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John Legend on Singing With Bill Withers at Rock Hall: ‘Don’t F–k It Up’

“I look at them as some of my biggest influences and people whose footsteps I’m trying to walk in,” the singer says of soul legends like Withers and Stevie Wonder

Bill Withers (L) and John Legend

Bill Withers and John Legend perform onstage during the 30th annual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony.

Jeff Kravitz/Getty

John Legend paid stirring tribute to Bill Withers during the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony on Saturday, belting out flawless versions of the honoree’s early Seventies hits “Use Me” and “Lean on Me,” the latter of which even found the normally withdrawn Withers joining in for a few bars. (In his acceptance speech, the soul legend noted that he spends more time with “Judge Judy” than with any of the musicians in attendance.) 

Following the performance, which also featured Stevie Wonder, Legend spoke with Rolling Stone about starting work on his new album and what it feels like to be “put on blast” by a musical icon.

What’s going through your head when you’re up onstage and you’ve got your hand on Bill Withers’ shoulder as you’re both singing “Lean on Me”?
Just don’t fuck it up [laughs]. Oh, it was so cool. We’ve known him for awhile now. I first met him after the Roots and I did the album Wake Up! [from 2010]. We covered one of his songs, “I Can’t Write Left Handed,” and he found out we did it through his friend Bill Russell. He found me through my manager and e-mailed me, and I forwarded it to [Roots drummer] Questlove. Questlove was on cloud nine, and I was too. [Withers] sent me a long e-mail just explaining how he found out about it, and how proud he was that we did the song and did it so well. We’ve been friends ever since. He’s been by my house for barbecues. He’s come to some of my concerts. I’m happy we were able to help induct him into the Hall today.

So you were aware of his comic timing before tonight?
Oh yeah! He’s a great storyteller, and he was great tonight. He reminds me of my grandfather.

What’s it been like going through rehearsals this week with him?
Oh, it’s been great! He’s just been telling stories and making me laugh.

He enjoyed sharing the story about you jetting off to the White House between rehearsals this week.
Yes, we weren’t supposed to publish that; that was a private dinner [laughs]. But, you know, he put me on blast.

Being up there with guys like Bill and Stevie, do you feel like part of that larger soul tradition in some way?
Of course I look at them as some of my biggest influences and people whose footsteps I’m trying to walk in. We always are trying to do something new, but we owe a debt to them, and I have their music in my head all the time as I’m creating.

I know you’re in a hurry here, but are you working on anything at the moment you can talk about?
Yeah, I have a new album I’m working on now. I’ve just started writing, so it’ll be awhile until it comes out, but I’m excited to get back in the studio and write some more. Also, my production company has a few things coming out. We have a new documentary on HBO called Southern Rites [premiering May 18th] that I did a song for, and we produced the film. I’m excited for people to see that – it’s a really powerful film. And we’re just gonna keep working.

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