I AM LEGEND
Smart, suave and sexy, all-American soul man John Legend has transcended R&B niche to achieve ubiquitous superstardom
8 p.m. April 30, The Florida Theatre, Downtown, 355-2787, floridatheatre.com
John Legend's life is about as charmed as his name indicates. He's won nine Grammy Awards as a solo artist and in-demand collaborator. He's worked closely with Kanye West since the Chicago rapper's earliest hustles. He's made countless film, television and commercial appearances. He's agitated for AIDS research, sustainable development, education reform, women's justice and civil rights.
Essentially, Legend has transformed himself from a little-known balladeer into one of America's true renaissance men — a soulful, streetwise Most Interesting Man in the World to whose success men can aspire and for whose charms ladies can swoon. To top it all off, last year Legend married his longtime girlfriend, supermodel Chrissy Teigen, in a tabloid-ready ceremony in Italy's star-studded Lake District.
John Roger Stephens didn't start life as a ubiquitous superstar. Born in Springfield, Ohio, in 1978 to a seamstress mother and a factory-worker father, Stephens' childhood was typical: piano lessons at age 4, church choir at 7, his parents' divorce at 12. Yet he thrived as a student, graduating as salutatorian of his high school class and receiving scholarship offers from Harvard, Georgetown and Morehouse.
Stephens instead chose the University of Pennsylvania, where he immersed himself in the study of African-American literature, learning the ins and outs of Philadelphia's tight-knit music scene. He helmed a co-ed college a cappella group, built a solid word-of-mouth fan base along the Eastern Seaboard's culturally dense Acela Corridor, independently recorded, produced and released two albums and, upon graduation, learned the music industry biz in a management job with The Boston Consulting Group.
While his talent was always obvious, it was the company Stephens kept in the early days of his career that really catapulted him to stardom. Lauryn Hill, on the verge of her own solo career after topping international charts with The Fugees, tapped Legend to play piano on one of her debut album's biggest hits, "Everything is Everything." Yet it was an introduction to West that yielded Legend's stage name, along with his longest-lasting professional relationship. By the time he signed a multi-album deal with West's Sony BMG-backed GOOD Music imprint, it appeared that only a major label could properly handle Legend's massive potential.
The interesting thing about Legend, though, is that his music purposely crosses a bevy of wires. From the get-go, hip-hop audiences embraced him, while the jazz, R&B and soul worlds hailed him as a crossover prophet. And the pop world is certainly better off for his welcome injection of authenticity. Whether it was the crackling drumbeats and dashing attitude of his debut single, "Used to Love U," or the heart-wrenching, Broadway-ready balladry of its follow-up, "Ordinary People," Legend had no problem living up to all expectations.
Wisely, Legend realized early that he couldn't let the piano define him. Of his third album, 2007's Evolver, he said he wanted 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." That philosophy has been justified over and over, as Legend balanced steamy, synth-spiked club hits (2009's "Green Light" and 2012's "Tonight") with old-school instrumental barn-burners (everything on Wake Up!, his 2010 collaboration with The Roots) and suave odes to the good life (2006's "Heaven" and 2013's "Who De We Think We Are"). Last year's "All of Me," easily his biggest hit, is also quite possibly the most romantic song ever written. As he told The Big Issue in February, "I'm proud to play a role in the mating process."
Yet Legend is far greater than the sum of his solo parts. In addition to frequent colleagues Jay-Z, West and will.i.am, he's worked with everyone from Janet and Michael Jackson to Stephen Colbert to Herbie Hancock to Harry Styles of One Direction. And even though he's been the face of marketing campaigns for brands like Gap and Chevy, you can't fault the man's impeccable philanthropic work: high-level roles with Teach for America, Stand with Children and the World Economic Forum — and a spot on Time magazine's 100 Most Influential People list in 2009.
All of which makes Legend's current All of Me Tour such a draw. More than half the dates through June sold out, and Legend's five stops in Florida around the Tobago Jazz Experience prove he's serious about connecting with his audience. "The All of Me Tour is a stripped-down, acoustic, really intimate [show]," he told CBS in January, "[It's] me communicating with the fans." o