Masterclass

Masterclass: John Legend teaches Songwriting.

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Born John Roger Stephens on December 28, 1978, to Phyllis, a seamstress, and Ronald, a factory worker, John showed his potential and ambition early on.

In 1994, he was named the local winner of the McDonald’s Black History Makers of Tomorrow essay competition, facilitated by the famous fast-food chain. Written when he was just fifteen years old and published in a local paper, the essay stunningly predicted the life John would live.

He started taking piano lessons at age four, and was singing in the church choir by age six. He drew inspiration from his grandmother, who was the organist at her church, and the gospel music she loved. John was also influenced by R&B singers like American songwriter and producer Luther Vandross, along with acts like the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and the Temptations, who recorded for the legendary Detroit, Michigan-born soul label Motown Records.

While attending the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, John immersed himself in the city’s enclaves of neo-soul—a dynamic, hip-hop–inflected sound with deep roots in 1970s soul and R&B. His first big break came thanks to American singer-songwriter and hip-hop artist Lauryn Hill, who tapped John, still a student, to play piano on her song “Everything Is Everything.” The tune appeared on her landmark 1998 album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. But John wasn’t a full-time musician just yet: After he graduated, he spent three years working as a business management consultant in New York City while playing gigs at night.

Legend

His talent and stage presence started to attract the attention of fans and industry professionals alike. American poet J. Ivy proclaimed that John sounded “like one of the legends,” prompting the
emerging singer-songwriter to take on the stage name by which he’s known today.

Career Breakthrough

In 2004, John released his debut studio album, Get Lifted; its second single, “Ordinary People,” catapulted him to stardom. The album hit No. 4 on the influential Billboard 200 chart and “Ordinary People” reached No. 24 on the Billboard Hot 100. (Billboard is America’s most prominent tracker of popular songs.)

In 2005, John performed live at the Grammys, an award show hosted by American music-industry organization the Recording Academy. The following year, he took home Grammy awards for Best R&B Album (Get Lifted), Best Male R&B Vocal Performance (“Ordinary People”), and one of the evening’s marquee accolades: Best New Artist.

In the years since, John has released eleven more albums (including solo albums, collaborations, and live recordings) and earned twelve Grammys and thirty-three nominations. He’s also won an Emmy, an Oscar, and a Tony (commemorating achievement in television, film, and theater, respectively), which makes him one of just seventeen “EGOT” winners to date.

Along the way, he’s been a coach on American competition show The Voice; lent his vocal talents to the animated short film and virtual reality experience Crow: The Legend; and launched multiple foundations, including the Show Me Campaign and FREEAMERICA, to address issues such as poverty, education reform, and criminal justice reform.

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