Born Alicia Augello Cook on January 21, 1981, in New York, NY; daughter of Terri Augello (a paralegal and occasional actress) and Craig Cook (a flight attendant). Education: Attended Columbia University. Addresses: Record company--J Records, 745 5th Ave., New York, NY 10151, phone: (646) 840-5672, website: Website--Alicia Keys Official Website:

Just three weeks after being released, 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 biracial 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 co-produced the album. Of Songs in A Minor Keys told, "[it's] a journey through my life from the time when I was 14, when I wrote the first song on the album.... All the things I went through, and experienced.... That's where the title comes from as well, A Minor is one of my favorite keys to plays in, and A is the first letter of my name so it really just talks about songs from me." The album eventually won the artist five Grammy Awards. And her fame was solidified and proven real with the release of her second album, The Diary of Alicia Keys, which debuted at number one on the Billboard Top 200 Albums list and garnered the artist six more Grammy Awards.

Music Came Before Everything

Keys was born 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 sometimes 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 Colombia's. 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.

Waited and Waited

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, "[i]t 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, "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!"

Made a Major Debut

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 I do now."

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 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.

Being Alicia Keys

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

In 2003 Keys released her second album, The Diary of Alicia Keys. The album quickly reached the same level of success as the first one and was nominated for a Grammy award for Album of the Year, among others, and the song "If I Ain't Got You" was nominated for Song of the Year. The Diary of Alicia Keys eventually one six Grammy Awards total. With her success firmly established, in February of 2005 Keys was asked to sing "America the Beautiful" before the Super Bowl XXXIX in Florida, an honor which the young singer was happy to accept.

In April of that year Keys decided that she wanted to do something good with all the fame she had and joined the nonprofit group Frum the Ground Up to help teens with self esteem and goal making. During her tour to promote her album The Diary of Alicia Keys, she visited an inner-city Chicago middle school to discuss the importance of having and following one's dreams. She had plans to visit schools in Atlanta, Washington DC, and New York City as well. Looking for other ways to get out the message that anyone could achieve their dreams if they only believed in themselves and worked hard, Keys teamed up with the WE Network for another cause. PR Newswire announced that Keys would be taking part in a new Women's Entertainment (WE) program, WE Empowers Women, an organization "supporting health, education and mentorship programs designed specifically to address and support the modern lives of women and their families." The show began airing October 1, 2005.

In June of 2004 Keys published her first book of poetry, called Tears for Water: Songbook of Poems and Lyrics. The book includes lyrics from her famous songs as well as poems from her journals and notebooks. After some of the poems she clues readers into what she was feeling and thinking at the time she wrote them.

In October of 2005 Keys released her third album, Alicia Keys: Unplugged. Critics lauded the album as being one that highlighted the excellence of Keys' voice and melodies. Chuck Taylor of Billboard magazine said of the album, "Alicia Keys' "Unplugged" is that rare album where an artist not only capably demonstrates her well-entrenched poise and ease, but reveals more warmth than in the confines of a studio." The album was her third to debut at number one on the Billboard 200 Album Chart. She was the first woman to have her MTV Unplugged album debut at the number one spot on the charts. And Keys was looking for other ways to expand her artistic skills. In 2006 Keys was scheduled to appear in the movie Smoking Aces as a killer, a role that should stretch the music star's skills in a large way.

by Candace LaBalle and Michael Belfiore

Alicia Keys's Career

Released first album, Songs in A Minor, 2001; won five Grammy Awards and an MTV Video Music Award, 2001; released The Diary of Alicia Keys, 2003.

Alicia Keys's Awards

MTV Video Music Awards, Best New Artist, 2001; Grammy Awards, Song of the Year for "Fallin'," 2001; Best New Artist, 2001; Best Female R&B Vocal Performance for "Fallin'," 2001; Best R&B Song for "Fallin', 2001; Best R&B Album for Songs in A Minor, 2001; six Grammy Awards for The Diary of Alicia Keys, 2005.

Famous Works

Recent Updates

April 6, 2006: Keys visited Kenya in support of Keep a Child Alive. Source: USA Today,, April 6, 2006.

Further Reading



Visitor Comments Add a comment…

over 14 years ago

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