For John Legend, old is new

October 26, 2006|By Jim Farber | Jim Farber,McClatchy-Tribune

John Legend is betting his career on the public's escalating disgust.

"Millions of people hate what's on the radio right now," he says. "I also hate what's on the radio right now. So I've put my bet on being different."

His new single couldn't be more so. "Save Room" oozes with vintage lounge soulfulness, suggesting something sung by Tom Jones in 1968. In fact, Legend swiped the song's surging organ hook from "Stormy," a hit by the Classics IV that dates back to the Nixon administration.

Such counterprogramming has worked for Legend before. In 2005, the singer became a breakout star by releasing a song ("Ordinary People") that featured just his voice, a spare piano and a melody that fell between the cracks of R&B and pop. Audiences responded like a long-lost thirst had finally been quenched.

Legend's subsequent debut CD, Get Lifted, went on to sell nearly 2 million copies and bagged the singer three Grammys, including Best New Artist. This week, Legend delivers his crucial second CD, Once Again, and despite its recycled title, the music moves the star a creative step ahead.

Legend found more ways to use his creamy voice as well as more melodic avenues to explore. If his first album stood out by defying R&B cliches, this time he broadened the palette to sometimes push beyond that genre entirely.

"I listened to all kinds of music when making this album," the singer explains. "So, my measure of what's great and cool incorporates all those different styles."

Specifically, he listened to Jeff Buckley, Sufjan Stevens, Marvin Gaye and the Beatles. "It's all music that has that melodic quality, plus a sense of romance to it, and a nostalgia," he says.

The Buckley influence comes through in the song "Show Me," in which Legend directly mimics the late singer's high-flying croon. "The song sounded like something he might sing," he says. "This was my best tribute to him."

On the undulating "Maxine," Legend brushes up against the bossa nova style of Burt Bacharach, though the young star says he has only a glancing awareness of that icon's work. In "Where Did My Baby Go," the simple, soulful elegance of the tune will make many think of Sam Cooke. "It's funny, I wasn't thinking of him when I was making this album," Legend says. "But now, when I listen to it, I realize how much it sounds like Sam Cooke."

That's good creative company for the 27-year-old comer to find himself in. But, in a more literal way, Legend has long benefited from good company and solid connections.

Born John Stephens in rural Ohio, the singer fell in with the powerful neo-soul clique of Philadelphia after working in the area as the music director of a local church. One singer from that trendy circle, Lauryn Hill, invited Legend to play piano on her first smash solo album in 1998. In 2001, a former college roommate introduced Legend to an ambitious young producer/artist: one Kanye West. By the next year, West started featuring Legend on albums he produced for Talib Kweli, Common and Mary J. Blige. Things really started to move fast in 2004, when Legend earned prominent play on such key albums as West's debut solo CD, The College Dropout, and Jay-Z's classic Black Album.

The singer's stage name sounds like something the far-from-shy Kanye West would come up with. Actually, other friends suggested he use it some years back. "I knew it would put pressure on me," the singer understates. "But it would also make people pay attention and say, `Wow, this guy better be good.'"

John Legend performs Tuesday night at Rams Head Live, 20 Market Place. Doors open at 6:30 p.m., and the show starts at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $29.50-$35 for the all-ages show. Call 410-244-1131 or go to ramsheadlive.com for tickets.

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