It’s no surprise that John Legend wasn’t born with that name, but it’s a bit surprising how recently he started using it. In 2003, at age 25, he was still performing under his birth name, John Stephens. Whatever you call him, this accomplished singer, songwriter, and pianist is a major force in the R&B scene of the early 21st century, developing a seamless blend with rap and other Black-led genres.
The Ohio native was raised in a family of church singers and organists. He had such good grades in high school that he was offered a spot at Harvard, but he turned it down in favor of the University of Pennsylvania. Although music wasn’t his major, it was his extracurricular passion.
A friend introduced him to Lauryn Hill, who invited him to play piano on her then-new album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, which went on to be nominated for ten Grammys and win five. An even luckier connection happened after he’d graduated, when he met Kanye West, whose career was new but growing quickly. West loved Legend’s vocal style and asked him to sing on some tracks. More significantly, West signed him to his label. A poet friend came up with the name John Legend, and it stuck.
But before that stage moniker was official, he made his first recording as John Stephens. Live at SOB’s came out in 2003, recorded during a show at the famed New York club. His voice on “Hurt So Bad” has an exciting, raw sound, something that would be smoothed out, along with his song arrangements, as he became an increasingly mainstream artist. The style on this number seems less influenced by the original Little Anthony and the Imperials recording than by the emotional raggedness of Stevie Wonder. Jimmy Coleman’s drumming lays down an infectious groove.
Get Lifted (2004) was Legend’s debut solo studio album and the first to use his new name. Released by Kanye West’s GOOD Music along with Sony Urban and Columbia, the record hit the top ten, went double platinum, and won the Grammy for best R&B album. Production was a group effort, including input from will.i.am, Devo Springsteen, and West himself, who was also managing Legend at the time. This team approach has remained Legend’s standard procedure.
The song “Refuge (When It’s Cold Outside)” was co-written by Legend, DeVon Harris, and Paul Cho (another producer). As expected, given the people working on it, there’s a tighter, more technically complex approach to arrangement than on the SOB’s show. What has not changed is Legend’s ability to infuse his voice with sincere emotion and explore the breadth of its pitch and dynamic spectrum.
Although the album Once Again (2006) did just as well in sales and radio play, critics complained about Legend’s new leaning toward a pop sound. This project truly took a village: The personnel list numbers around 100 musicians and producers!
One of the few tracks not released as a single is the album’s closer, “Coming Home,” written and produced by Legend and will.i.am. It’s an intimate autobiographical song, wistful but carefully crafted to stave off sentimentality. The military-style snare drum that enters as the strings soar in the final chorus is one example of the counterbalance against the maudlin.
Legend continued with GOOD Music for Evolver in 2008, and the production team was just as crowded. But there were some new elements to this album. In an interview for the British magazine Blues & Soul, Legend pointed out his greater reliance on electronics, as well as the his first political song (“If You’re Out There”).
There are also some forays into reggae style. The best of these, “Can’t Be My Lover,” was not included on the original album, but was a single and eventually a bonus track. It features Jamaican reggae star Buju Banton, whose earthy delivery is an effective counterpoint to Legend’s more ethereal style.
Politics became a stronger force in Legend’s music when he worked on Wake Up! (2010), a collaboration with The Roots inspired by the election of Barack Obama to his first term as US president. Rather than write an album of new songs to celebrate the first Black president, Legend and his colleagues took a historical approach, recording politically and socially aware songs by Black artists of the 1960s and 1970s.
There’s a lot to sink your teeth into on this meaty album, from Curtis Mayfield’s “Hard Times” to a nearly 12-minute version of Bill Withers’ “I Can’t Write Left Handed.” But a little gem shines brightest: a simple, inspiring arrangement of Billy Taylor’s “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free,” made famous by Nina Simone.
Three years of intensive touring delayed the completion of the next album, Love in the Future (2013). The leading single, “Who Do We Think We Are,” contains excerpts and samples from songs by Lenny Kravitz, Marvin Gaye, and others. Samples used on other songs were taken from a wide range of artists, including Dr. John, The Dells, and Sara Bareilles.
For one track only, Legend looked to the production skills of rapper Q-Tip. It’s one of the most interesting and unusual songs on the album, combining a soulful melody with intriguingly out-of-sync backing vocals and a relentlessly jumping electronic bassline that counteracts and confines the free vocals. When that jumping pattern disappears for a few bars, the melody soars, only to be walled in again.
Darkness and Light came out in 2016, Legend’s final collaboration with West. He then recorded the holiday album A Legendary Christmas and committed to a major project outside his comfort zone, performing the lead in Jesus Christ Superstar live on NBC on Easter Sunday, 2018. Although his acting was unremarkable, his singing raised the musical level of this role to rare heights. His job as executive producer on that broadcast won him an Emmy Award, making him one of only a handful of artists to earn the so-called EGOT combination: Emmy, Grammy, Oscar (for the song “Glory” in the film Selma), and Tony (for producing August Wilson’s play Jitney).
After that detour, Legend was ready to go back to the studio. His most recent album is Bigger Love (2020), on Columbia Records. For several tracks he brought in the producer Warren Felder, known as Oak, who produced the album’s opener, “Ooh Laa.” That track is John Legend in microcosm: Smooth R&B singing shaped by a rap sensibility. Sexy and luxurious while simultaneously edgy and street-smart.
Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Tech Sgt. Samuel King Jr.