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Chart Rewind: In 2001, Alicia Keys’ ‘Fallin’ ‘ Rose to No. 1 on the Hot 100

After clashing with her first label, the singer-songwriter jumped to J Records and topped the Billboard Hot 100 with her debut offering.

At the age of 16, Manhattan native Alicia Keys dropped out of one Columbia — the Ivy League New York university — to pursue her musical dream at another: the prestigious, Sony-owned record label. She almost came to regret the decision.

Keys signed with Columbia Records at age 15, after a bidding war that resulted in the label throwing in the $26,000 baby grand piano on which she had auditioned. But after presenting executives with a set of songs that she intended to record for her debut, Keys recalled Columbia’s response in a 2004 interview with Oprah Winfrey: “What’s this? … Where are the pop smashes?” (None of the label’s current executive team were employed there at the time.)

To the rescue came Arista Records vp A&R Peter Edge (now chairman/CEO of RCA Records) and label president Clive Davis. Edge, who had met Keys earlier in her career, alerted his boss that the singer- songwriter was unhappy at Columbia, and Davis set out to free her from her contract. The negotiations led to “one hell of a fight,” Keys told Winfrey. “Out of spite, they were threatening to keep everything I’d created even though they hated it.” Eventually, Davis paid a hefty sum for the tracks Keys had recorded and signed her to his then-newly formed J Records.

Among the songs was “Fallin’,” a piano-driven ballad about the highs and lows of a tumultuous yet thrilling relationship (“How do you give me so much pleasure / And cause me so much pain”). More than four years after she had signed with Columbia, Keys, then 20, released it as her first single, and on Aug. 18, 2001, it topped the Billboard Hot 100 for the first of six weeks. Such was its longevity — 19 weeks in the top 10 — that it wrapped as the chart’s No. 2 title of the year, second only to Lifehouse’s “Hanging by a Moment.”

A proven hit with the public, “Fallin’ ” also scored high praise from the music industry’s elite, winning three Grammy Awards in 2002: song of the year, best R&B song and best female R&B vocal performance. In addition to that trio, Keys also captured best new artist and best R&B album to tie Lauryn Hill’s then-record for the most wins in one year by a woman.


The breakthrough heralded Keys’ prestige as a commercial and critical force. She was later crowned Billboard‘s Top R&B/Hip-Hop Artist of the 2000s, and through 2021, has earned nine Hot 100 top 10 singles and five No. 1 albums on the Billboard 200. She also has upped her Grammy count to 15 — tying Adele for the fourth-most total wins by a woman, behind only Beyoncé (28), Alison Krauss (27) and Aretha Franklin (18).

Most recently, Keys celebrated the 20th anniversary of her debut album, Songs in A Minor, with a medley performance at the 2021 Billboard Music Awards, which concluded with — what else? — “Fallin’,” the song that kicked off her rise to prominence.