On Sept. 14, 2013, after seven years together, John Legend married his longtime girlfriend, Sports Illustrated swimsuit cover girl Chrissy Teigen. A month earlier, he gave her a gift: A love song called “All of Me,” the third single from his then-upcoming fourth album, “Love in the Future.”
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The song had been around since 2011, when Legend began working on the album with Kanye West, and it took about three hours to complete with co-writer Toby Gad. The recording took longer, though it doesn’t sound it: “All of Me” is just Legend’s voice and piano, a dead-simple ballad —- inspired, in part, by Billy Joel’s 1977 hit “She’s Always a Woman,” but not the kind of thing you hear on the radio much these days. Still , it was so striking that West — about to have his first child with Kim Kardashian and get engaged himself –declared it his “favorite song of all time.”
Legend, 35, is lucky he didn’t. “All of Me” has turned into the biggest hit of his decade-long career, and his first top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100. For the week ending Feb. 23, it moves to No. 4, and has sold 1.3 million downloads to date, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
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It’s a surprise to anyone but Legend himself. “I told my label early on that this could be the biggest song of my career if we don’t mess it up,” Legend says with a laugh while relaxing at the Los Angeles offices of his management, Troy Carter’s Atom Factory. “ ‘All of Me’ is probably the only song on the radio right now with no drums.” That’s not the dominant Legend sound —- West and Hit-Boy are among the producers on “Love in the Future” -— but it’s becoming his signature: His second biggest hit, “Ordinary People,” which climbed to No. 24 on the Hot 100 in 2004, was another ballad featuring just Legend and piano.
“Those songs are challenging because they don’t mix as well,” Legend admits. “People are used to music that makes them dance. But every once in a while, you want to hear something that pierces your heart.”
But there is a version of “All of Me” you can dance to, released by Dutch EDM producer Tiesto as a free download in January shortly before the song took off. Legend’s manager Ty Stiklorius admits that early reactions to the song ranged from “it’s not urban enough” to “it needs a rhythm remix,” but both Legend and Columbia executive vp/GM Joel Klaiman downplay the role of the Tiesto remix in the rise of “All of Me.”
“We never said we need a remix to make the song cross over,” says Legend. “Tiesto took it on his own initiative to make a remix for his fans. Since so many people loved it, we talked to him about releasing it, but this was 25 weeks into the life of the song. We let the song be what it was, feeling it had a better chance standing out on the radio rather than trying to sound like everything else.”
The tipping point for “All of Me” was the singer’s Grammys performance in January. Mirroring the song’s simplicity, it was just Legend and his piano in a show awash in energetic rock, pop, dance, hip-hop and country mashups. “By all rights, I shouldn’t have gotten that slot to perform by myself,” says Legend, who was nominated in only one category, best R&B album. “But producer Ken Ehrlich believed in the song and thought it was special enough to deserve its own slot.”
Ehrlich was right: In the two weeks ending Feb. 2 (the week after the Grammys), sales of “All of Me” rose by 174% to 216,000 (compared to 79,000 sold in the two weeks ending Jan. 19).
But under-the-radar success has always been something of a specialty for Legend, who early on performed under his birth name, John Stephens. When he signed to Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music imprint in 2004, the rapper-producer, in one of his earliest grandiose statements, renamed the singer John Legend, inspired by his old-school, Don Hathaway-esque soul sensibilities. Later that year, Legend released his debut, “Get Lifted,” which bowed at No. 4 on the Billboard 200, sold 2.3 million albums to date and landed three Grammy Awards, including best new artist. Follow-up “Once Again” (2006) peaked at No. 3 and sold 1.4 million.
Since then, Legend’s commercial impact and output have declined: His last solo set, 2008’s “Evolver,” has sold 758,000; a 2010 collaborative album with The Roots, “Wake Up!,” won a best R&B album Grammy but has only sold 280,000. The first two singles from “Love in the Future,” “Who Do We Think We Are” (featuring Rick Ross) and “Made to Love,” failed to crack the Hot 100. For Legend to land the biggest hit of his career now is unlikely, to say the least.
Even after the Grammys, TV has continued to play a major role in boosting “All of Me.” Legend has since performed the track on the “Sports Illustrated: 50 Years of Beautiful” anniversary special and “Good Morning America” on Valentine’s Day, and duetted with Alicia Keys on CBS’s Beatles tribute “The Night That Changed America.” Even before the Grammys, Legend played the song on “Late Show With David Letterman,” “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” and “The View,” and also appeared in a Chevy Impala commercial.
It’s been a whirlwind year for Legend in other ways. A few weeks before taking off on the All of Me Tour on March 20, he’s planning on hitting the Academy Awards in support of nominee “12 Years a Slave,” whose soundtrack he curated. He and Carter also have several TV projects on tap — “All in the early stages of idea generation and script development,” says Legend — including one about music managers that was sold to Showtime.
And of course, he married Teigen, who, he says with a laugh, “takes all the credit” for the tune. “Having somebody who knows me so well and knows what it takes to push me creatively is really important.”