JOHN Legend has one of the most naturally soulful voices in popular music.
He’s a keeper of the flame first lit by his trailblazing heroes Nina Simone, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder . . . and, like them, he rails against racial injustice.
The 43-year-old is the first African American man to achieve the EGOT, the ultra-rare awards grand slam of Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony.
In 2011, his marriage to model and TV presenter Chrissy Teigen made him part of a super-glam Hollywood power couple.
His song for her, All Of Me, is one of the biggest digital singles of all time with 1.85 billion streams on Spotify . . . and counting.
Today, they live in a fabulous modern mansion in Beverly Hills with their two beautiful children, Luna and Miles.
But, and it’s a big but, their seemingly perfect, high-achieving lives are not immune to tragedy.
In September, 2020, Chrissy lost their third child, who they named Jack, 20 weeks into her pregnancy.
Initially described as a miscarriage, she recently clarified the situation by saying it was “an abortion to save my life for a baby that had absolutely no chance”.
Nothing can repair the devastation she and John have felt in the two years since but music has provided a source of comfort.
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Towards the end of his wildly ambitious 81-minute new album LEGEND, you’ll find a piano ballad called Pieces.
“I love that song because it is honest about the way people experience loss,” its creator tells me.
‘Healing and inspiring’
It includes a line that confirms his desire to be open . . . “let your broken heart learn to live in pieces.”
Legend says: “We’ll never completely fill the hole in our hearts. That’s part of being human and part of being alive.
“We’ve experienced such pain and the goal is not to make it disappear but to learn to live with it.”
The dreamy, orchestrated ode to love, Stardust, also has special resonance.
“That is one of Chrissy’s favourites,” he reveals. “We found it very therapeutic at the time it was written.
“We were still feeling deep grief from losing our baby but that song felt so moving, healing and inspiring.
“It helped us figure out how to move forward and will always be very special to us.”
Many choose to keep such loss to themselves but with Teigen’s 40 million Instagram followers keeping the couple in the public eye, they took the brave decision to tell everyone.
“I wasn’t sure about sharing our news,” says Legend. “I usually want to present the happier side of my life on social media.” (Just check out all the gorgeous family snaps they’ve posted.)
“But people knew we had a pregnancy. Chrissy had wanted them to know we were looking forward to bringing this life into the world.
“If it just went away without us talking about it, it would be as if nothing had happened.
“It did happen. We mourn other losses in our lives . . . loved ones, parents, relatives . . . so we couldn’t not tell people about our baby.”
Their openness helped others in the same situation, as Legend explains: “We got lots of letters from people who felt they weren’t alone.”
I’m meeting Legend on the morning of September 8th at a swish London hotel just a stone’s throw from Trafalgar Square.
He wears his fame with understated elegance and greets me with a warm handshake.
Later that day, we learn of the Queen’s sad passing but, for now, this is a relaxed interlude in the singer’s whistlestop promotional visit to the UK.
‘Magical time with kids’
Legend is wearing a salmon pink suede jacket, the palest of pink trousers, a white T-shirt and white trainers.
His immaculate teeth are framed by a perfectly groomed beard. His face and particularly his eyes give the impression that he’s constantly smiling.
And he’s also able to share the happy news that wife Chrissy is expecting again.
“We’re very excited,” he says. “The baby is due early next year.”
Legend loves the precious time he gets to spend with his children, “taking them to school and listening to music in the car.”
The Covid lockdowns had the effect of tightening that bond. “We all went through a lot of ups and downs during the pandemic but I was never on the road,” he reports.
“The magical part was that we spent so much time with the kids and really connected with them.”
The hiatus also afforded Legend the luxury of writing a vast number of songs, with 24 of them appearing on his new album.
Stuck at home, his family were on hand to provide instant feedback for his new compositions.
“We danced around the house and it was cool to see which songs they liked,” he says.
“They tended to be the most immediate up-tempo ones. Seeing them react to All She Wanna Do, Waterslide, Dope and Strawberry Blush was a real good feeling.”
Those tracks appear on the first disc of LEGEND, which comes in two distinct halves, Act I and Act II.
“Chrissy told me I had a Waterslide album and a Stardust album. That stuck with me,” says Legend. “Eventually I called them my Saturday night and Sunday morning records.
“The first is more sexual, fun, upbeat, more about physical pleasure and the second is about spiritual connection, intimacy, commitment and romance.”
Legend employs a host of guest vocalists, some established, some less so, including rappers Rick Ross, Saweetie and JID and singers Amber Mark, Muni Long and Jada Kingdom.
