By Noah Hubbell
By Leslie Simon
By Brad Lopez
By Tom Murphy
By Noah Hubbell
By Inkoo Kang
By Dave Herrerra
By Josiah M. Hesse
During a February 14 interview, John Legend reacts with a knowing chuckle when he's asked what Valentine's Day means to him. "It's a good payday," he says, "for a guy who's got a big romantic ballad out."
No doubt. "Ordinary People," a bare-bones endorsement of taking love slow, is an R&B throwback that sounds nothing like the hip-hop currently dominating the airwaves, but it's become a hefty hit anyway, pushing Legend's latest CD, Get Lifted, to platinum status, and a slot among the country's ten best-selling discs. But that's hardly the only reason for his expansive mood. The evening before, he was prominently featured at the annual Grammy Awards ceremony, duetting with celebrated belter Mavis Staples and emoting alongside the Blind Boys of Alabama in an elaborate production of "Jesus Walks," by his friend and advocate, Kanye West. Movie-goers who attended the film Hitch on its February 11 opening night got an earful of Legend, too; his faithful cover of Stevie Wonder's "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing" underscores an extended sequence in which characters played by Will Smith and Eva Mendes ride Jet Skis in lieu of riding each other. By the 14th, Hitch was atop the box-office roster, having racked up what was at that point the highest opening gross for any 2005 flick.
To put it mildly, Legend, who's 26, had a pretty nice weekend. Better yet, other positive prospects lurk on the horizon, including his portrayal of Wonder in a March 16 episode of the NBC series American Dreams that co-stars trust-fund darling Paris Hilton as (believe it or not) Barbara "I Dream of Jeannie" Eden. Although Legend reveres the no-longer-little Stevie, whom he met at a Smokey Robinson tribute and chatted with briefly at the Grammys, he thinks the Dreams cameo will be his last direct reference to his hero for a while. "I don't want everyone to think I'm the new Stevie Wonder knock-off, because I don't want to be him," he stresses. "Him being him is more than enough for the world. So I'm going to be myself."
Some observers might find this claim suspect, since Legend was known until recently as John Stephens, his given moniker. He says the switch was made to draw more attention to his work and to challenge him with "a higher standard to live up to." Besides, he believes that he's the same man no matter what he's called. "Some people may try to differentiate it, make it a split-personality thing," he allows. "But me being a musician, an artist, a performer -- it's such a huge part of my life. It's all me."
An Ohio native, Legend was raised by a devout family, so it was only natural that he would become involved with the Bethel AME Church in Scranton, Pennsylvania, upon relocating to the area in his mid-teens. He served as pianist, choir director and, eventually, head of the music department there between 1995 and 2004, using the salary he received to help pay his tuition at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1998, while still a student there, he played keyboards on "Everything Is Everything," a highlight of Lauryn Hill's Grammy-collecting solo debut, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill -- a killer credit, especially considering that Legend was still shy of twenty. More exceptional opportunities would follow thanks to West, who happens to be the cousin of Legend's roommate at Penn. By taking advantage of this connection, Legend has contributed either vocals or instrumental flourishes to an astonishing list of high-profile recordings over the past couple of years -- most notably, West's The College Dropout, Jay-Z's The Black Album and The Diary of Alicia Keys.
Material like this came from a far different place than the music he continued to make at church on Sundays, and the same was true of some songs that found their way onto independently issued solo platters he put out under his given name: 2000's John Stephens, 2001's Live at Jimmy's Uptown and 2003's Live at SOB's. Not everyone in his orbit was pleased by the disparity. "There are definitely people back in my home town who wish I was only doing gospel records, and I understand that," Legend says. "But I make music that I feel reflects all of my life and not just part of my life. For me not to talk about things like dating just doesn't feel right. I need to talk about my life and the things I think about.
"It's funny," he continues, "because music is the only career that people in the church think you can only do in the church. Like, if you're an accountant, they don't say you can only be an accountant for churches. If you do marketing, they don't say you can only do marketing for your church. But if you're a singer, there are some people who think you can only sing for your church."
In contrast, Legend likes to juxtapose the sacred and the profane, and he does so effectively on Get Lifted, which was executive-produced by West and put out on his custom imprint, Getting Out Our Dreams, which is distributed by Columbia Records. "It Don't Have to Change" is a modified spiritual that employs a chorale made up of Legend's father, mother, grandmother, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins -- fifteen relatives in all. In his opinion, their presence "makes the record better, because I think their voices are so great. If it was just me, it wouldn't be the same." Yet he's just as comfortable crooning in the presence of no less a sinner than Snoop Dogg, who intros "I Can Change," a tune that represents another angle of personal transformation. In it, Legend pledges to "go to church, get baptized" and "give up on the pimpin'" for the sake of his baby -- and he's not talking about the one born in a Middle Eastern stable.