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."
With Alicia Keys, 8 p.m. Wednesday, March 9, Colorado Convention Center Lecture Hall, 700 14th Street, $45, 303- 830-8497
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.
Musically, offerings like the ridiculously catchy "Used to Love U," co-written with West, contain the occasional new-millennium production touch. For the most part, however, Get Lifted bows to old soul verities. "There's nothing new under the sun," Legend allows, "but I think we do a good job of fusing today with yesterday."
That's certainly the case with "Ordinary People," which is essentially Legend alone at the piano, crooning mellifluously about the uncertainties of relationships: "Maybe we'll live and learn/Maybe we'll crash and burn." The track was hardly the most obvious choice for a lead single, but DJs in Chicago and Detroit who received a pre-release sampler began spinning it, and their listeners' reactions convinced Legend to take the risk. "Me and Kanye, we had a conversation about it, and we were both committed to it," he says. "And when me and Kanye are committed to something, it's difficult for the label to disagree with it."
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Still, execs wanted to hedge their bets. "There were some people at the label saying, 'Can we do a remix, so if some of the hipper, younger stations aren't into the album version, or we want to get it into clubs, they'll have something to play?'" Legend recalls. "And I said, 'Sure, if you want to do remixes, fine -- but I really want to lead with this acoustic-ballad version,' because it's so special, and so singular on the radio right now. It'll make more news and be more interesting to the public and the press and to anybody to have something like this out, rather than just any other song with a beat."
The strategy paid off handsomely, but Legend says, "I don't think you could go back and figure out why it was the right time to come out with this kind of song. 'Jesus Walks' is the same thing. No one could have said beforehand, 'Now's the time to put out a song about Jesus,' but because the beats on it were so great, and the writing on it was so great, and the energy and the spirit Kanye put into the song were so great, it worked. And the same thing happened with 'Ordinary People,' because it's so universal. Everyone tells me that song's about them. They tell me, 'You were looking in my window when you wrote that.' Who knows if I'll ever duplicate it?"
The same question might be applied to Legend's fabulous few days in February, because the combination of a blockbuster song, CD, movie and television gig represents the entertainment equivalent of a perfect storm. But rather than worry about the inevitable decline, Legend wisely chooses to bask in the moment. Joining voices with the Blind Boys of Alabama at the Grammys "felt really natural, because it reminded me of being in church growing up," he maintains. And Staples, he says "has such a big smile and such a big personality. As soon as she saw me, she gave me a huge hug. It was a lot of fun." He was less thrilled when The College Dropout came up short in the Best Album category to Genius Loves Company, a lukewarm movie tie-in that became a sentimental favorite because its star, Ray Charles, died shortly after making it, but even this injustice can't bring him too far down. "If you wanted to honor someone who really made an impact with innovative music, Kanye was the more important artist this year," he points out. "But it was Ray Charles's year, and his life had this huge impact. You can't be mad at them for acknowledging that."
Not when it's Valentine's Day and your bank account is overflowing.