Biography: Alicia Keys
Just three weeks after being released in the summer of 2001, Alicia Keys's debut album, Songs in A Minor, was certified triple platinum. Suddenly you couldn't open a magazine, turn on the radio, or tune into MTV without encountering the stunning Keys. With her classical training on the piano, soul-stirring lyrics, and heart-stopping voice, Keys had become a bona fide superstar. Not just another pretty face singing catchy pop, Keys wrote most of the lyrics and music, played all of the instruments, and coproduced the album. Although critics hailed her first album for its unique blend of classical and soul music, Keys herself was more modest about her innovative approach to music. As she told Margena A. Christian in Jet, "I really didn't know that I was doing it. It was kind of something that comes natural to me, studying classical for so long and having a love of soul and R&B music. It's just kind of something that fused together by itself." Keys won no less than five Grammy Awards for Songs in A Minor, and she proved her staying power by following up with the hugely successful The Diary of Alicia Keys at the end of 2003. Like her debut, this album landed in the number one spot on the Billboard 200 chart in the first week of its release.
Keys was born Alicia Augello Cook on January 21, 1981, in New York City to an Italian-American mother and an African-American father. Her parents did not stay together and Keys was raised by her mother, Terri Augello, a paralegal and aspiring actress. As a child, Keys didn't see much of her father, Craig Cook, however, they remained on good terms. Despite the difficult life of a single mom and the poverty in which she often struggled, Keys's mother was determined to nourish her child's budding passion for music and enrolled Keys in piano classes. Keys told Rolling Stone, "I've had a deep love for music since I was four…. Music came before everything, everything, everything. I would risk everything for it." Despite her commitment, Keys was aware of the financial strain the lessons put on her mother's meager salary and once begged to quit. "But my mom would tell me, 'Quit what you like, but you're not quitting piano.' She didn't care what it cost," Keys told Newsweek. With her mother's support, Keys learned classical piano by the time she was seven. At eleven she began writing songs.
For her high school education Keys was accepted into the prestigious Professional Performance Arts School in Manhattan where she majored in Choir and continued her piano lessons. After school she worked on her voice at a local Police Athletic League girls' club. At the same time, Keys's manager, Jeff Robinson, began booking Keys at music industry shows. "We wanted people to see that I played piano and sang," she told Rolling Stone. Keys's life became a whirlwind of studying and singing, practicing piano, and performing onstage. At school her academic talents soon paid off.
At age 16, Keys graduated early and was promptly accepted to Columbia University. At just about the same time, her musical talents also began to reap rewards and Keys found herself in a bidding war between major record companies. In the end Keys signed a deal with Columbia Records. Used to juggling both academics and music, Keys decided to stick with both Columbias. However, just four weeks into her freshman year, Keys walked away from the university. "I couldn't be in the studio at night and keep up with class," she told Rolling Stone.
Her decision to quit school soon seemed questionable as industry red tape at Columbia Records began to ensnarl Keys. She managed to score some recording time and was even given a black baby grand piano by the label, yet her talent languished. "I felt that they wanted me to be a clone of Mariah Carey or Whitney Houston, and I couldn't do that. I'm not the sequined dress type, or the high-heeled type, or the all-cleavage type. I'm not coming like that for no one," she told Newsweek.
When the deal with Columbia finally fell through, the legendary music producer and president of Arista Records, Clive Davis, stepped in. Responsible for the careers of musical powerhouses such as Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin, and Santana, Davis knew Keys was special the first time he saw her perform. "It was at a Christmas showcase when she was just seventeen," Davis told Rolling Stone, "I was struck immediately by her voice and beauty—it was stunning. She had everything that an artist can want." Keys was just as smitten with Davis. "Clive was the only executive that ever asked me, how do I see myself, how do I see my career. When he asked me that question, I knew immediately that's where I had to be….What he sees for me, I see for myself," Keys told The Daily Telegraph.
