Exit Interview: John Legend

UPenn’s most soulful alum returns for two holiday concerts

OH, TO BE John Legend, blessed with the brains to attend Penn at age 16, the gift of a silky voice, and the luck to share a dorm room with Kanye West’s cousin. The five-time Grammy winner headlines the Welcome America concert on July 4th, then hits the Borgata on July 6th. During some rare downtime at his New York pad, Legend reflected on his wild ride from talent shows and Scranton choirs to hanging with Michael Jackson, dating models, and getting it on with Kevin Bacon’s wife.

How tough was it to be John Stephens, 16-year-old college freshman? I’m naturally quiet and shy, so it took me a little while to get my bearings in school and in Philadelphia. Music always was my way of connecting with people. I sang in an a cappella group and in talent shows. It helped me adjust.

How did you do in those talent shows? I think I got second place in one of them.

Did you lose to someone embarrassing, like a mime, or a guy who belched the alphabet? You know, I remember losing to this girl who was actually a really good singer, so I wasn’t mad. [laughs] But for girls, it’s easier to impress, because you can hit those higher notes. My voice is more subtle and has a mellower tone to it. I’m not made for talent shows.

So, the story of your stage name. Has that been reported accurately? It’s been reported accurately many, many times. [laughs]

Were there any you rejected before going with “Legend”? The thing is, I was just going to use my own name, and “Legend” just came out of the nickname people started calling me. I didn’t have a reject list. It kind of grew on me, and it just stuck. I’m glad it did — I think it worked out.

Someone told me about a crazy trip you took to Bahrain where you hung with Michael Jackson. It sounded like an MTV version of The Twilight Zone. The royal family of Bahrain invited Western and Middle Eastern celebrities to be a part of a Formula One race. I had the weekend off, so I said, “Why not?” That first night we had a dinner at one of the princes’ residences, and who’s at the door greeting people but Michael Jackson. It was a weird, random group of people — Tyson Beckford, 50 Cent’s DJ, women who are celebrities in Egypt, and Michael Jackson.

Did he know who you were? Yeah. We talked about life, traveling, music, and possibly working together in the future. I didn’t want to bug him and take a picture with him, but you’ve gotta record that moment for posterity. [laughs] So I took a picture with him. You’ve gotta be a fan sometimes, and Michael is the king.