in 1998.
Once out of school, the singer landed a job as a corporate management consultant. "It's a better day job than waiter because you work during the day and you get paid a lot more," he says.
But music remained his goal. Stephens financed his own CDs, including "John Stephens" (2000) and "Live at Jimmy's Uptown" (2001). His first break came through a college friend, Tara Watkins, who did backup vocals on Lauryn Hill's solo debut. Stephens gave Watkins a ride to the session and offered his demo to Hill, who hired him to play piano on her song "Everything Is Everything." But another college connection shot him over the top.
Stephens had roomed in college with Kanye West's cousin, Devon Harris. After a bit of bugging, Harris got West to listen to Stephens. He liked what he heard and began hiring him to sing the hooks on his hip-hop productions.
"Maybe it's all about going to college," the singer laughs.
In 2003, the newly minted Legend sang on tracks fronted by Jay-Z, the Black Eyed Peas and Alicia Keys. He was still working his day job when he cut several tracks for West's own album.
By early last year, he had begun to bust out, gaining cameos on albums by everyone from Janet Jackson to Twista to Talib Kweli. He also appeared with West on the biggest road show of 2004, Usher's "Confessions" tour.
Legend finally got his own deal with Columbia last May, though he's quick to point out that the executive who earlier passed on him was, by then, no longer with the company.
Once advance copies of Legend's music hit the press, critics began to single him out as a soul savior, both for his singing and his songwriting, which defied the cookie-cutter R&B norm.
"Most [R&B songwriters] think if you got a hook and a beat you got a hit," Legend explains. "They don't think about what happens in those things between the hooks — the verses."
Legend says the wait for a record deal paid off. Because of West's new power, he says, "I got a much bigger deal financially." As to whether Legend can one day live up to his high-flying name, even he says the jury is out.
"I just want," he says, "to make music that does no shame to the name.
'Get Lifted': A Legend In the Making
He looks like a GQ dreamboat, he croons like a cross between Stevie Wonder and Bob Marley, and he coolly blends piano-playing eloquence and hip-hop edge à la street chanteuse Alicia Keys. R&B rookie John Legend has a whole lot going for him on his major-label debut, the laid-back revelation "Get Lifted." In the end, though, it will no doubt be his friendship with the hottest man in the music biz that elevates Legend's coming-out disc to can't-miss status.
Kanye West -- the idiosyncratic producer-turned-performer whose own 2004 debut, "The College Dropout," has put him in a position to win 10 shiny gold things at February's Grammy Awards -- chose Legend to be the flagship artist on his new Getting Out Our Dreams label, a boutique offshoot of Columbia Records
To make sure his investment pays off, West is all over "Get Lifted": his wicked sense of humor, his ear for instantly hummable parts and his knack for mixing rap, reggae, gospel and '70s-smooth soul. Not only did West executive-produce the auspicious outing, but he co-wrote four of the best songs and lent his oddball rhyming skills to the old-school shakedown "Number One," a cheater's lament built on a winking sample of Curtis Mayfield's "Let's Do It Again."
Born in Springfield, Ohio, and raised in Philly, the 25-year-old Legend has been a session player on albums by Lauryn Hill, Janet Jackson and Jay-Z, but it wasn't until he worked on "Dropout" and toured with West -- who was Usher's spotlight-stealing opening act this year -- that he proved his potential. During West's set, Legend showed off his gospel hollers and fancy finger work, gifts he honed during his day job as choir director and head of the music department at Bethel AME Church in Scranton, Pa. Before that, the man born John Stephens was a soloist and arranger for Counterparts, an award-winning a cappella group at the University of Pennsylvania, where he graduated magna cum laude in 1999.
Oh yeah, Legend is a mama's dream for sure. In fact, on "Get Lifted," he invites a good chunk of the Stephens brood -- including Mom, Granny and Aunt DeDe -- to join him on the feel-good Sunday recital "It Don't Have to Change." But the brainy choirboy's halo isn't totally straight. Like his mentor, Legend has a self-deprecating streak, and he's often quite candid, and quite funny, in revealing his flaws, the chief one being that he loves the ladies so much he can't stay true to just one. "Get Lifted" often plays a back-and-forth conversation between a randy hip-hopper on one shoulder (who looks a lot like West) and an R&B angel on the other.
