John Legend has packed a lot into 25 years

Music Notes

December 23, 2004|By RASHOD OLLISON | RASHOD OLLISON,SUN STAFF

I'M TALKING to the back of John Legend's head.

We're in a car driven by a promotions guy from Columbia Records, the R&B singer's label. John chills in the passenger seat, which cramps my knees in the back. But I say nothing as we pull away from D.C.'s Hotel Helix, where I met the guys. The ride to Howard University's Cramton Auditorium, where John is due for a sound check, is a short one. The Ohio-bred singer-musician, whose blues-suffused voice belies his 25 years, arrived in town barely two hours ago. And he's scheduled to perform at the school's homecoming later tonight.

At the time we hook up, John's soul-drenched debut, Get Lifted, is two months away from release. (The album hits stores Tuesday.) But his Kanye West-produced first single, the Latin-flavored "Used to Love U," is all over urban radio, the video a regular on BET and VH1.

"I always love the gospel flavor in vocal arrangements," John says. "I like the feeling they give a song."

"Used to Love U" and several other joints on the debut boast the spirited, layered sound you hear in the best black gospel choirs. The kind of call-and-response vocalizing you used to hear on soul records back in the day. John has deep knowledge about pulling together such full arrangements. For nine years, from 1995 to 2004, he was the pianist and choir director at Bethel AME Church in Scranton, Pa.

He says, "I call [the album]Get Lifted for a reason. Some may think it's a drug reference. But I'm talking about getting high on love. I'm talking about relationships and the ups and downs. And there's a spiritual side to the album, taking it to another level."

John (whose real last name is Stephens) has spent years honing his craft. Industry insiders have been hip to his talent for a while now. He played piano on Lauryn Hill's 1998 classic The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, and he sang or tickled the ivories on some of the year's biggest projects: West's Grammy-nominated College Dropout, Jay-Z's The Black Album, Alicia Keys' The Diary of Alicia Keys.

After leaving his hometown of Springfield, Ohio, at age 16 to attend the University of Pennsylvania, John nurtured his skills on the burgeoning neo soul scene in Philadelphia. After graduation, he moved to New York, where he wrote music and recorded his own CDs - selling many of them after his performances in small clubs and venues throughout the city.

About two years ago, after one of his sets at a Manhattan joint, John met West, who immediately dug the singer's style and hired him to sing hooks on College Dropout. John also wrote two tracks and played piano on the record. That led to more work with the rapper-producer, including Slum Village's "Selfish," a West production featuring the church-trained singer on the hook.

Word of John's talent and professionalism spread, and Columbia offered him a deal late last year.

"I did a lot of the production with others on my record," says the artist, who talks in a nonchalant, almost glib way. (Decked out in dark jeans, a V-neck T-shirt, a toffee-colored corduroy blazer and chestnut-brown loafers that match the man purse slung across his slender body, John reminds me of those arrogant fraternity brothas I couldn't stand in college. Back at the hotel, homeboy barely looked me in the eye when I smiled and introduced myself. He gave me a limp, dishrag handshake.)

"So what was it like working with Kanye?" I ask.

"He's worked with a lot of people," John says, sounding bored. "We both love old-school music and hip-hop. I learned from him, and I'm sure he learned some things from me as well."

We roll through Howard's packed campus. Folks stare, but nobody screams and points at the passenger side; nobody even rushes to the vehicle. But John sounds a little nervous when he tells Chris, the driver: "We shouldn't ride around with no tinted windows, man."

But we are "safe" inside Cramton. John asks a stage hand for room temperature water, then he goes on stage and practices on the slightly out-of-tune Steinway the self-penned, Stevie Wonder-like ballad "Ordinary People," a highlight on Get Lifted.

John's grainy, cognac-soaked vocals and sanctified piano fill the empty auditorium. He performs the song the same passionate way on Get Lifted: just voice and piano. Everything else on the 14-track set ("She Don't Have to Know," "It Don't Have to Change," "Live It Up") is a smooth, inspired hybrid of uptown soul, clever hip-hop and, of course, earthy gospel.

After rehearsal, John slides into a seat next to me on the front row. He looks straight ahead at the lonely grand piano on the wide stage.

"I've heard people say a lot about my music," he says. "`You're the R&B version of Kanye West; you're the black John Mayer; you're the male Alicia Keys.' I let people say what they wanna say. But my sound is my sound. My objective is to be myself."

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