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by michael ventre
photography by frederic auerbach | January 13, 2015 | People
Study hard. Work hard. Love hard. And if you’re music legend John Legend, you might even win another Grammy.
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Just as there are date movies, there is date music. When the lights are low, the candles are lit, the wine is poured, and romance fills the room like a fragrant breeze, you could do worse with your squeeze than to put on a little John Legend. Because if you do, you can be reasonably certain that however you had hoped the night would end, it will be better than that.
Legend has that effect. And in recent months, the potency of his love elixir has intensified with “All of Me,” one of those songs that drifts by at a random cultural moment and sweeps lovers into the ether. Written for his wife, model Chrissy Teigen, it flirted with listeners when released in 2013, but it finally seduced them en masse when Legend performed it live at last year’s Grammy Awards. If the live version of “All of Me”—released in 2014, so it’s eligible—captures another statuette at the 57th Grammys on Sunday, February 8 at Staples Center, that will mark the 10th for Legend. That’s almost unbridled awards love.
“The more you know someone, the more you’re inspired by your relationship,” says the 36-year-old Legend of Teigen one particularly frenzied afternoon in which his schedule whisked him from Japan to LA and then over the pond for a European tour. “Also, I grew up just learning what it means to be in love with somebody… because I had never really been in love before. I guess you have to grow enough to be able to write that song with sincerity and authenticity.”
Legend had been with Teigen—admired by thousands of others besides her beau, thanks to her fame as a Sports Illustrated swimsuit cover girl—for seven years before the two wed in September of 2013 in Lake Como, Italy. The fact that Legend finally decided to give all of him to her after that lengthy courtship might have been the rosebud that eventually bloomed into a hit song.
“I love it when songs are authentic and come out of what an artist really wants to say,” says songwriter Toby Gad, who collaborated on “All of Me” with Legend. “I feel the same way about my wife as he does about Chrissy, so we both felt passionately about what we were writing.”
“[The Grammys] were the single-most important element that made ‘All of Me’ a huge hit,” says 2015 award hopeful John Legend.
While it’s hard to deny his devotion to his spouse, Legend and the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences are professional soul mates. “All of Me” is just the most recent progeny of that coupling. “The Grammys have been great to me,” Legend says. “I think the Grammys have been responsible for the success of ‘All of Me’ more than any one thing outside the actual song itself. The Grammys really vaulted that song from a song that was kind of chugging along on the radio but not breaking through in the way we believed it should and could—the Grammys took it from No. 49 on iTunes to No. 3 in one night. It stayed in the top five on iTunes for months after that. That was the single most important element that made ‘All of Me’ a huge hit. I’m grateful to them for that and everything that came before that.”
This particular Legend’s given name is John Roger Stephens, of Springfield, Ohio. A poet friend named J. Ivy commented once that he sounded like one of those old-school voices—a little Al Green here, a little Smokey Robinson there, some Marvin Gaye and Luther Vandross for seasoning, a little Nat King Cole and Johnny Mathis for texture, a Motown-gospel union for extra heart—and started calling him Legend. Kanye West, who became a friend and collaborator through his cousin, a classmate of Legend’s at Penn, grabbed onto it and told him, “That should be your stage name.” After a bit of reluctance over even taking a stage name, it soon was.
All of him! “The Grammys have been great to me... they have been responsible for the success of ‘All of Me’ more than anything outside the song itself,” says John Legend, here rocking a jacket by Hermès ($27,400). 434 N. Rodeo Dr., Beverly Hills, 310-278-6440. Shirt, Bottega Veneta ($770). 457 N. Rodeo Dr., Beverly Hills, 310-858-6533. Pants, Frame Denim ($200). mrporter.com. Black belt, Alexander Olch ($130). Ron Herman, 8100 Melrose Ave., LA, 323-651-4129. Velvet high-tops, Tom Ford ($890). 346 N. Rodeo Dr., Beverly Hills, 310-270-9440
If you look back through his life, Legend was somewhat of a legend even as a kid, singing in his hometown church choir, learning the lessons of gospel music offered by his grandmother, who played piano and organ at services. His grandfather was a pastor and his mother was a choir director; he began playing piano at 4 and singing in the choir at 6. While doing so, he was exposed to the music of gospel stars like Edwin Hawkins, the Winans, Commissioned, and John P. Kee.
“I was a very precocious kid, so I was very thirsty for learning,” says Legend, who calls both Los Angeles and New York home. “I wanted to learn the piano. I wanted to study the encyclopedia. I wanted to do everything. I just wanted to soak up a lot of knowledge.
