PROVO — It looks like a cozy nightclub — old photos, records, license plates and a bright highway sign that stands out on wood-paneled walls.
“Welcome to JL’s Blues House.”
There’s a white piano and a full band on stage, complete with a horn section and three twirling backup singers. Upfront, wearing a dark red suit, stands John Legend.
“Merry Christmas baby, you sure did treat me right,” he sings, transforming the Christmas classic into a jazzier number. As he sways and twists his feet, he seems to be channeling a young Elvis Presley.
The festive moment isn’t out of place for a city like New Orleans or Detroit or Memphis or Los Angeles.
But this isn’t a blues club during the Christmas season.
This was at the LDS Motion Picture Studio in Provo, Utah — in late September.
Legend was doing a live taping for the BYUtv holiday special, “Christmas Under the Stars.” And if the minute-long teaser BYUtv released is any indication, it didn’t seem to matter that it was Sept. 27. Legend was on stage singing his heart out. And for the 300 people in attendance, it might as well have been Christmas Day.
The exclusive performance kicks off BYUtv’s Christmas programming on Dec. 1. The 40-year-old singer — who is one of 15 people in the world to win an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony — is easily the biggest star BYUtv has landed since starting “Christmas Under the Stars” in 2015. But getting an acclaimed performer like Legend to star on a show that’s still building a following was no easy feat.
So how did BYUtv get John Legend for Christmas?
It took a lot more than asking Santa.
When Legend’s name began floating around in early 2018, Ian Puente, BYUtv’s director of operations and strategy, had one thought: “There’s not a chance we could do that.”
But “Christmas Under the Stars” was reaching for the stars. The BYUtv program had previously featured famous performers like Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith, Gladys Knight and Five for Fighting. But Legend — who has 13 million followers on Twitter — was on an entirely different level.
And he was incredibly busy. Also an actor, the “La La Land” star had recently been cast in NBC’s adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Later in 2018, he became a coach for the NBC show “The Voice” and released his “A Very Legendary Christmas” album.
“He has a massive amount of commitments and demand for his time,” Puente said with a laugh. “He’s everywhere. … He’s in the atmosphere right now. I think we all knew that it was a long shot, but we thought, ‘We have an opportunity. Let’s not let it go just because we aren’t sure if it’ll work or not.’”
BYUtv had the chance to reach out to a big name like Legend, in part, because of the connections the network has made with artists over the past few years. (It apparently had nothing to do with Legend’s wife, model Chrissy Teigen, being from Delta, Utah.)
In its infancy, “Christmas Under the Stars” stayed close to home, highlighting local talent like Gentri, Lexi Walker and BYU’s Vocal Point. But as BYUtv sought to expand its reach, the network began seeking out big-name artists.
Things really took a turn when Five for Fighting got on board in 2017, Puente said. The network developed a strong relationship with Five for Fighting’s manager, Steve Smith. As a manager and a booker in the music industry, Smith was able to directly spread the word to talent agencies about the BYUtv Christmas special.
The next year, Train and The Band Perry were on BYUtv.
“It has been a gradual process of building a reputation, showing that we’re legitimately able to do a good job with these kind of Christmas concerts and really create a unique space,” Puente said. “There’s not a lot of people in the broadcast space that are doing shows like this. And that has really resonated with artists, that ability to do a small audience show but still have that national reach with a broadcaster like us.”
Immediately after the 2018 concerts, BYUtv was thinking of Christmas 2019. What act could follow high-profile artists like Train and The Band Perry? Talk always came back to Legend.
It wasn’t just about increasing exposure, though. A musician like Legend, Puente said, fit the bill.
“We’re really keen on finding talent that is family friendly, has good name recognition and really kind of is excited to embrace a Christmas concert,” he said, pointing to the singer’s passion for being a dad, his philanthropic work and his Grammy-nominated “A Very Legendary Christmas” album as selling points.
So BYUtv continued reaching out to Legend. But if anything, Legend was even busier. The network persisted, though, hoping the reputation that had gotten it to this point would work in its favor.
During summer 2019, BYUtv finally received word that Legend would likely be able to do the show. A couple of months later, it was official.
“It took quite a long time to get him to finally say yes, which is understandable,” Puente said with a laugh. “It was a huge milestone for us, and we really felt like this was a huge stamp of approval of the work we’ve been trying to do here at the network, to build a shared values, general entertainment brand that people respect and tune into.”
But, Puente admitted, the excitement was followed by some “nervousness” to make sure they didn’t mess up the opportunity.
What it means for BYUtv
It was a quick trip. Legend came in late Wednesday night, recorded Thursday and Friday, and was gone Saturday morning.
But the influence of that trip will have a lasting effect, Puente said, as Legend presents “a huge crossover opportunity” and has the potential to draw a greater audience to BYUtv. The network even plans to campaign for a primetime Emmy nomination in 2020 for the category of outstanding variety special (pre-recorded).
“It’s a way to put the word out there about BYUtv in the industry,” Puente said. “I think we’re going to see explosive growth … this year, to be honest. Dec. 1 is going to be a big night for BYUtv.”
Following the premiere at 5 p.m. MST, BYUtv will air the concert an additional 15 times throughout December — including Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. It’ll also be available for streaming on all BYUtv platforms.
But even as Legend’s BYUtv debut nears, the network is already talking about 2020. Seeing the concerts Train and The Band Perry did in 2018 got Legend’s management more on board with the program, Puente said.
The 2020 prospective guest artists, though, are being kept quiet for now.
“We’ve set a big challenge for ourselves. I think the bar’s set pretty high now obviously,” Puente said. “It’s a good list. There’s some exciting names on there and we’ll see where we get for 2020. Fingers crossed.”