Alicia Keys has been name-checked in a Bob Dylan song, shes sung for James Bond, and she wowed label mogul Clive Davis to such a degree he penned a letter to Oprah Winfrey to seek her help in turning a then-unknown teenager into a household name.
What could possibly rattle Keys, now 32, and on her aptly-named Set the World on Fire Tour, which brings her to the AmericanAirlines Arena on Saturday night?
Singing the national anthem at Super Bowl XLVII from the Superdome in New Orleans before a U.S. TV audience of 108 million.
It was nothing I ever felt before, that type of nervousness, butterflies, excitement all at the same time, Keys said in a telephone interview last Friday, a few hours before her concert that night in Las Vegas. I remember walking up to the empty field in the run-throughs, and it was such a crazy feeling, so massive there. Ive been on that field before and at festivals in the same place, but the way it looked at that moment was so surreal and overwhelming and really exciting. At the moment I stepped to the piano, I said, I have to ground myself. I felt I would be levitating. It would not be good to be distracted.
So far, Keys has kept it together since the release of her debut album, Songs in A Minor, in June 2001.
Lovin Clive Davis
Davis, the head of her record company, saved her from an aborted deal with Columbia Records that had gone nowhere except for landing one of her songs on the 1997 Men in Black soundtrack. Davis writes in his new autobiography, The Soundtrack of My Life (Simon & Schuster, $30), that he was so taken with Keys talents he wrote a personal letter to Winfrey to ask her to showcase Keys on her popular talk show weeks before the release of Songs in A Minor. I know you, too, are into discovery, and perhaps once or twice a year, you might identify the next Aretha or Whitney or Lauryn Hill. Alicia Keys is such an artist, he wrote.
Davis is known for taking a hands-on approach with his artists, but this was the first time he saw fit to seek Winfreys help to break a new artist in who he believed in that strongly. Every time I put Alicia on a stage, she blew the audience away, Davis opined. Unlike his strategy with stars on his label such as Barry Manilow, Melissa Manchester, Whitney Houston and Santana, he gave Keys free rein on her albums to write her own material. Even a songwriter as accomplished as Manilow wasnt given that luxury for all those years he spent on Davis Arista Records.
I love him, he is one of the greatest of all time, Keys said of Davis, now 80 and the chief creative officer for Sony Music Entertainment. Eight years after her debut, Keys submitted to Davis her up-tempo song Million Dollar Bill, the standout track for what became Whitney Houstons final studio album.
He understood me when nobody understood me, Keys said.
No one thought this girl from Harlem could write and play and produce, except my manager and him. He gave me a lot of confidence and empowered me to create. Hes a mentor to me, for sure, and his instincts are like knives they are that sharp.
Songs in A Minor, the first outpouring of that musical union, sold six million copies domestically, and its single Fallin won the 2001 Grammy for Song of the Year and had an unexpected backlash. Fallin became such an American Idol perennial, former judge Simon Cowell banned contestants from ever singing the song again, reportedly claiming to be so sick of it that he had grown allergic to the damned thing.