On gospel-infused Love, he showcases the dazzling vocal talents of an old acquaintance, Jazmine Sullivan.
“She’s one of my favourite voices in soul music,” says Legend. “I’ve known her since I was 15 when we were singing at open mic nights in Philadelphia.
“Everyone on the Philly soul scene would talk about her and she’s continued to blossom since.
“She just won the Grammy for R&B album of the year and I won it the year before, so why not bring us together for a track?”
Talk of his teenage years prompts Legend to reflect on growing up as John Roger Stephens in Springfield, Ohio.
A member of a musical family, he learned to play piano from the age of four and joined the local church choir at seven.
“My childhood is inseparable from my music and my outlook on life,” he says.
“It’s such an integral part of who I am and the cool thing is that each artist brings their upbringing and culture to their songs.
‘Chasing that feeling’
“Take my friend Camila Cabello, who is Cuban and from Miami. She has influences from her heritage while mine are soul and gospel.”
Legend remembers the thrill of discovering that people liked his singing voice.
“I was going to choirs and once I started to sing out, the other members cheered for me . . . even if they were probably being kind because I was a little kid.
“But I was buoyed by that and I wanted to keep that feeling of making a crowd happy. I guess I’ve been chasing that feeling my whole life.”
After graduating in English from the University Of Pennsylvania, Legend took a while to establish his music career, first taking up a role as a management consultant.
“When I got that job, I thought, ‘I’ll do this for a year and then I’ll get a record deal.’
“It took a lot longer but I had a hunger to make music and I wasn’t going to take no for an answer.”
Legend’s big breakthrough came in 2001 when he was introduced to rap megastar-in-waiting Kanye West, who asked him to sing on his early recordings.
Around this time, John Stephens became John Legend . . . “a nickname which morphed into a stage name”.
He recalls thinking the name was “cool, bold and attention-grabbing.
“The pro-side was that it would announce my presence. The downside was, ‘What if I flop?’ I was a brand new artist calling himself Legend.”
But he has never looked back. His debut album on West’s GOOD label was the 2004 smash-hit Get Lifted.
“I can’t imagine my career without Kanye’s influence,” he says. “He gave me a platform because of his success as an artist and producer.
“I don’t know whether any of this would have happened without us meeting and helping each other. I’m eternally grateful to him.”
In 2022, however, his friendship with West has soured because of their politics.
Legend is a staunch Democrat while his former collaborator stood for president on a right-wing ticket.
He says: “We disagree on things but I never thought it was a reason for us not to be friends. What upset Kanye was me not supporting him in running for president. He still hasn’t got over it.”
Legend firmly believes Republicans were “intentionally funding and staffing Kanye’s campaign with the goal of siphoning off enough black votes from Biden so Trump would win. I couldn’t support that.”
This man of principle is fast becoming an important spokesman for black America.
He’s campaigned against mass incarceration and for a more humane approach to drug policy.
‘My role is to speak up’
He’s criticised the recent supreme court overturning of Roe v Wade, the 1973 ruling legalising abortion.
He has expressed outrage at the murder of George Floyd and publicly stood by the victims of serial abuser R. Kelly when others in the music industry remained silent.
Legend has “always looked up” to artists who have made their feelings known.
“Nina Simone and Aretha Franklin spoke out for civil rights. Marvin Gaye made What’s Going On. Stevie Wonder wrote Happy Birthday in support of the Martin Luther King holiday,” he says.
In turn, Legend made the 2010 protest album Wake Up! with hip-hop band The Roots.
“As a black artist, I’ve always felt it is my role to speak up for our people.
“I want to achieve justice and equality in a country that has been intent on denying us for so long.”
On a personal level, he treasures singing with two of those all-time greats.
“Working with Aretha was a pinch myself moment. I wrote a song for us to perform and then I was asked to do vocal production on her session.
“I was like, ‘What the f*** am I going to tell Aretha Franklin about singing?’
“But it was just great being in a room with her. I thought about my grandmother a lot because Aretha really reminded me of her.
“She was also a preacher’s daughter who also sang and played the organ.”
And Legend cherishes his times with Stevie Wonder. “We’ve performed live together and he played harmonica on my Christmas album,” he says.
“He’s generous to young artists and, probably because he has a radio station, is always attuned to what’s going on in R&B and hip-hop.
“That’s so cool for someone with complete legendary status at this stage of his career.”
As for Legend, the name is beginning to suit him.