American R&B superstar John Legend has just released his impressive fifth solo album Love in the Future. Since he first got his big break playing piano on Everything Is Everything, a track on the multimillion-selling album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, the humble and reticent singer has gone on to sell records all over the world. Seven million in fact. His vocals can be heard on tunes by Jay Z, Alicia Keys, Dilated Peoples and Britney Spears.
He also bears a striking resemblance to a young Marvin Gaye and has recently married his beautiful model wife Chrissy Teigen, who appears semi naked in the video to All of Me. Yes, he's got it all going on.
John was born in 1978, so he missed Motown's golden years, although he was a Michael Jackson and a Boys II Men fan as a teenager and both acts were at one time signed to America’s greatest record label.
He talks about the show he was working on with Stevie Wonder when the news came through that Jackson had died:
“Stevie was so overcome. That night in concert he starting playing Michael Jackson records from the stage and the place erupted. He would play them from start to finish. It was very sad and yet incredible uplifting at the same time.”
John is obviously in awe of the label and its incredible roster, and when you are short of inspiration all you have to do is put on a Motown record and the rest will look after itself.
“We lived a few hours drive south from Detroit in Springfield, Ohio, so we are in the same cultural area of the states where Motown was born. My father was an auto worker just like the parents of the majority of musicians who worked at Hitsville.”
John enthusiastically explains, “Growing up in the church and hearing Motown music was so important to me. I grew up around music, my grandmother was the church organist, my mom was the choir director, my grandfather was the minister, so the music of the church was a heavy part of my childhood.
“That's where I developed my chops, as they say. My church was pretty small, maybe a few hundred members, and I became the director of music by the time I was a teenager. All of my band pretty much started out playing in church. It was so influential.”
Growing up in Springfield — one of 11 Springfield townships in Ohio alone — the emerging hip hop scene was his biggest influence:
“Hip hop was huge when I was growing up and new jack swing was very important to the kids on the street. Acts like Bobby Brown, Bell Biv Devoe into Jodeci, Boys II Men and Blackstreet, then into Mary J Blige and SWV, it was all happening. So that was the dominant form of music that my peers and I were listening and getting on down to in high school.”
It’s not too difficult to ascertain just where his success lies. Young, talented, gifted kid brought up on gospel, Motown and hip hop meets Lauren Hill; bumps into Kanye West, who signs him to his label and writes one of the greatest songs of the modern era. It all sounds far too easy.
His debut album Get Lifted was released on Kanye's Good Music label in 2004. The record sold an astonishing three million copies worldwide and bagged Legend a couple of Grammys, one being a gong for the Best Male R&B Vocal Performance for a song that changed his life for ever.
John talks proudly about its origins:
“We were in New York and Will.I.Am called me up one day and asked if I would like to come to the studio and write some hooks for the Black Eyed Peas. He plays me a whole bunch of beats and I begin to sing Ordinary People, just out of nowhere.
“I started singing the melody first and then the words began to form and Black Eyed Peas were going to rap it. The more I thought about this new song, the more I thought I could write a really beautiful ballad around it. I asked Will if it was OK for me to record it and he said, ‘Yes, as long as I can produce it.’”
“I’d just signed a record deal around then and in 2004 I went to Europe with Kanye West, and during every sound check I would work on the lyrics and music to Ordinary People. By the time the tour was over I had finished the song and those people who heard me singing it said it was a special song. I recorded the demo and sent it over to Will.I.Am and we never changed it. The demo is the version that you hear today and it became an anthem.”
To write something as simple and as effective as Ordinary People doesn't happen everyday. To make it sound bare and exposed is an art form in itself and if it was that easy, we would all be doing it. So what is the secret of its mass appeal?
John explains, “I think everybody feels it's about them and I always say that a great song is very personal and universal at the same time. It's not generic; it just connects with real life. These type of songs don't always come easy and yet you can just stumble into them.”
You can hear Pete Mitchell in conversation with John Legend on Soul Time this Friday at 8pm and Saturday at 6pm on Absolute Radio 60s. Listen Live here