On the mid-tempo strut of "Alright," co-penned by West and featuring a foundation of tubas, trombones and ooh-oohing backup vocals, Legend can't resist swiping another man's date. "She Don't Have to Know," produced by the Black Eyed Peas' Will.I.Am but sounding like a lost Fugees track, is a prickly prequel to "Number One": This time, the two-timer promises his mistress that he's actually all about her. And when a woman dares dump him on "Used to Love U," Legend unleashes a wicked kiss-off: "Maybe I should rob somebody / So we could live like Whitney and Bobby / It's probably my fault, my bad, my loss / That you are above cost."
Legend winds up being much more entertaining as a sinner than as a saint, but you can't beat having Snoop Dogg, who is reportedly trying to win back his wife, kick off the album's redemptive second half. On the Latin-flavored testifier "I Can Change," the Doggfather solemnly raps, "You make me want to lay down the pimpin' and step my love game up," as Legend leads a choir in the background. Ode to friendship "Refuge (When It's Cold Outside)" has a chummy island vibe and allows Legend to show off his seldom-used lower register.
And then, separating the sex stuff from the spiritual set, there's "Ordinary People," a ballad about a good relationship gone crumbly. Reminiscent of Stevie Wonder's "Overjoyed," the torcher is a spare, startling showcase, just the man, his piano and his voice offering up a sublime make-out special. Legend, it should be noted, produced the track all by himself. It's a promising sign that in the long run, he'll be able to go it alone just as well as he can go West.
R&B singer John Legend makes debut album
Ohio-born soul singer and pianist John Legend's solo debut, Get Lifted, hits stores today, on Kanye West's Sony-affiliated label, Getting Out Our Dreams (GOOD).
While still in his teens, Legend (then John Stephens) played on Lauryn Hill's "Everything Is Everything," before moving to New York to develop his own material. Legend has played on and written for records by Alicia Keys, Janet Jackson and Twista, and put in a guest appearance on Talib Kweli's recent album, The Beautiful Struggle. He sang the hooks on Jay-Z's "Encore" and, notably, West's "Jesus Walks."
West returned the favor, co-writing Get Lifted's first single, "Used to Love U," and Black Eyed Peas' Will.I.Am produced the second single, "Ordinary People."
The result is a brand of soul that's mannered, even elegant. And Legend's got range: Two luscious odes to infidelity -- "She Don't Have to Know" and "Number One" -- are followed by an equally convincing promise to not stray, "I Can Change." Best of all, "Used to Love U" bears West's self-doubting stamp: "Maybe, baby/Puffy, Jay-Z would all be better for you/'Cause all I could do is love you."
John Legend New Solo Album Release
Kanye West's hook crooner releasing debut solo LP, Get Lifted. As we head toward the end of 2004, one artist is lifting up listeners with his new release. John Legend, the soulful crooner who sang hooks on Kanye West's "Jesus Walks," Jay-Z's "Encore," and a host of other hip-hop tracks, is breaking out on his own with debut solo effort, Get
West, whose affiliation with Legend helped the latter secure a record deal, co-wrote the debut single off Get Lifted, "Used to Love U." The Black Eyed Peas' Will.I.Am also makes a cameo on the album as the producer of the second single, "Ordinary People."
If all the bonding and family togetherness of the holiday season took a toll on your rock and roll soul, the MC5 have the cure for you. The legendary Detroit hard rockers are releasing Purity Accuracy, a six-disc box set, half of which consists of rare recordings, demos and alternate takes, while the other half is unreleased live material.
With so few big new releases to run out and buy this week, why not use your downtime wisely by ... learning to tango. The 38-track, three-disc set Beginner's Guide to Tango should help get you started. Don't forget — it takes two to tango, so make sure to ask a friend to join you.
John Legend is a great artist
John Legend "Get Lifted," John Legend great artist. John Legend new album entitled "Get Lifted" is now available on Sony Music. This is great music for those who love the Motown classics as well as Alicia Keys, Lauryn Hill...
