How Did John Legend Get Discovered? His First Songs Were Uncredited

John Legend songs have been hitting the charts for years. The 42-year-old has won 11 Grammys, and is one of only 16 people in history to E.G.O.T. But how did Legend get discovered? The tale involves stars like Kanye West and Lauryn Hill.

John Legend in a dark green coat standing in front of a city skyline | Troy Harvey/ABC via Getty Images
John Legend | Troy Harvey/ABC via Getty Images

How did John Legend get his stage name?

Legend always dreamed of being a singer. Growing up in Springfield, Ohio, he was a bit of a musical prodigy. The “All Of Me” singer performed with his church’s choir and eventually went on to attend the University of Pennsylvania for college. Born John Stephens, he made music under that name until he was living in Philadelphia for school.

The Roots had a big presence in Philly when Legend was in school. He told Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show that he once approached Questlove at an open mic night asking him to listen to his CD. Questlove didn’t remember the moment when they collaborated on the Grammy-winning album Wake Up! in 2010. In the same interview, Legend revealed the origins of his stage name. He said:

“Well, it was a nickname that some friends started calling me in the studio, just guys that I was collaborating with. The first guy to call me that was J. Ivy. He’s a spoken word artist from Chicago. I met him through Kanye (West). We were all in the studio together. He just started calling me ‘The Legend’ because he thought I sounded like one of our old school soul legends. And it just caught on with our little group of friends, and then they were like, ‘We should call you John Legend.’ And it just really was in our little circle.”

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John Legend got his start working with Kanye West and Lauryn Hill

Before he met West and before he was a legend, the singer worked on The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Anytime you listen to that album, you’re hearing the young Legend’s piano playing. As he told Gayle King on CBS This Morning in 2014:

The first time I ever played with somebody on a major label was Lauryn Hill. I played ‘Everything Is Everything.’ I played the piano on that song back in 1998. I was still a student at University of Penn, and I knew one of her good friends. She brought me to a session, and she said, ‘You should hear Johnny play and sing.’ I was Johnny Stephens. My parents, I was still Johnny to them.

He continued:

All along though, I was making my own music. I was recording my own music as a solo artist. I dreamt about it since I was a kid. I would watch Star Search and wanna be one of the kids who won the talent show. I watched the Grammys, I watched all these great TV performances by icons like Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder. I wanted to be them.

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John Legend’s debut album, ‘Get Lifted,’ came out in 2004

Legend got a little ego boost from working with Hill. His music roots were brought up on The Voice in 2019.

“I got to go back to my senior year of school and be like, ‘I’m on Lauryn Hill’s album,’” he told Kelly Clarkson.

“That’s your first step in the industry? I have no time for you,” she teased back. Legend also shared that when his friend told Hill to listen to his playing, he performed a Stevie Wonder song.

Legend’s connections in Philly led to him performing with West at Dave Chappelle’s Block Party on Sept. 18, 2004. Julie Fong, one of the show’s producers, told The Ringer that the unknown Legend’s voice impressed everyone.

“I remember when we were doing the soundcheck and John Legend went up on stage and all of us looked at each other and said, ‘Who the f*ck is that?'” she said. “I mean, the voice was amazing.”

Legend released his debut album, Get Lifted, three months later on Dec. 28, 2004. It peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard charts and won him three Grammys, including Best New Artist. And with that, a legend was born.