How McDonald’s and Kanye West Helped Create John Legend

Why you should care

Because overnight sensations sometimes take five years of overnights to make it.

How did an Ohio kid named John Roger Stephens become John Legend? As he reveals on the latest episode of The Carlos Watson Show, it started with McDonald’s.

Specifically an essay contest sponsored by the fast food giant for Black History Month. A young John won a small scholarship with an essay about how he would become a big music star and use his platform to help his community.

Then Legend went ahead and turned down Harvard, just so he could go to the University of Pennsylvania. Why? He thought Philadelphia was a better place for music than Boston.

It was there that he first started making waves by playing piano on Lauryn Hill’s “Everything Is Everything.” “That was my claim to fame around campus,” Legend tells Watson, OZY’s co-founder and CEO. “And it was the thing that I said to let people know that I’m for real.”

I thought, ‘Any day now I would get the offer that I wanted’ … but any day now took five years.

How real? Real enough that after graduating he was working as a management consultant. A day job if there ever was one, and probably the only one he could get where his playing keys on a Lauryn Hill record meant nothing at all.

“I thought, ‘Any day now I would get the offer that I wanted,’ but it took a while. And so, I would say from ’99 to 2004, I thought, ‘Any day now, this is going to happen,'” Legend says. “But any day now took five years.” Legend’s dream, as legend would have it, was not deferred. He just spent his time on music when he wasn’t working.

Then, through a series of happy happenstances — meeting and befriending Kanye West well before he was more comfortably called Ye, to name one — Legend could leave behind Stephens and the day job, because that’s what you do when you have a record on the charts.

So a career that started when he was a kid, the son of two musically inclined parents and an active participant in church musical activities, was finally embraced by … just about everybody. First charting in the U.S., then Norway, then the Netherlands and Sweden, he eventually gained enough recognition to snag 11 Grammys, a gig as a Google Assistant voice, and the title of People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive, over the vigorous objections of no one.

But it wasn’t easy. Legend opens up about his mother’s struggles with depression, how it broke up their family and the weight he still carries today. “My wife and I were just in therapy the other day, couples therapy,” Legend says, referring to his supermodel wife, Chrissy Teigen, “and I talked about how because of what happened with our family, it made me feel like I had to be perfect all the time and hold things together.”

Now he’s a vocal presence in social issues well beyond the purview of “entertainer,” though he tells Watson he doesn’t anticipate a run for office — choosing instead to stay engaged on the issues that matter. And in his free time, he much prefers laughter to hanging out with more musicians.

“I think I’m very attracted to funny people,” Legend says. “My wife obviously is very funny. And so, I’m always more excited when I get to be around Dave Chappelle or Chris Rock … I think because I can’t make people laugh like they can, I’m more excited to be around comedians.”

OZYTrue Stories

The intimate, the harrowing, the sweet, the surprising — the human.