The rising R & amp;B singer is wowing audiences with his down-to-earth persona.
SPRINGFIELD, Ohio (AP) -- John Legend always has been on the fast track.
The Ohio native began playing the piano when he was 4. By 6 he was singing in the church choir. At 16, he was a freshman at Penn University. And by his 20s, he was a management consultant for Fortune 500 companies.
Now, at age 26, the soul singer/songwriter/pianist is doing what he really wanted all along.
"I was always interested in soul music, even as a kid," Legend said.
Legend's major-label debut album "Get Lifted" has sold more than a million copies, boosted by the hit single "Ordinary People." The album was produced by rapper Kanye West and is on West's Getting Out Our Dreams record label distributed through Sony BMG.
Legend was named best new artist at last month's Black Entertainment Television Awards, nominated for three MTV music video awards recently and is in the middle of a national tour that is drawing packed houses.
Reviewers say Legend brings a classical, elegant brand of soul and a versatile voice that reminds them of Stevie Wonder, Otis Redding and Al Green.
"It's kind of real tasteful, heartfelt R & amp;B. It's not as showy as the Top 40 R & amp;B and pop you hear on the radio," said Nathan Brackett, senior editor of Rolling Stone magazine. "And he writes a lot of his own stuff, which sets him apart from a lot of other R & amp;B singers."
Sipping tea in a hotel lobby after his recent homecoming concert in this western Ohio city, Legend shrugs off the praise. However, he admits that he and his band are enjoying the tour.
"The crowds have been responding really well," he said. "We've just been having a lot of fun."
The Springfield concert, held at an amphitheater, drew thousands, including 20-year-old Anishka Lightbourne of Dayton. Lightbourne said Legend's music touches her because his songs are about things that are relevant.
"All of the songs are from the heart," she said. "It's not like everyday music you hear on the radio."
Legend believes people respond to the romantic, real-life theme of his album.
"It has a lot of stories about love, about relationships -- the good and the bad of relationships, whether it be infidelity, commitment, argument, family," he said.
Growing with soul
Legend, whose real name is John Stephens, grew up in a churchgoing, gospel-singing family. His father played the drums, his mother sang and directed the church choir, and his grandmother was the church organist.
Legend began his love affair with music on the family piano, a dark brown upright.
"The keys were falling apart. It was definitely vintage," he said.
His grandmother taught the young Legend to play gospel music and songs the choir would sing in church. However, books and schoolwork were also a big part of the boy's life.
Legend was so far ahead of his classmates in grade school that he skipped two grades, entering Springfield North High School at age 12. Four years later he was bound for Penn in Philadelphia, turning down Harvard and Georgetown.
"I always wanted to go to an Ivy League-caliber school to do the best I could. And I loved Philadelphia," he said.
Legend majored in English, but music was in his head. During college, he became music director at a church in Scranton, Pa., went to talent shows and open mikes on campus, and got his first taste of the Philadelphia music scene.
"During that time, it was kind of the height of the neo-soul scene, Philly soul," he recalled. "I wasn't really involved in that scene, but I saw what was going on and it just kind of inspired me more."
Finding the music
After college, Legend landed a job with a management-consulting firm in New York City, analyzing companies and trying to help them run their businesses better.
"It was definitely something to pay the bills," he said. "Most artists have to wait tables or something like that to make money. I actually had something that was a good job, that paid well."
Legend also had other ideas, though. He formed a band, made demo recordings and pursued a record deal. In 2002, he quit his consulting job and leaped into music full time.
And he also changed something else -- his name.
He was first called John Legend when a friend heard him singing in a studio and thought his brand of music was old-school soul.
"I just laughed at it, thought it was cute or whatever. I didn't think anything of it," he recalled. "But more and more people who were in that room that night started calling me The Legend, John Legend. It just kind of stuck after awhile."