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John Legend Is Living Up To His Name

Posted in MusicWorld on March 3, 2005 by

Sometime around 2004, a New York singer/songwriter named John Stephens matter-of-factly changed his name to John Legend. The move was so bold, detractors easily could have dismissed it as delusional grandeur. But judging from the mountain of fawning press Mr. Legend has received for his debut album, Get Lifted , the name change was simply a case of destiny being fulfilled. Indeed, if he continues at this rate, legendary stature seems all but assured for the 25 year-old r&b multi-tasker.

In the days surrounding the release of Get Lifted (Sony Music), every major music publication seemed to weigh-in with a breathless review. Citing tracks like " Used to Love U," "Number One" and the disarming "Ordinary People," Rolling Stone called Legend's music "mannered, even elegant," while the New York Times described his voice as "supple and bold, echoing the gliding, curving lines and impulsive dynamics of Donny Hathaway and Stevie Wonder, the rasp of Otis Redding and the falsetto of Al Green." Vibe magazine gave Get Lifted its highest rating, writing that the album "advances the kind of genre-pushing spirit that made D'Angelo's 'Brown Sugar' so sweet."

Had the hosannas stopped there, Legend's status as one of the year's most talked-about newcomers would have been secure. But just weeks after his CD hit stores, the singer received an NAACP Image Award nomination for Outstanding New Artist (the award show airs on Fox on March 25). Legend has handed a similar vote of industry confidence when he was invited to perform at the 47th Annual Grammy Awards Show, singing "I'll Take You There" alongside Mavis Staples in a special tribute to r&b music.

Released in the waning weeks of 2004, Get Lifted hit the charts running, debuting as the #7 album in the country and the #1 R&B/Hip Hop album on the Billboard tallies. Fueled by the singles "Ordinary People" and featuring guest appearances by Kanye West, Snoop Dogg and Will.I.Am of the Black Eyed Peas, the album was the highest-charting debut recording the week of its release.

The media buzz begged the question: Just who is John Legend? Though often described as a protégé of urban pop wunderkind Kanye West, the record shows Legend is very much his own man. Far from being some sequestered studio artist, Legend built a loyal following performing in New York nightclubs and selling his own independently produced CDs. While still in his teens, he was tapped to play piano on Lauryn Hill's 1998 track, "Everything Is Everything." Before long, he was an in-demand session musician, playing and occasionally writing for such contemporary heavyweights as Jay-Z, Alicia Keys, Janet Jackson, Slum Village and countless others.

In 2002, he received the BMI-sponsored Abe Olman Scholarship for Excellence in Songwriting, given annually by the Songwriters Hall of Fame to honor five young composers and lyricists.

An Ohio native, Legend began playing gospel piano at age 5. Confidence was never a problem. "I used to watch Michael Jackson on television … I figured I could do what he was doing," Legend said in a recent interview.

Some 20-odd years later, the singer, songwriter, keyboardist, producer and arranger is fulfilling the promise of his childhood.