With new album “Bigger Love” just out, but no tour in sight due to the coronavirus pandemic, John Legend is letting resourcefulness take the lead this roll-out weekend. To promote the release, and be part of an auspicious occasion such as “Juneteenth” — the date in 1865 when slaves received word of their freedom under the terms of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation — at such a crucial moment in Black history, Legend is taking part in the first-ever Friday Verzuz with his old friend Alicia Keys.
Following what’s being billed as “the battle of the pianos,” Legend and his family (including wife-model-television personality Chrissy Teigen) will host a one-hour Father’s Day variety special, “John Legend and Family: A Bigger Love Father’s Day,” on the ABC network. Along with playing games like “Fatherly Feud,” and welcoming fellow dads such as Common, Ne-Yo, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Jim Gaffigan, Shaquille O’Neal, Patton Oswalt, and Stevie Wonder, Legend will also sing songs from “Bigger Love.”
A veteran of film (“La La Land”), television (“Sherman’s Showcase”) and streaming (“Rhythm + Flow”) production, Legend is a co-producer on “A Bigger Love Father’s Day” through his Get Lifted Film Co. and acts as its executive producer with Mike Jackson, Ty Stiklorius, Katy Mullan, Erik Flannigan, Diallo Riddle and Bashir Salahuddin.
The big network variety show spectacular is familiar terrain for Legend, whose 2018 album of holiday songs, “A Legendary Christmas,” was accompanied by a televised showcase, “Christmas Under the Stars.”
“I think with these universal holidays such as Christmas and Father’s Day, the show of it all is about family,” says Legend from his home in Los Angeles. “There’s a broad appeal to that — a sentimentality and nostalgia — that I just happen to have a feeling for.”
One of John’s models and inspirations for the musical television spectacular is another singing, piano-playing legend, the late, great Nat King Cole who hosted The Nat King Cole Show for five seasons starting in 1956.
“Of course, Cole had a variety show when there was really nobody black on television,” says Legend. “He’s one of my heroes in every way. I also loved being on Jools Holland’s television show in the UK.”
Legend is talking about the BBC Two program, “Later… with Jools Holland,” which debuted in 1992, and features the one-time Squeeze pianist hosting a diverse palette of musical guests.
“I always wanted to do my own version of Holland’s show,” he says. “I even shot a pilot for Showtime awhile back, doing that sort of thing, that didn’t get picked up by the network. I like the idea of a variety show with different guests, playing my music and having other people play, all with comedy interspersed.”
Then there is Friday night’s Verzuz — the real-time, virtual DJ matches on Instagram Live that pit icons of R&B and hip-hop against each other in (usually) friendly musical competition. Along with having become an online phenomenon during the pandemic drawing hundreds of thousands of viewers, one of Verzuz’s co-creators, Swizz Beatz, just happens to be the husband of Legend’s challenger-collaborator, Alicia Keys.
“It’s just Alicia and I live, playing pianos, face-to-face,” Legend previews enthusiastically. “It’s called a battle of the pianos, but, so far, the best of these Verzuz experiences are where the artists have love for each other and respect for each other. That’s what I feel for Alicia; she’s my sister. I love her as a person and as an artist. We’ve worked together, We’ve written together. We’ve toured together. There’s so much mutual respect between us, and I think we’re going to give our fan base something special and apt for Juneteenth.”
Mention doing Verzuz on Juneteenth and its meaning to Black America, one can’t help but remind Legend that his nemesis, Donald Trump — whose policies and presidency Legend has criticized loudly and often – nearly ruined that date by announcing his first live rally for that same day (the President has since moved his rally to June 20).
“He tried,” said Legend with a laugh. “Juneteenth is but one of the days where we celebrate the Emancipation. It’s been an under-celebrated holiday in the past. There other dates such as when Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, but with all the trauma going on, many people are choosing to celebrate Juneteenth in earnest, this year, My album comes out that day, as does our Verzuz, as does ‘Sherman’s Showcase’ on IFC. It’s a good day. It’s a good time to celebrate Black culture and Black Music Month.”