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Musician of the Week: John Legend

 - Thursday 20 June 2013.

John Roger Stephens (born December 28, 1978), better known by his stage name John Legend, is an American singer-songwriter and actor. He has won nine Grammy Awards, and in 2007, he received the special Starlight Award from the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Prior to the release of his debut album, Stephens’ career gained momentum through a series of successful collaborations with multiple established artists. Stephens added his voice to those of other artists, assisting in them reaching chart-topper hits. He lent his voice to Magnetic Man’s "Getting Nowhere," Kanye West’s "All of the Lights", on Slum Village’s "Selfish" and Dilated Peoples’ "This Way". Other artists included Jay-Z’s "Encore", and he sang backing vocals on Alicia Keys’ 2003 song "You Don’t Know My Name" and Fort Minor’s "High Road". Stephens played piano on Lauryn Hill’s "Everything Is Everything".

Legend was born John Roger Stephens on December 28, 1978, in Springfield, Ohio. He is the only child of Phyllis, a seamstress, and Ronald Stephens, a factory worker and former National Guardsman. Throughout his childhood, Legend was homeschooled on and off by his mother. At age four, he began playing the piano and at age seven, he performed with his church choir. When he was ten, his parents divorced. At the age of twelve, Legend attended North High School, from which he graduated four years later. Upon his salutatorian graduation, Legend was offered scholarships to Harvard University, Georgetown University and Morehouse College. He attended the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied English with an emphasis on African American literature.

While in college, he helmed Counterparts, a co-ed jazz and pop a cappella group as president and musical director. Legend’s lead vocals on the group’s recording of Joan Osborne’s "One of Us" received critical acclaim landing the song on the track list of the 1998 Best of Collegiate a Cappella compilation CD. Legend was also a member of the prestigious senior societies Sphinx Senior Society and Onyx Senior Honor Society while an undergraduate at Penn. While in college, Legend was introduced to Lauryn Hill by a friend. Hill hired him to play piano on "Everything Is Everything", a song from her album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.

During this period, Legend took time to hold a number of shows around Philadelphia, eventually expanding his audience base to New York, Boston, Atlanta, and Washington, D.C. He finished college in 1999, and thereafter began producing, writing, and recording his own music. He released two albums independently; his self-titled demo (2000) and Live at Jimmy’s Uptown (2001), which he sold at his shows.

After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, Legend began working as a management consultant for the Boston Consulting Group. During this time, he began working on his demo and began sending his work to various record labels. In 2001, Devo Springsteen introduced Legend to then up-and-coming hip-hop artist Kanye West; Legend was hired to sing during the hooks of West’s music.

After signing to West’s label, he chose his stage name from an idea that was given to him by poet J. Ivy, due to what he perceived "old-school sound". J. Ivy stated, "I heard your music and it reminds me of that music from the old school. You sound like one of the legends. As a matter of fact, that’s what I’m going to call you from now on! I’m going to call you John Legend."

After J. Ivy continued to call him by the new moniker "John Legend," others quickly caught on, including Kanye West, and the name stuck. In spite of John’s reluctance to change his stage name to John Legend he eventually announced his new artist name as John Legend.

Legend released his debut album, Get Lifted, on GOOD Music in December 2004. It featured production by Kanye West, Dave Tozer, and will.i.am, and debuted at number 13 on the US Billboard 200, selling 116,000 copies in its first week. It went on to sell 540,300 copies in the United States and was certified gold by the RIAA. An international success, Geft Lifted also reached number one of the Norwegian Albums Chart and peaked within the top ten in the Netherlands and Sweden, resulting into worldwide sales of 850,000 copies.

Criticially acclaimed, it won the 2006 Grammy Award for Best R&B Album, and earned Legend another two awards for Best New Artist and Best Male R&B Vocal Performance. Altogether, the album produced four singles, including debut single "Used to Love U," which entered the top 30 of the New Zealand and UK Singles Chart, and Grammy Award-wining "Ordinary People" which peaked at 29 on the Billboard Hot 100.

A highly demanded collaborator, Legend was featured on several records the following years; he appeared on albums by Fort Minor, Sérgio Mendes, Jay-Z, Mary J. Blige, The Black Eyed Peas, Stephen Colbert, Rich Boy, MSTRKRFT, Chemistry, and Fergie, among others. Legend also tentatively worked with the late Michael Jackson on a future album for which he had written one song. In August 2006, Legend appeared in an episode of Sesame Street. He performed a song entitled "It Feels Good When You Sing a Song", a duet with Hoots the Owl. He also performed during the pregame show of Super Bowl XL in Detroit and the halftime show at the 2006 NBA All-Star Game.

In October 2006, Legend’s second album, Once Again, was released. Legend co-wrote and co-produced the bulk of the album, which saw him reteaming with West and will.i.am but also spawned production from Raphael Saadiq, Craig Street, Sa-Ra, Eric Hudson, Devo Springsteen, Dave Tozer and Avenue. Released to major commercial success, it reached number three on the Billboard 200 and debuted on top of the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart. It was eventually certified platinum by the RIAA, and reached gold status in Italy, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. At the 49th awards ceremony, the song "Heaven" was awarded Grammy Award for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance, while lead single "Save Room" received a nod in the Best Male Pop Vocal category. Legend won a second Grammy that year for "Family Affair," a collaboration with Sly & The Family Stone, Joss Stone and Van Hunt, for the former’s Different Strokes by Different Folks album.

In January 2008, Legend sang in a video for Barack Obama, produced by will.i.am called "Yes We Can". The same year, Legend had a supporting, singing-only role in the 2008 movie Soul Men, where he plays the deceased lead singer of a fictitious soul group that includes Samuel L. Jackson and Bernie Mac. In October, he released his third studio album, Evolver.

Speaking about the reasons for calling the album Evolver, he stated: "I think people sometimes come to expect certain things from certain artists. They expect you to kind of stay in the same place you were at when you started out. Whereas I feel I want my career to be defined by the fact that I’m NOT gonna stay in the same place, and that I’m always gonna try new things and experiment. So, as I think this album represents a manifestation of that, I came up with the title ’Evolver’."The album was preceded by dance pop-influenced uptempo single "Green Light" which featured rapper Andre 3000 of OutKast and became his highest-charting single since "Ordinary People"; it was also released for the Grammy Award for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration.

Here is John Legend: