Describing that moment as a professional peak couldn't have been an easy task: Legend has two platinum albums, a collection of hit singles, and enough Grammys to sink a small yacht. He's been a mainstay on every chart for the last dozen years and behind the scenes on some of the biggest albums of the last two decades including The College Dropout and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. But every break, every opportunity has come through hustle, grind, and damn hard work. Legend is a man who made his own magic, and he's here to share it.
John Legend is born in Springfield, Ohio
His family band, the Stephens Five gives John his first taste of being a performer
Legend graduates as high school's salutatorian at age 16
Legend graduates college from Penn, after turning down Harvard and Georgetown
Legend was born John Rogers Stephens in Springfield, Ohio, a city that was at one time so reflective of the heartland that it was featured on the cover of Newsweek when the magazine turned its focus to the state of the American Dream. He grew up playing piano with his grandmother, a woman that was a central figure in his musical development. She was the church organist where I grew up so I was around her a lot, he told SPIN, She she was my number one influence.
Legend's embrace of music wasn't limited to Sunday sermons, though, the thread ran through the entire Stephens family. Legend's father Ron got his son listening to jazz standards from Nina Simone and Nat King Cole when the artist was a teenager, and he formed a family band with two of his brothers and cousins called the Stephens Five before he could drive. I loved hearing the crowd cheer, I loved the smiles I saw on peoples faces, I loved the energy that fills the room, Legend said, speaking about his earliest memories as a performer. Having the power to create and perform was something I really cherished.
Legend gets his first shot playing piano on Lauryn Hill's Miseducation
John meets Kanye West, and appears on his album The College Dropout
You never forget the first time someone gives you a shot to do something you love for a living. For Legend that chance came from Lauryn Hill while she was recording her seminal album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. "I was still a student at Penn and I met her through a mutual friend. I went in the studio to hang out and hopefully, maybe, I'd get a chance to play a song or two for her and I did." Legend must have blown the room away that day - Hill let him play keys on Everything is Everything. "That was the first time something happened where I got to meet somebody major and play with them. I was pretty proud."
He continued working the club circuit after his breakthrough with Hill, even as he was logging long hours as a management consultant in New York. Then, in 2001, Devo Springsteen introduced Legend to an up-and-coming soul obsessed producer from Chicago named Kanye West. "He wasn't famous yet but he was starting to work with major artists and he would bring me into the studio to work with them as well." Legend's relationship with Yeezy bore fruit almost immediately. "Kanye was putting me on all these records: he put me on this Slum Village record and then I was singing background on Alicia Keys' You Don’t Know My Name. I was playing piano and signing on a bunch of The College Dropout cuts." It was a flurry of work that came at a time when the Legend was still trying to find sure footing in the business; he didn't have a record deal and was still trying to put together a strong enough demo to send around to labels. Legend kept the faith, though, and knew that at some point his relationship with Kanye was going to pay off big time. "It just felt like momentum was building and the music we were making was really coming together," he told SPIN, "It made me feel like we were on our way."
Legends faith paid off in a big way:
Legend's album Get Lifted debuted at #7 on the Billboard 200 charts
Get Lfited wins the 2006 Best R&B Album Grammy Award
John collaborates with Common on the song Glory for the feature film Selma, which wins an Oscar in 2015
If John Legend never made a record he would have still would have had a hell of a career: high school salutatorian at 16, Penn graduate at 20, BCG veteran at 22. He was on a meteoric trajectory before he ever stepped in the recording booth, so it makes the impressive divergence all the more impressive. Legend doesn't consider his move as a matter of choice. "I never thought of it as a separate in the sense that I was either choosing one path or another at first," he said, "I always thought that music was such an important part of my life and was always going to be important." He stuck to what made him tick: "To me music was always what I really wanted to do. It was just a matter of time before hopefully it would come together - and it finally did."
It didn't come easy. "I got turned down by every major record label, including Columbia where I'm signed now," he recalled, "You just have to keep going. I kept working with new people, and every time I hear 'no' I just felt like I'm going to keep going until I get to 'yes' . " Legend's faith paid off in a big way in 2004 when his debut album Get Lifted moved more than 100,000 units in the first week. (The album was released on Kanye West's then-nascent GOOD Music imprint.) That first LP sparked a long run of success and netted Legend his first Grammy in 2006 for Best R&B Album. He hasn't slowed down since.