Whether you call it "fate" or "destiny" or "a calling," the fact is that some people are born to sing and create music. If you ask any of the "legends" in the music business, chances are you'll get a variation on the idea that music is and always has been the artist's most natural expression. The industry's latest "legend" -- John Legend, actually -- reveals that from the age of five or six, he expected to be 'discovered.'
"I used to watch Michael Jackson on television and I figured I could do what he was doing." Music has been the central theme in the life of John Legend (born John Stephens) for as long as he can remember and now, some twenty-odd years later, this multi-talented singer, songwriter, musician, arranger and producer is fulfilling his childhood dreams and ambitions.
With "Get Lifted," his major label debut album on Columbia Records, John Legend demonstrates a rare ability to fuse the "feel" and vibe of classic old school Soul music with the edgy flavor of 21st century hip-hop. While the romantic themes of traditional R&B permeate John's "Get Lifted," there's alsoa street-worthy hipness and confidence: the sensuality of Marvin Gaye and the sincerity of Stevie Wonder merging with the directness of Snoop Dogg and the wit of Kanye West. Yet, John Legend is very much his own artist, gifted with singular talents and a unique sensibility.
Take "Ordinary People," one of the last tracks John worked on in the summer of 2004 for the album, which is executive produced by hitmaker Kanye West (who also co-wrote and produced several tracks on the record). Recorded with John Legend's simple and plaintive piano accompaniment, the song is, according to its creator, "real, a composite of experiences. It's about love, not as a fantasy or fairytale, but as it really goes down between two people."
"Used To Love U," the infectious first single--co-written and produced by Kanye West-- has, according to John Legend, "a bangin' Hip-hop beat with a little Latin flavor, and a soulful melody and vocal arrangement; it's a cool mix and fusion of different musical influences. We had the Black Eyed Peas horns and guitar player on the track so you get a little of their flavor too."
With production by West, longtime musical associates Dave Tozer and Devo Harris, and Will.I.Am of the Black Eyed Peas, Get Lifted runs the gamut from the celebratory "Live It Up"--which John describes as "a personal testimony about how hard work and paying dues really does pay off"--to the thought-provoking "Refuge (When It's Cold Outside)," a spiritually evocative ballad reminiscent of Lauryn Hill.
Among the impressive credits John's amassed in the last few years (which includes session work with Alicia Keys, Janet Jackson, Talib Kweli, Jay-Z, Britney Spears, Eve, Common, the Black Eyed Peas and, of course, Kanye West), John is particularly proud of his work on "Everything Is Everything," a key cut on Hill's multi-platinum Grammy-winning The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. "Through a friend of hers," says Legend, "I went to the studio when Lauryn was working on that record and I sang a couple of original songs for her and ended up playing piano on that song. I'm still very proud that that was the first major record I was on."
Counting Lauryn Hill and Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, Al Green and The O'Jays among his primary influences (along with a slew of gospel artists like Edwin Hawkins, Shirley Caesar, Commissioned, John P. Kee and James Cleveland he heard during his formative years), John Legend has combined his inspirations into a stunning new sound all his own. You can hear it on tracks like "She Don't Have To Know" and "#1" (which features Kanye West), a pair of songs dealing with the age-old topic of infidelity. Of the latter, John says with a smile, "I guess you could say that's a 'guy' song. It's a bit tongue-in-cheek, basically saying, 'Hey, I know I cheated, but I'm a guy so what do you expect?' A lot of traditional R&B doesn't have that wit and swagger that you find in hip-hop, and that's what I wanted to include in my music."
On the sexier tip, there's "Let's Get Lifted," a jaunty jeep-flavored cut and the sizzling "So High." In contrast, John Legend also references his move from Springfield, Ohio, to attend school in Philadelphia through "Johnny's Gotta Go" (produced by Dave Tozer) and his love for family with the soulful "It Don't Have To Change (The Family Song)," which John says includes "almost my entire family singing with me - my mom, my dad, my granny, my aunts and uncles and my siblings (two brothers and a sister). They're all on that track which has a doo-wop type of harmony arrangement."
