It’s a muggy day and John Legend is trying his best to stay cool. The gifted American soul singer is in a Toronto Baptist church for a photo shoot and it’s proving to be one serious sweat-fest. Between costume changes and impromptu performances on an electric piano, Legend towels off and stations himself next to an industrial-sized electric fan. He doesn’t mind being a clothes horse, especially when the wardrobe’s supplied by Hugo Boss, but the wool trousers and vest are almost unbearably hot. Still, it’s all in a day’s work for the award-winning artist, who’s busy promoting his upcoming sophomore album. Sitting shirtless, looking handsome and buff, the 27-year-old Legend spoke about his childhood, growing up in Springfield, Ohio. “I loved sports, but I was never that good, not like my brothers,” says Legend, who admitted that he now works out each day with a trainer, focusing on boxing and weight lifting. Instead, as a boy, he wound up singing in church, at school—“anywhere I could get a mike and a piano,” he says. More than anything else, what he sang was gospel music.
A raw, gospel fervor, combined with an edgy, hip-hop flavor, is what distinguishes Legend’s r&b from that of so many soul pretenders. That sound, along with his smooth, soaring vocals, helped to make his 2005 debut album, Get Lifted, a smash success, winning Grammy Awards for best new artist, best r&b album and best male r&b vocal performance, for the hit song “Ordinary People.” Legend’s followup album, Once Again, is similarly rooted in gospel, especially on the title track, a song of hope for U.S. soldiers in Iraq, and on the deeply moving “Show Me,” which amounts to a confessional prayer. Of the latter, Legend says: “It’s about God and wondering how he works in the world and what my personal relationship with him is supposed to be like. I speak to him like he’s a lover or at least a very close friend.” As with Get Lifted, the new album even features a gospel choir—not surprising, since Legend himself was the choir director at Scranton, PA’s Bethel AME Church from 1995 to 2004.
But Legend’s music owes as much to the street as the church. Like his debut, Once Again boasts production credits by Kanye West and Will.I.Am, of Black Eyed Peas, along with assists from soul man Raphael Saadiq and jazz producer Craig Street, who provide cool urban samples and thumping hip-hop beats on songs like “Save Room.” There are also appealing pop arrangements on “Where Did My Baby Go” and, especially, “PDA (We Just Don’t Care)” that sound closer to Stevie Wonder, Burt Bacharach or even Cole Porter. Where Legend once injected the “wit and swagger” of hip-hop that he found lacking in most traditional r&b, he’s now employing the most catchy, playful qualities of great pop music. “I think a lot of r&b is missing classic melodies, the really sing-a-long-able, musical stuff,” he says. “The songs that stick are the ones that have great melodies and lyrics that people catch on to. I’ve always tried to write in that accessible way.”
Legend’s listening tastes reflect this pop sensibility. He grew up with the gospel sounds of James Cleveland, Edwin Hawkins and the Staple Singers and a love of the “usual suspects” of soul, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Aretha Franklin. During his teens, he gravitated to the urban sounds of Jodeci, Boyz II Men, LL Cool J and MC Hammer. But lately, he says, he’s been immersing himself in a lot of rock and pop music, citing The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, David Bowie, The Doors, Jeff Buckley and Fiona Apple as favorites. He’s especially smitten with Apple. “I just love her dark and witty sensibility,” says Legend, who was heavily star struck when he met her at the Grammy show. “I probably scared her because I just gushed at her for a while,” he laughs. He also encountered Paul McCartney, who complimented him on “Ordinary People.” “I feel very fortunate because I’ve met some of the best songwriters in the history of mankind,” says Legend, “including Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson.” Wonder praised Legend’s talent, adding that that he hears an emotional “sincerity” in the singer’s voice.
Although Legend’s musical gifts made him a star, his career received a significant boost from industry connections. While attending the University of Pennsylvania, where he majored in English with an emphasis on African-American literature, Legend roomed with Devo Harris, Kanye West’s cousin, and wound up singing on and co-writing demos that became West’s bestselling album The College Dropout. He’s been called West’s “protégé” ever since. Through a mutual friend, he then got to play piano on Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Suddenly, Legend became a sought-after session singer and player, singing on “You Don’t Know My Name,” the lead single from the multi-platinum Diary of Alicia Keys, as well as top-selling albums by Jay-Z and Black Eyed Peas. He now downplays the significance of those contributions. “They were more a way to make some money while I was struggling to get a record deal,” he says. “At the end of the day, I think people are going to judge me by what I did on my album. That’s where my legacy is going to be built.”
Legend’s debut came out on SonyBMG’s Columbia label after he became the first artist signed to West’s production company, KonMan Entertainment. Now he’s a member of West’s larger posse, joining Will.I.Am and Common on the rapper’s Sony-affiliated Getting Out Our Dreams (GOOD) label. Although he now moves in high circles, Legend maintains close ties to his own family. He had his mother, father, grandmother, aunts, uncles, brothers and sister all sing with him on “It Don’t Have to Change (The Family Song),” from Get Lifted. Now he’s producing the debut album for his younger brother, Vaughn Anthony, slated for a 2007 release. Apart from purchasing a two-bedroom apartment in New York’s East Village, he claims to have avoided excessive spending, choosing instead to send money home to his family in Springfield and start his own Get Lifted anti-poverty fund.
Despite such humble aspirations, it’s clear that Legend is every bit the major celebrity. This summer, he gave a command performance for British soccer royalty, when he sang at the wedding for Arsenal star Ashley Cole and Cheryl Tweedy, of the Girls Aloud pop group. Meanwhile, his hometown held a John Legend Day, with a chartered bus tour of fans visiting the homes, schools and churches of his past. Legend is now becoming a Kanye-style svengali himself, working with up-and-coming U.K. singer-rapper Estelle. “I met her in Los Angeles when Kanye and I were eating at Roscoe’s, a popular chicken and waffles place, and we’ve stayed in touch,” said Legend. “I’ve written her first single and some other songs and we’re now negotiating a record deal for her. She’s very talented and I’m happy to help.”
Legend’s star quality is readily apparent at the photo shoot, where, despite the heat, every piece of clothing the singer tries on—even a military-style jacket—looks absolutely fabulous. It’s only then that Legend reveals his weakness for nice designer duds. As the shoot comes to an end, the Hugo Boss representative tells Legend that he can keep everything that he’s worn. “Sweet,” says the soul sensation. “I hate shopping for clothes,” he admits, “but I love getting them for free.” Spoken like a true star.
Inside Entertainment September 2006