John Legend dwelled in the background for several years before he launched his multi-pronged sneak attack on the entertainment industry.
Shortly after he got his first break by playing piano on Lauryn Hill's Top 40 hit "Everything Is Everything" (1999), the singer and songwriter contributed to recordings by the likes of Jay-Z and Janet Jackson, secured a major-label deal through Kanye West, and made his proper debut with Get Lifted (2004). The album made Legend a multi-platinum, Grammy-winning musician, and he was just getting started, neither confined nor burdened by the Recording Academy's Best New Artist designation. Amid a string of distinctive, debonair, and awarded albums, Once Again (2006), the Roots collaboration Wake Up! (2010), and Darkness and Light (2016) among them, Legend, as a composer, actor, and producer, has excelled with screen and stage pursuits. His triumphs include the Oscar-winning "Glory" (for Selma), the Emmy-winning Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert, and the Tony-winning production of Jitney. He is among the first 15 entertainers -- and is the first African-American -- to have won all four of the major show-business awards.
Born John Stephens, John Legend began singing gospel and playing piano as a youngster in his native Springfield, Ohio. He left his home state at 16 to attend the University of Pennsylvania, and directed Counterparts, the school's co-ed a cappella group. Not quite out of his teens, Stephens was tapped by Fugees' Lauryn Hill to play piano on "Everything Is Everything," a Top 40 pop hit in 1999. After completing college, Stephens moved to New York, where he built a following performing at nightclubs and self-issuing the CDs John Stephens, Live at Jimmy's Uptown, Live at SOB's, and Solo Sessions, Vol.1: Live at the Knitting Factory. These 2000-2004 recordings solidified a career-long partnership with producer Dave Tozer. The latter two CDs were credited to John Legend, Hill's nickname for her hired gun. The alias stuck. Legend concurrently became an in-demand session musician, background vocalist, and songwriter with contributions to 2003-2004 albums by an array of artists including the Black Eyed Peas and will.i.am, Twista, Jay-Z, Janet Jackson, Slum Village, Talib Kweli, and Estelle.
Some of the collaborative recordings, in addition to a Legend-enhanced remix of Alicia Keys' "If I Ain't Got You," involved Kanye West, who signed Legend to his Columbia-affiliated GOOD Music. Legend made his label debut in August 2004 with "Used to Love U," a rolling kiss-off that reached number 32 on the R&B/hip-hop chart and dented the Hot 100 at number 74. The full-length Get Lifted arrived the last Tuesday of that year -- between holidays, typically a dry period for new releases -- and peaked at number four on the Billboard 200 while topping R&B/hip-hop. The LP was already platinum before the April 2005 release of its biggest single, the piano-and-voice-only ballad "Ordinary People," a number 24 pop hit produced and written with will.i.am. Get Lifted led to Legend's first three Grammy wins: Best R&B Album, Best New Artist, and Best R&B Male Vocal Performance (for "Ordinary People").
Once Again, Legend's second proper album, was granted a more favorable fourth-quarter release date. Retaining the input of West and will.i.am and adding the likes of Raphael Saadiq and Sa-Ra to the mix, it arrived in October 2006, performed similarly to the debut chart-wise, and was swiftly platinum-certified -- an indication that the Best New Artist designation wouldn't be a kiss of death for the artist. Although lead single "Save Room" was more successful commercially, second LP A-side "Heaven" made Legend a repeat Best R&B Male Vocal Performance winner. The same year, he, Joss Stone, and Van Hunt took the group R&B Grammy performance award for "Family Affair," their contribution to a Sly & the Family Stone tribute album. Between proper studio LPs, Live from Philadelphia was issued in early 2008 and pacified fans until that October, when Legend released the stylistically adventurous, more pop-oriented Evolver. His third consecutive number one R&B/hip-hop album, it contained his first platinum single and second Top Ten R&B/hip-hop hit, the rollicking "Green Light," featuring André 3000 amid flashy synthesizers in place of Legend's expected piano. A few months afterward, Legend won another Grammy for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals, this time for his work on Al Green's "Stay with Me (By the Sea)."
Legend started the following decade with another change of course while sticking to his biennial studio LP schedule. Wake Up!, on which he was backed by the Roots, was released in September 2010 with covers of still-relevant, socially aware songs like Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes' "Wake Up Everybody" and Donny Hathaway's "Little Ghetto Boy." The following February, it won the Grammy for Best R&B Album, and its cover of Mike James Kirkland's obscure "Hang on in There" won for Best Traditional R&B Performance. At the same ceremony, Legend also won as the co-writer of Estelle's "Shine," awarded Best R&B Song. Estelle had been the first artist to sign with Legend's Homeschool Records, his short-lived boutique label distributed by Atlantic.
Following a tour with Sade and the making of "Tonight (Best You Ever Had)," a platinum addition to the soundtrack of Think Like a Man, Legend completed Love in the Future, for which he continued to write and produce with Kanye West and Dave Tozer, and involved a large supporting crew that included Q-Tip, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Hit-Boy, and Rick Ross. Released in September 2013, Love in the Future became his fifth consecutive release to peak within the Top Ten of the Billboard 200. The album also generated Legend's first number one pop hit, "All of Me" -- another piano/voice-only ballad -- which peaked in May 2014 but sold so well that it was among the five best-selling singles of the year, certified eight-times platinum. Near the end of the year, he released the single "Glory." Written and recorded with Common for the soundtrack of the Ava DuVernay-directed film Selma, the song won the Academy Award early in 2015 for Best Original Song, and in early 2016 won a Grammy for Best Song Written for Visual Media. Between those accolades, Legend scored his biggest smash as a featured artist with "Like I'm Gonna Lose You," a multi-platinum, number eight pop hit headlined by Meghan Trainor.
Legend devoted more time to television and film. He co-founded Get Lifted Film Co., which in 2016 was behind the biographical drama Southside with You and the dramatic series Underground. The former featured music from Legend, while the latter involved him as executive producer. Furthermore, he co-starred in the enormously successful musical La La Land. Capping off a particularly busy 2016, he delivered his fifth studio album, Darkness and Light, that December. Unlike the four previous full-lengths, its production was handled almost entirely by one person, Blake Mills, whose shaping of Alabama Shakes' Sound & Color inspired Legend to reach out. Legend received songwriting support from Mills and the likes of John Ryan and Will Oldham, as well as Chance the Rapper, Miguel, and Alabama Shakes' Brittany Howard, who also made vocal contributions. A synthesis of gospel, folk, R&B, and adult pop, it entered the Billboard 200 at number 14 and on the R&B/hip-hop chart peaked at number five, promoted by the gold-certified, number 23 pop hit "Love Me Now."
Continuing with work related to the stage, Legend co-produced a Broadway revival of August Wilson's Jitney, which in 2017 won a Tony for Best Revival of a Play. He also produced and starred in Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert. Broadcast in April 2018, it went on to win a Primetime Emmy in the category of Outstanding Variety Special (Live), which made Legend among the first 15 -- and the first African-American -- to win at least one Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony. His first holiday album, the Raphael Saadiq-produced A Legendary Christmas, followed in October 2018 and picked up a 2020 Grammy nomination for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album. The singer also nabbed a second Grammy nod for Best Rap/Sung Performance for his contribution to the DJ Khaled track "Higher." ~ Andy Kellman