Being in Philadelphia in the late-'90s allowed John Legend exposure to some of the new artists --like Jill Scott and The Roots -- who were at the nucleus of the burgeoning "neo-soul" movement. Committed to his craft, John continued performing in and around Philly and by 2000, he had expanded his audience base by doing shows in New York, Boston, Atlanta, and Washington, DC. John frequently appeared on the same bill as such national R&B artists as Musiq, Jaheim, Amel Larrieux, Glenn Lewis and Floetry when they were performing in the region and began recording some of his live performances. Early CDs such as the 2000 release, John Stephens, and 2001's "Live At Jimmy's Uptown" generated sales at John's shows and on his website. Studio recordings -- often done with college friend Dave Tozer -- were made "with the intent of getting a record deal. I never really got frustrated because there were always little 'victories' plus the real people, the audiences, liked me. You have to have a lot of stamina to keep going."
John's patience paid off: through his college roommate and collaborator Devo Harris, he met Kanye West (Harris's cousin), who was emerging as a hitmaking producer for acts like Jay-Z and Scarface and an artist in his own right (via the now best-selling album The College Dropout). "I first met Kanye after he came to see one of my shows," John Legend recalls. "It took a while for us to start working together. The first time was when he had me come in to sing hooks on a couple of the songs that eventually made the College Dropout album. Then he gave me some beats to write to for my demo. After about an hour and a half of writing, I came back with a song called "Do What I Gotta Do," based on a beat that sampled Aretha Franklin's "Til You Come Back To Me." He played that first song for a bunch of people and they all loved it, so we started working together more and more."
By late 2002, John had begun working with Kanye more often, playing piano, singing and co-writing two tracks on the College Dropout album while adding impressive credits to his ever-expanding resume: in 2003, John lent his vocal talent to "You Don't Know My Name," the lead single from the multi-platinum Diary Of Alicia Keys set, as well as co-writing, singing and playing on the Kanye West remix of "If I Ain't Got You" from the same album. John's collaborations with West also include singing and playing piano on "Encore" and "Lucifer," tracks from Jay-Z's The Black Album. John Legend was also lead singer and co-writer of "The Boogie That B," from the Black Eyed Peas' Elephunk album.
With word-of-mouth spreading among industry execs and artists, John Legend found himself making a number of guest appearances on different projects recorded in 2003 and out in 2004: he played keyboards on "Overnight Celebrity" (from Twista's Kamikaze CD); sang, played and appeared in the video for Dilated Peoples' "This Way"; co-wrote and played on Janet Jackson's "I Want You"; co-wrote, played and sung on "I Try," the lead single featuring Mary J. Blige, from Talib Kweli's Beautiful Struggle album (which also features John's work as lead vocalist and pianist on the track "Around My Way"). In addition to also singing lead on Slum Village's "Selfish," John played on sessions for Eve, Common and Britney Spears while still performing at clubs and making two more independently-produced live CDs, Solo Sessions, Vol. 1: Live at The Knitting Factory and Live At SOB's.
By late 2003, Kanye West had signed the multi-faceted Legend as the first artist to his production company, KonMan Entertainment, and a deal with Columbia Records soon followed. After signing with the label, John Legend began the task of sorting through the many songs he'd written over the years, finally narrowing it down to forty tunes -- "in varying stages of development" -- and working with West on the dozen or so songs that would make up the album. "I know that this album will set the tone for what happens with my recording career," John Legend predicts. "The first song, "Used To Love U," is what the record-buying public will attach to me. It could become what I'm known for."
Asked to describe his style, John Legend says, "It's very soulful, rooted in gospel but with hip-hop beats and unique, witty lyrics, more 'major' than 'minor', more of a 'feel good,' upbeat sound." That's exemplified by the afore-mentioned "Do What I Gotta Do" (featuring Kanye West), with its instantly memorable hook and tunes like "I Can Change" (featuring Snoop Dogg), which John describes as "my pimp redemption song! Like, I know I'm gonna get it right with this girl, I'm gonna repent. It's hip-hop with a gospel flavor and we have a choir singing on the track." Emulating the likes of "the gentle genius" Curtis Mayfield, John offers the beautifully tender "Stay With You," another fine example of his ability to bring his own well-crafted artistry to music that harks back to another day and time.
One listen to the soulful yet edgy Get Lifted and there's no question that John Legend indeed delivers the real deal, living up to his name and beginning the next chapter in a career filled with promise and possibility.
