John Legend reveals trauma of losing child in Desert Island Discs

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The Guardian

The musician John Legend said he was “hesitant” to publicly share images of his late baby son, Jack, who was stillborn two years ago.

The black and white photographs, which were posted on Instagram shortly after Legend and his wife, the model Chrissy Teigen, had suffered the stillbirth of their third child, were a way to reach other bereaved parents affected by this kind of sudden loss.

“I was hesitant to share it,” he explains in a BBC Radio 4 interview, “but I think Chrissy was really right. Way more people than anybody realises go through this and they think they are alone.

“It was a really powerful, wise decision by Chrissy to share it.”

Legend says that some of the songs he has written since are about coping with loss and grief, “when you feel broken”, adding: “There’s no real comfort and you’re always going to feel that loss. It kind of spreads over time, so it doesn’t feel as heavy, but you’ll never forget it.”

Legend, who is presenter Lauren Laverne’s guest on Desert Island Discs on Sunday morning, might otherwise appear to have led a charmed life. At the age of 43, he is a rare recipient of not only two Emmy and 12 Grammy awards, but also an Oscar, as well as a Tony for his work on Broadway, an achievement that gives him the right to the prestigious acronym EGOT.

Musically talented from the age of four, when he began piano lessons in his hometown of Springfield, Ohio, Legend was also a gifted scholar who turned down a place at Harvard at 16 to become a student at the University of Pennsylvania, before then briefly becoming a high-flying management consultant, immediately earning more than his father’s salary.

His switch back to music soon resulted in a stellar solo career, following early work with Kanye West. In 2021, he was invited to play at the inauguration of Joe Biden.

But Legend, who was born John Stephens to working-class parents, tells Laverne his life has not been without troubles. Not only did he and Teigen lose a baby, he was also estranged from his mother, Phyllis, in his teens. The leader of the local church choir, she had become deeply depressed after the death of her own mother and descended into mental ill health and drug abuse.

“She fell out of our lives for about a decade. It was my entire adolescence into my early adulthood,” says Legend. A seamstress as well as a singer, his mother had home-schooled the young Legend and prioritised his religious education.

“It’s still emotional when I talk to my mother about it, because she feels such regret for being gone all that time,” the singer admits, remembering how hard it was for his siblings and his factory worker father, Ronald, while she was absent.

“During that decade she was gone from our lives. We had to figure things out.”

Legend also explains his “quite presumptuous” invented stage name. When friends started to call him “legend” because they felt his voice was channelling the great soul singers, he decided to run with it.

“You know what? Who knows what’s going to happen with my career but I’m going into it with the faith in myself and the belief in myself that it is going to work out,” he said. “And I’m going to try to live up to this name.”

August 7, 2022 at 04:45AM Vanessa Thorpe

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