At Arista with Davis's support, Keys finally began to record her album. However, just as Songs in A Minor was nearing completion in 1998, Davis was ousted from Arista and Keys was put on hold again. In classic Keys style she put this setback in perspective and learned something from it. She told Rolling Stone, "it built my character and tested my confidence, gave me patience and better prepared me for the whole game." By 1999, Davis had formed his own label, J Records, and Keys promptly signed on as one of the label's first acts. After years of false starts and record industry mayhem, Keys was finally able to record her first album. Keys, however, was not frustrated by the delays. As she told MTV.com, "Ultimately, what is four years in an entire lifetime? That's the outlook I like to take on it. Nothing before its time. And the time is now. Believe that!"
Songs in A Minor debuted at number one on the Billboard Album Chart and both the record industry and the music-loving public took notice. The first single on the album, "Fallin'," immediately went into heavy rotation on both the pop and the R&B radio stations. The album is a fresh mix of old and new, mostly R&B with a strong dose of hip-hop and a splash of jazz improvisations, all wrapped up with a classically-trained musician's sensibility. "I was born in Hell's Kitchen and spent a lot of time in Harlem, and I was exposed to a lot of different types of music, from Biggie [rapper Notorious B.I.G.] to Nirvana to Miles Davis to Nina Simone and back to classical," Keys told USA Today. "I think it was inevitable that I merge all of them."
As the album held tight at the top of the charts, Keys began a dizzying schedule of tours, benefit appearances, photo shoots, and interviews. She became an MTV regular, performed at awards shows, and appeared on late night talk shows. Fan sites blossomed on the web. She bagged five Grammys, an MTV Music Award, and scored five nominations for the 2002 American Music Awards, far outdistancing her nearest rival. Keys had become the music industry's new "it" girl. Not only could she sing, play piano, and write music, but she was also heart-achingly gorgeous.
Even though Keys had been training as a performer, singer, and songwriter nearly her entire life, her seemingly overnight explosion onto the music scene A-list had some crediting her success to Davis and his infamous hype machine. Just before the album debuted, Davis sent Oprah Winfrey a personal letter asking for Keys to appear on an episode of Oprah. While it is true that Davis is one of the few music industry insiders with the power to get Oprah's personal attention, it was the music that convinced Oprah and her crew to book Keys. For her part, Keys dismissed not only those that blamed her new fame on the hype surrounding her, but she also dismissed the hype itself. "I just have to continue doing what I've always done, and that is be who I am…. It's just Alicia. I like to be onstage, I like to write music, I like to make music. And that's really what the point is," she told MTV.com. In an industry ruled by carefully choreographed bleach-blonde teenagers in flesh-baring outfits singing prefab pop, the multitalented Keys truly stood out.
As 2003 drew to a close, Keys got her chance to prove that she was no overnight flash in the pan. Her sophomore album, The Diary of Alicia Keys, like its predecessor, became an instant bestseller, topping the Billboard Top 200 chart in the first week of its release, and wowing critics and fans alike. The first single from Diary, "You Don't Know My Name," had an "old school classic soul feel," according to People reviewer Chuck Arnold. Featuring a mid-song spoken interlude, the song shot to the top of the charts immediately upon release.
A live CD/DVD package, Unplugged, arrived in 2005 and followed Keys' two previous releases to the top of the charts, even if it failed to win any of the four Grammys for which it was nominated. Alicia Keys then entered the acting world, starring in both Smokin' Aces and The Nanny Diaries in 2007, before issuing the pop-influenced As I Am later that year. It became her fourth consecutive number one album, and she was nominated for another handful of Grammys as a result, with "Superwoman" winning the award for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance in early 2009. As the year drew to a close, Keys returned to the top of the Billboard charts with "Empire State of Mind," a Jay-Z single that featured her vocals, and released her fourth studio album, The Element of Freedom. Although it went platinum, The Element of Freedom didn't reach number one in the U.S., becoming her first album to miss the top slot. It did reach number one in the U.K., though, marking Keys' first chart-topping album in Europe and highlighting her status as a global artist.