New school piano from John Legend proves engaging
The piano goes street, falls in love, then finds religion again. And that's just on the first song of John Legend's debut album, "Get Lifted."
Legend applies his skills on the keys and background as a church choir director to blend R & B, gospel and hip-hop sensibilities in a perfect match with red-hot producer-rapper Kanye West.
The throwback soul man's classic voice, ear for melody and elegant singing style complement West, who discovered Legend, put him on hooks for rap artists like Dilated Peoples and Talib Kweli and produced four of the CD's 13 songs.
"Let's Get Lifted" opens the album and introduces the innovative sound. A plucked bass propels the beat, while piano flourishes accent boastful yet smooth lyrics: "I'ma break the rules, gonna change the game."
Yes, the Ohio native seems to have inherited some of West's arrogance, but he's also got the wit. He promises a lover she's "Number One" despite his cheating, alongside a catchy Curtis Mayfield sample and hilarious rap from West. "Used To Love U" drips with bitter sarcasm.
A doubtful tension keeps things interesting through "I Can Change" (where Snoop Dogg pledges to "lay down the pimpin' and step my love game up"), as well as "Ordinary People," a musically simple ode to the complexity of relationships.
"Get Lifted" bogs down near the end, as Legend sheds the irony and builds songs around clichés like the weather metaphor on "Refuge (When It's Cold Outside)." He even purports to be "walking on cloud nine" (twice!) on the too-conventional "So High."
Overall, though, this debut is an engaging journey into the fresh realm of thoughtful soul that artists like Alicia Keys have advanced in recent years. Let the new-school piano man lead on.
Legend shows power of old school
Singer extols the virtues of hard work and tradition. If resumes were record sales, John Legend already would have lived up to his stage name.
The Springfield, Ohio-born soul singer and pianist - whose major-label debut, "Get Lifted," hit stores Tuesday, on his 26th birthday - has impressive credentials. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in 1999, he spent three years at a prestigious business-strategy firm before quitting to plot his musical success full-time.
Since then, he's contributed to an impressive array of R&B and hip-hop hits, including Jay-Z's "Encore" and Alicia Keys' "You Don't Know My Name," as well as albums by the Black Eyed Peas, Slum Village, and Talib Kweli.
And, crucially, the singer born John Stephens has established himself as the right-hand man of Kanye West, the producer-turned-rapper who's this season's prince of pop music. Legend's supple vocals and stately piano playing can be heard all over West's "The College Dropout," which snagged 10 Grammy nominations this month.
So, success for Legend, a minister's grandson, would seem to be preordained. "Get Lifted" is the first album released on West's Getting Out Our Dreams label, and West has placed his imprimatur all over the project - he plays a preacher in the video for the hip-hop-flavored single "Used to Love U," and makes his directorial debut on the video for the piano ballad "Ordinary People."
Still, Legend is taking no chances. "As a kid, I always wanted to be a star," he says, remembering his days as a 6-year-old Michael Jackson fan. "But I was always the sensible kid, too."
In Manhattan last week, Legend was doing what sensible stars-in-the-making do: tirelessly getting out the word that his album soon would be in stores. After winding up a promotional tour the evening before, the clean-cut singer had caught an early morning flight from Norfolk, Va., back home to New York, where he's lived since 2000.
He spent the morning taping an appearance on Fuse TV, an MTV competitor, where he smartly kept his disparaging remarks about the new Nelly-Tim McGraw video off-camera.
After an SUV ride to retrieve a lost wallet from the Lower East Side apartment he shares with his roommate, producer Devon "Devo" Harris - who introduced Legend to his cousin Kanye in 2001 - it was off to the studios of Black Entertainment Television to tape three shows.
Legend calls himself "an old soul," and his music is steeped in tradition. He began classical training when he was 4, but also learned from his grandmother, the church organist at his Ohio hometown's El Bethel Temple, where his mother taught Sunday school and his father was choir director. ("It Don't Have to Change," "Get Lifted's" most straight-ahead gospel cut, features guest appearances by a panoply of Stephenses.)
