As John Stephens sang the last word of "Baby" during the Dec. 5 concert of one of Penn's classiest a cappella groups, Counterparts, someone muttered, "He has an unbelievable voice; he'll be famous someday."
When asked what he thinks of that prediction, Stephens, a senior English major, said through an embarrassed laugh, "I hope so." But Stephens, who plays piano on Lauryn Hill's acclaimed new CD, has already become well known to a cappella followers.
His rendition of "One of Us" tied for best song honors in the Contemporary A Cappella Awards and he received runner-up honors for best soloist. And he sang in Carnegie Hall when Counterparts competed in the National Championship of Collegiate A Cappella, an experience he said was "amazing."
Photo by Candace diCarlo
Stephens sees Counterparts - his "extended family" - as a chance to expand creatively. As Counterparts business manager - he's a former president and business manager - he gets to arrange and teach the songs the group will perform. "Arranging is where I invest the most creative energy and is the most rewarding part [of the job] when the crowd likes it."
On top of his responsibilities to Counterparts, Stephens has been the mass choir director of the Bethel A.M.E. Church in Scranton, Pa., since the fall of 1995.
Many were skeptical of his abilities at first. "Many people ... weren't ready to take orders from me," he said.
He eventually proved himself, so much so that he was later given the chance to begin a young-adult choir. Although he demands a lot of both choirs musically, he sees them as giving him something invaluable. "It was good leadership experience, but it also motivates me to stay up on the piano, something I really don't have an outlet for at Penn," he said.
Stephens is not a newcomer to church choirs. His first stage was his church in Springfield, Ohio, where he began singing at age 7. By age 9 he had become the church's pianist, filling the void that had been left by his grandmother's death - "I was very amateur but they threw me out there and hoped I could do well."
Although it was a little bit bumpy for him to adjust at first, he credits the experience with helping him to become the musician he is today. "A gospel choir is mainly playing by ear," he said. "The only way to get good is by experience and it really helped me out in the way I play now."
And that experience helped him when he met recording artist Lauryn Hill through mutual friend Tara Watkins. Watkins, who was helping Hill on her new CD, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, invited Stephens to a recording session. "Tara wanted Lauryn to hear me sing and play the piano," Stephens said.
And when she did, Hill offered him the chance to play the piano on "Everything Is Everything," the song she was recording. "Playing in the choir allowed me to pick up the song really quickly [and] gave me the chance to play on one of the best albums released in 1998."
He is now working on a rhythm and blues CD of his own with former Counterpart member and owner of Crowded Air Records, Dan Coleman. The album, written and arranged by both Stephens and Coleman, is slated for a spring release.
"It is something I am really proud of," he said. And although one of his goals has always been law school, he put that on hold to pursue his love of music: "My ultimate goal is to be able to do professional music for the rest of my life."
Originally published on January 28, 1999