Kennedy and Sinatra. Clinton and Streisand. George W. and the Nuge. For each president there is a pop star, an artist who subsequently mirrors the Man in the White House: his politics, his poise, his place. The swingin' cad, the Hollywood liberal, the guns a-blazin' cowboy.
And now, in 2009, the smooth savior, the sexy straight-arrow.
President Obama, John Legend is singing your song.
The 30-year-old Legend, a five-time Grammy winner who plays Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater tonight, played at several Obama campaign stops, including a memorable one in the R&B star's childhood home of Springfield, Ohio. Last week, the singer saw the fruits of his efforts realized at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, the site of a pre-inaugural blowout in which he duetted with James Taylor and Sugarland's Jennifer Nettles on Shower the People. It was one of the best performances of the day, the call for comfort genuine, heartfelt.
"I haven't agreed with the results of an election in a long time," says Legend, on the phone from a tour stop in San Diego. But Obama's place in history has him feeling "ecstatic, excited, inspired, optimistic about the future."
Yep, Obama and Legend were made for each other.
Ever since his 2004 debut, the gone-platinum Get Lifted, Legend has been treated as fresh air himself, a cool but safe alternative to the hump-bumping, headline-making R. Kellys of the world. Legend has been playing piano since he was 7. He attended the University of Pennsylvania, where he directed an a cappella group. He ran a church choir. He is just what radio needs: class with character, GQ with soul.
His first bold-faced touring gig was opening up for Alicia Keys, another young pop star with role-model qualities. I saw their double-bill at D.C.'s Constitution Hall. Not only was it sexy and hot, it felt like the future.
"I remember that night. That was a great show," Legend says. "You tend to remember opening up for Alicia Keys, right?"
When I ask Legend about his clean 'n' shiny "pop savior" tag, he sighs: "Yeah, yeah, I guess," his voice trailing off. "But I do like to defy expectations. What people should expect from me is something a little different each time."
Indeed, as new album Evolver proves, he's not exactly Mr. Rogers, either. His career ascension is directly linked to classic head case Kanye West, who hired Legend (born John Stephens) to sing backup on a demo for the rapper's debut album, The College Dropout. West signed Legend to his G.O.O.D. label and continues to produce his albums.
Although Legend's quavering croon, a Bob Marley-esque yelp, makes for classy seduction, he sings of the wobbly boundaries of monogamy, a lover with a wandering eye. (From Number One: "You can't say I don't love you /Just because I cheat on you . . .") You won't find a parental-advisory sticker on his albums, but rest assured John Legend is as amorous as the rest of them — he'll just buy you breakfast in the morning.
He is currently enjoying the success of Green Light, arguably the biggest song of his career. It's a rambunctious "shake just a little bit faster" banger featuring a rap by OutKast's Andre 3000. "We didn't sit down and say, 'Let's write a club hit,' " Legend says. "People always think it's premeditated. Things happen organically, take on a life of their own. The whole album is like that, taking twists and turns as you go along. It's a little more fun than my other albums."
Although he often looks rather serious (or at least smoldering), Legend is a natural cutup. He is buddies with both Stephen Colbert and Larry David, regimented comedians who asked Legend to cameo in their respective cable shows, Comedy Central's The Colbert Report and HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm.
"I'm a big fan of those kinds of comics," Legend says. "I guess I have that same comic sensibility. I love Stephen. I love Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm."
Legend and Colbert are becoming a regular Hope and Crosby. Among other riffs, they have teamed up for a spoof of Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney's The Girl Is Mine, and this Christmas, Legend crooned the sensual joys of Nutmeg on a Colbert holiday special. "Stephen and I hit it off," he says. "We keep in touch."
Legend played himself in Season 6 finale of David's Curb Your Enthusiasm, uncorking a killer cover of Ray Charles' You Don't Know Me at a fateful bat mitzvah. Among a host of highlights, it's one of Legend's best performances, but he has yet to record it for real. "I've always wanted to do a standards album," he says, chuckling, maybe even taunting, "but I have 60 years to do that."
For now, the savior of pop music will continue to have it both ways. Along with gigs supporting the 44th president of the United States, he is on a current U.S. tour, which brings him into Ruth Eckerd tonight. With the Super Bowl in Tampa on Sunday, Legend's hip-hop pals (and then some) should also be in town. Any chance Kanye will show up?
C'mon, John, 'fess up.
"You're going to try to get me to commit to that, huh?" he says, laughing. "I'm sure we'll have a lot of requests for that show. It's going to be a fun night."
Sean Daly can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/ popmusic.