John Legend

When a friend of John Stephens dubbed him John “Legend” years ago because of his old school sound, it was a harbinger of what the singer/songwriter/pianist knew was his calling.

With an opening slot on Alicia Keys’ current tour, and his major label debut, Get Lifted, going platinum in just a few months, crazy scheduling is the norm for this seasoned performer.

“It’s incredible, it’s great. Alicia is great, the fans are great, everything is going perfectly. I couldn’t ask for anything better,” Legend told Pollstar.

Legend had barely caught his breath during a marathon day of interviews when he talked about how growing up in a musical family affected his career. Until last year, he directed a choir at a Pennsylvania church once a month, and wrote and recorded his own music.

“My family was very involved in music and church, especially. My grandmother played the organ at church, my father was a drummer, my mother was a choir director. So, yeah, it was big. I started very young,” Legend said. “I guess [directing the choir] prepared me for this because I’m so busy now. But I was always busy, even in college, even in high school. So I’m kind of used to having a crazy schedule.”

“I think I was already the consummate professional where most new artists take a lot of grooming and everything. As a performer, it really didn’t take much grooming for me because my whole life has been grooming for this.”

Following his graduation from the University of Pennsylvania, the entertainer made his mark in New York City and elsewhere with hard work and support from his friends.

“It took time to build a base, but I already had a lot of friends in the city from college. Then, I started very early on building my own e-mail list and Web site and all that. That really helped generate more and more people and compelled the word of mouth,” Legend said.

“I was selling out shows in Philly and New York, Washington, D.C., before I ever had a record deal. I think it set it up well for the underground kind of buzz for my project coming out. And also for touring; it just set up a built-in audience that knew I put on a good show.”

David Sonenberg of DAS Communications said he wanted to sign Legend after hearing the performer’s music, described as neo-soul, from the sheer beauty of it. But once he saw Legend in action, he knew the crossover potential was there.

“I was very taken by the songs that he wrote and by his vocal ability. I don’t even know how to describe his vocals. It’s both retro and fresh at the same time,” Sonenberg told Pollstar. “He certainly harkens back to kind of an old school, legitimate vocal vibe, but he combined that with a hipness and freshness and an attitude that just doesn’t keep it there.

John Legend

“We went down and checked out what was going on with his band, went to S.O.B.’s and saw him a couple of times. But frankly, we were sold on him before we ever saw him live.”

Legend said that after meeting Sonenberg and his staff, he knew it would be a good fit.

“David was the first one that really jumped on it. They were really excited about it; they really wanted to sign me. He came to a few shows and gave me a lot of good advice,” he said. “He’s a very smart guy and he knows the business very well. He’s worked with a lot of great groups, including some of my favorites like The Fugees.

“I’ve gotten advice from everybody. You have to use, kind of, your bullshit meter.” Collaborations with Kanye West, Lauren Hill, Jay-Z, Alicia Keys, Janet Jackson, Talib Kweli, and the Black Eyed Peas, to name a few, got the singer/songwriter noticed and the record labels calling.

“There was interest in him from the get-go. A lot of labels had interest, but I thought it was going to be a deal with blinders on it that had that neo-soul pocket. I wanted him to have a lot more heat going than that, so we took our time,” Sonenberg said. “Record companies from Columbia to Interscope were seeing that John was with Kanye and the Black Eyed Peas and was having songs recorded. So, the vibe was starting to be built as seeing John as a meaningful singer/songwriter with tremendous hip-hop credibility.

“I think John was smart enough to forego early record offers and build a profile that could be taken seriously,” he added.

Once Legend’s stint on Keys’ tour ends April 24th, he said he’d take a little break from the road before heading overseas to Japan, Australia and Europe.

Sonenberg said that break will be “about 30 seconds.”

“We’re doing extensive touring immediately after Alicia. We’re doing it piecemeal but we’re trying to conquer the universe in a very short period of time,” he said. “[John]’s been incredibly hard-working and sometimes doing as many as three shows a day.”

Plans to perform at major European festivals this summer are already set, along with a possible U.S. tour starting in June.