In a hip-hop context, it's Legend's old-school virtues that make him stand out. His voice combines an elastic upper register with a mature grit, in the tradition of sanctified soul singers from Otis Redding to R. Kelly. Performing in Philadelphia this month, he appeared alone at the piano wearing an argyle sweater and commanded the attention of a blinged-out crowd that, only moments earlier, had been bobbing their heads to banging tracks by Snoop Dogg and Jay-Z.
"I think there's a hunger for good soul music among young hip-hop fans," Legend says. "And I'm part of the hip-hop generation. I talk to them in their own voice, and I incorporate elements of hip-hop into my music. But I work in a more soulful medium."
"This guy's music should transcend the urban world and have crossover success," Will Botwin, president of Columbia Records, which is releasing "Get Lifted" though West's label, told the Los Angeles Times.
The first half of "Get Lifted" is filled with sneakin'-around songs from a hip-hop player's perspective. Legend describes himself as "a choirboy who's been around and seen a little bit of the world." But he doesn't mind being referred to as "the male Alicia Keys."
"We're both kind of classicist in our approaches," he says. "We both play the piano, and she got into an Ivy League school, too."
Legend's management company is working on booking a tour that would see him open for Keys, starting in late February, with his seven-piece band, including a DJ.
Legend has been an overachiever all his life. "He was the smartest and the most talented," says his brother Ronald, who's two years older, one of four Stephens children. They graduated from high school together because John skipped two years before heading to the University of Pennsylvania at 16.
"He was always the brain," Ronald says. "I can remember him watching 'Jeopardy' and beating all the other contestants when he was kid."
When Legend was 11, his father, Ronald, and mother, Phyllis, divorced. Their remarriage 12 years later was part of the inspiration for the Burt Bacharach-like "Ordinary People," which Legend wrote with Will.I.Am of the Black Eyed Peas. ("This ain't no movie, naw/No fairy tale conclusion, y'all/It gets more confusing everyday," Legend sings.)
With the clan being raised by their factory-worker father, Legend pushed himself onto the fast track. "Johnny's gotta get away, I really wasn't born to stay," he starts to sing in the BET waiting room. It's from "Johnny's Got to Go," a song about needing to escape postindustrial Springfield that didn't make "Get Lifted." "I'm gonna make it big someday/So I gotta go."
At Penn, he majored in English, concentrating on African-American studies. He had a 20-hour-a-week work-study job, directed an a cappella group, and on Sundays drove to Scranton, Pa., to work as a choir director at a church. "I was 16, teaching 60-year-olds," he remembers with a laugh. "It was crazy. I slept in class."
After graduation, Legend was hired as a management consultant by the Boston Consulting Group. He moved to New York but quit the firm in 2002 to focus on music. By then, Harris already had introduced him to West, just before West scored his first big hit with Jay-Z's "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)." The two hit it off.
"We're sort of kindred spirits," says Legend, who is single. "We both grew up in the Midwest in families where education was important. He's more of a free spirit or a wild card, though. I'm calmer and more studied."
Stevie Wonder role
Legend will play Stevie Wonder in a coming episode of NBC's "American Dreams," and covers Wonder's "For Once in My Life," on the soundtrack to the Will Smith movie "Hitch," due out this winter. And he'll make his movie debut, as a musician who has sex with Kyra Sedgwick, in the coming film "Loverboy."
He says Wonder and Marvin Gaye are the singers most important to him and cites "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill" (on which he has a cameo) and Mary J. Blige's "My Life" as his favorite hip-hop soul albums.
"Get Lifted" was rejected by every label, including Columbia, he says, until West's "The College Dropout" took off this year. In the meantime, West and others started to call Stephens "Legend" for his old-school tastes.
Knowing people would accuse him of arrogance - as Vibe magazine did this year - Stephens wrestled with whether to make that his stage name.
"I knew that would happen," he says. "But I also knew it would make people pay attention more ... . And then, it became a de facto name. So, it became more a matter of, Do I not use it? Or do I embrace it?"
"And I just decided I wanted something that separates me from the pack. And I wanted the pressure ... . Hopefully, (people will) listen to the album and they'll be impressed, and not think I'm some guy who called himself a legend. I'm never going to worry about what happens when I flop. I'm always betting on succeeding."