It takes a whole lot of chutzpah to announce your greatness in your own name, but it works for some folks. There was Alexander the Great, Macedonian king who died in 323 B.C., who earned his name by being the greatest military strategist in history.
Then there was Peter the Great, the Russian leader whose greatness transformed his country into a major military power in the early 1700s.
Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali called himself “The Greatest” and regularly proved it by whipping up on the likes of such tough fighters as Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier and George Foreman during his heavyweight reign in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
And now we have neo-R&B singer John Legend, a protégé of hip-hop artist Kanye West, who changed his name from John Stephens before he even had his first album out.
The above list might have you singing the old Sesame Street tune, “One of These Things Is Not Like the Other,” because who is this John Legend fellow and just what has he done that allows himself to take on the Legend surname? “Legend” implies greatness over time, such as “The Beatles are rock legends,” and John Legend’s first album, “Get Lifted,” came out in 2004.
So is this guy a legend in name only?
“Get Lifted” was an album full of classic soul and R&B influences, from Marvin Gaye to Stevie Wonder, a throwback to a time when a great R&B song didn’t have a featured rapper throwing down rhymes in the middle of tunes like the R&B of recent years. Despite little initial radio airplay and MTV coverage, the record sold millions of copies and netted Legend three Grammys (best R&B album, best R&B male vocal performance and best new artist).
This is certainly an impressive feat, but a Texan named Christopher Cross won five Grammys in 1981 (a record) after releasing his debut album, but a mere few years later was an also-ran, not a legend. Which brings us to Legend’s follow-up disc, “Once Again.”
The dreaded “sophomore slump” has torpedoed many a promising career (like Cross’), and an artist’s second album is usually a harbinger of what’s to come, either promising a swift disappearing act or strengthening the artist’s hold on success.
With a name like Legend, which carries with it a hefty dose of self-confidence, you’d think that a curse such as the “sophomore slump” would be laughed off by the singer, who is already a legend in his own mind but who also hasn’t really, in the grand scheme of popular music, pulled off anything extraordinary.
With only a three-year career to judge him on, there is no way of knowing if Legend will ever be a true music legend, but he has at least, for sure, avoided the sophomore slump with “Once Again,” which fulfills the promise Legend displayed on his debut disc.
A talented singer with a reedy, soulful delivery, and a songwriter with a striking ear for pop melodies tinged with jazz voicings and funky bass lines, Legend proves with “Once Again” that his debut disc was no fluke and establishes him as the most impressive R&B talent to emerge in the last decade.
Nearly every song on “Once Again” is instantly hummable and imminently memorable, with the melodic opening cut “Save Room” and “Each Day Gets Better” both sounding like the psychedelic soul musings of early ‘70s Marvin Gaye; “Show Me” features Legend singing in a vibrato-laced falsetto over a Hendrix-esque guitar figure; “P.D.A. (We Just Don’t Care)” sounds like a bouncy Motown tune that could have been a smash for the Temptations in the late ‘60s with its wah-wah guitar and brilliant harmonies; and “Slow Dance,” a kissing cousin to “My Girl,” sounds like The Temptations of 1965. The disc’s best cut, “Where Did My Baby Go,” is reminiscent of the great Bacharach/David compositions written for Dionne Warwick in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
Like “Get Lifted,” “Once Again” is steeped in the R&B of the past, but updates the genre for the present and is ultimately a step forward for Legend in what looks like the beginning of a brilliant career.
Maybe even the beginning of a legendary career.
The legends of R&B
While it appears that John Legend may be on the road to becoming a legend in the R&B genre, he has a long way to go before he can be considered as legendary as these guys.
“The Genius” (and, no, he didn’t give himself that nickname) virtually invented R&B by melding gospel and blues, then hopping things up with a danceable beat. The late Ray Charles’ impact on music is incalculable, as he influenced every genre from rock to soul, and even made two of the best country albums of the ‘60s. It is Charles’ R&B work, on such tunes as “I Got a Woman,” “What’d I Say” and “Hit the Road Jack” for which he is best known.
James “Godfather of Soul” Brown, like Charles, can also lay claim to inventing a musical genre, taking R&B, rock and soul and throwing them together to create funk. Brown is an unquestioned musical genius, playing several different instruments, and hires the very best musicians to play in his band, often fining them for mistakes he hears in concert (Brown is famous for saying that he taught his band members “everything they know, but not everything I know”). He’s best known for such hits as “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” “I Feel Good” and “Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine, Part 1.”
A child prodigy who scored his first hit single, “Fingertips (Pt. 2),” from his debut disc, “The 12-Year-Old Genius — Recorded Live,” in 1963, Stevie Wonder is one of the most successful R&B artists of all time. By the late 1970s, Wonder was experimenting with jazz and released what many feel to be his greatest record, “Stevie Wonder’s Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants” in 1980. Some of Wonder’s biggest hits include “Superstition,” “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” and “Sir Duke.”
Perhaps the greatest singer of all time in any genre, the late Marvin Gaye had plenty of early success in the ‘60s with Motown hits such as “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)” and “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” but it is his work on albums such as “What’s Going On” (1970) (considered by many critics to be one of the greatest albums of all time) and “Lets Get it On” (1973) that truly established Gaye as a great songwriter as well as singer. After a rough period, Gaye made a big comeback with “Sexual Healing” in 1983 before he was shot to death by his father during a family argument in 1984.