Simple piano ballads simply aren’t on the radio today.
Yet there sits John Legend’s simple piano ballad “All of Me” amidst the jaunty funk of Pharrell Williams’ “Happy,” sub-bass melodrama of Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse” and the synth-horn hook of Jason Derulo’s “Talk Dirty” near the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart of most popular songs across the nation.
Released in August, the love song has become Legend’s highest-charting single to date (hitting No. 3 as of last week). It’s an ode written for his longtime girlfriend recently turned wife, Chrissy Teigen. She also happens to be one of the current Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue cover girls, if you’re interested in that sort of thing. Legend performed the single at the Grammy Awards in late January; since then, it has become a radio staple across the country.
“I told my label early on that this could be the biggest song of my career if we don’t mess it up,” Legend told Billboard magazine late last month. “ ‘All of Me’ is probably the only song on the radio right now with no drums. … Those songs are challenging because they don’t mix as well. People are used to music that makes them dance. But every once in a while, you want to hear something that pierces your heart.”
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Legend launched his 2014 North American tour, “An Evening with John Legend: The All of Me Tour,” this week. The production will be intimate affairs with Legend and his piano, with only guitar, vocal and a string quartet accompaniment. His March 29 tour stop at the Gallo Center for the Arts sold out in half an hour when tickets went on sale Feb. 1.
It will be followed by The Legend-Ary Party at Surla’s Restaurant for ticket holders starting at 9 p.m. The event will feature dancing, hors d’oeuvres and a complimentary glass of wine. Legend is not expected to make an appearance.
Rolling Stone said Legend’s latest album, the August release “Love Is the Future,” was filled with his “signature emotional generosity and strong sensuality.” The Los Angeles Times called the record “remarkably modern” and said its 16 tracks “are investigations into the pleasures, pains and transformations of a long-term relationship.”
It echoes the R&B star’s own journey of late. In September, Legend married Teigen, his girlfriend of seven years. “Love Is the Future” is his first studio release since 2008’s “Evolver.” On his latest project, he again collaborates with Kanye West, whom he began working with in 2001 and signed with in 2004.
“My only goal (with the album) was to try to make a really beautiful modern soul album,” Legend told NPR in the fall. “And when I thought about what that meant to me, I understand the tradition that I come from, and the music that I grew up listening to, and I love it and I appreciate it. But I also wanted to take it forward, continue to make it feel fresh, not just kind of a nostalgic music but a music of now and of the future.
“When we settled on a theme and a title for the album, it made sense having just got married – and during the time I was making the album, I was planning to get married – to write, you know, about looking forward to a future with someone. And to write about being in love. And to write an ode to being in love.”
Since his debut release, “Get Lifted” in 2004, Legend (born John Stephens – West encouraged him to change his name to “Legend”) has released three more albums, sold more than 7 million copies and won nine Grammy Awards. While still in college at the University of Pennsylvania, Legend got his first break playing piano on Lauryn Hill’s hit “Everything is Everything.” After graduating, he signed with hip-hop mogul West’s G.O.O.D. Music label.
With solo hits like “Ordinary People,” “Heaven” and “Green Light” in his pocket, Legend is also a frequent collaborator with artists from will.i.am to Alicia Keys and Jay-Z. He extended his reach to the big screen last year as the executive producer of the “12 Years a Slave” soundtrack. Legend and Teigen attended the Academy Awards earlier this month and watched the film pick up three Oscars, including best picture.
Legend also has been active throughout his career in social and political causes. In 2007, he launched the Show Me Campaign, an initiative to break the cycle of poverty through education and other development projects. His philanthropic work also has racked up awards: 2009 CARE Humanitarian Award for Global Change, 2010 BET Humanitarian of the Year award and 2011 Harvard Foundation Artist of the Year Award.
But Legend said he knows, and hopes, it is his music that will be his lasting legacy. The five-year wait between albums was to get it right and to ensure the quality of his work.
“As a musician, I always wanted to make music that was beautiful and excellent,” Legend said in a cover story for Rolling Out magazine last fall. “I want to make a real contribution to the culture. I grew up listening to soul music greats such as Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. I look at the legacy they made and I want to leave a similar legacy. That means a commitment to quality, a commitment to creating something beautiful, and a commitment to being different from everyone else.”
Different like, say, having a simple piano ballad near the top of the charts in 2014.