“When I was singing in church,” he adds, “people will let you know how they feel pretty quickly. You can feel the energy of the congregation, and you get a sense of whether they like what you’re doing, if you did a good job. That was very tangible to me. It was very addicting too, that feeling of affirmation and love, just feeling the elevation of the spirit and excitement of the crowd.”
While attending the University of Pennsylvania, Ivy Leaguer Legend drove hundreds of miles each weekend for his job as musical director at a Scranton church. Jacket, Bally ($7,000). South Coast Plaza, Costa Mesa, 714-557-1914. Plaid paneled oxford shirt, Fred Perry x Raf Simons ($275). Opening Ceremony, 451 La Cienega Blvd., LA, 310-652-1120. Striped pants, Gucci ($3,050). 347 N. Rodeo Dr., Beverly Hills, 310-278-3451
Legend went on to the University of Pennsylvania, where he performed in an a cappella group and made some friends who today help comprise his very tight inner circle, which uses tony private club Soho House as its unofficial office digs. “I think we all knew in our singing group that he had the most talent and the best voice we ever heard,” recalls Ty Stiklorius, a classmate of Legend’s at Penn who is now co-president of Atom Factory, the company that manages him. “He also had this extreme work ethic where it appeared he never stopped.”
For nine years, including his time at Penn, Legend had a part-time job as musical director at the Bethel AME Church in Scranton, Pennsylvania, which is about a 125-mile drive. He often drove there for Sunday-morning services after performing late-night gigs in Philadelphia. Even then, his full-throttle schedule caused him to occasionally drop off to sleep in class.
“I remember when he graduated and had to leave the church,” Stiklorius says. “The church gave him a send-off. They gave him the key to the city of Scranton, and they had the mayor and a rabbi and people from all different churches there. He was like family to them.”
Says the current pastor, Tawan E. Bailey: “John was kind enough to sign his old electric piano, which we are going to auction off in a mortgage-burning drive.”
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Through connections at Penn and word of mouth, Legend began a rapid-fire musical ascent that saw him play piano on Lauryn Hill’s “Everything Is Everything,” his first appearance on a major label release. He later contributed his voice and piano to a wide array of artists, including Jay-Z, Alicia Keys, Dilated Peoples, Slum Village, and Kanye, who helped him get a record deal with Sony in 2004, which begat his debut album, Get Lifted.
While in LA shooting a music video for his single “Stereo” in 2006, Legend was in his dressing room ironing his clothes—it was a low-budget affair, so no stylist—when Teigen walked in. She claims he was ironing his underwear. He insists he has never ironed his underwear. (“She always embellishes.”) Whatever the truth, a spark flew during that deeply intimate moment when a woman catches a man ironing.
But their relationship evolved gradually. “Not right away,” he says of their love. “I’m more cautious than that. I wasn’t like, ‘This is the woman I’m going to marry’ from day one. For me I’m the kind of person who needs to grow into that feeling. It was probably a couple of years in when I could already see us being together forever.”
‘Monster’ jacket, Fendi ($4,250). 355 N. Rodeo Dr., Beverly Hills, 310-276-8888
Stevie Wonder sang at their wedding. They’re discussing kids. They love to cook, entertain friends at home (Stevie sang there once, too) and eat out at some of LA’s more sumptuous Italian restaurants. And aside from the chatty Teigen recently ending (and resurrecting) an active Twitter life after receiving death threats and hateful comments resulting from a remark she made about gun control, life is a beautiful duet for this high-wattage couple.
It’s a wonder they have time for each other. Legend is active in several philanthropic endeavors, including education advocacy groups Stand for Children, Teach for America, and the Show Me Campaign, as well as a push for criminal justice reform, including support for the recent Proposition 47 ballot initiative in California.
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And he launched a film production company three years ago called Get Lifted along with Stiklorius and fellow Penn alum/longtime bud Mike Jackson, which has several projects cooking. One is an adaptation of The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss, which won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 2013. The project, about Alexandre Dumas, the real Count of Monte Cristo, is set up at Sony, with Cary Fukunaga (director of HBO’s True Detective) set to pen the script and direct.
“We have weekly phone calls when he’s on the road,” Jackson says of Legend. “When he’s in town, he’s at meetings. It’s a high priority for John. He makes time, whether it’s on Skype or a phone call at 4:30 in the morning. He doesn’t sleep. Whatever he puts his name on he takes very seriously.”
Of course, no matter how frenetic a life becomes, there’s always time for a little relaxation and romance… which is why it might behoove John Legend to put on a little John Legend once in a while.
Styling by Johnathan Lawhorne; Grooming by Debbie Gallagher at Opus Beauty using Dior Homme; Digital technician: Carl Duquette; Photo assistance by Robin Harper; Styling assistance by Zoe Zhou; Video: Chris Cella