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How Alicia Keys Got Her “Hit a High Note” Nickname

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Alicia Keys talks about recording her first album in her Harlem apartment.

We caught up with Alicia Keys recently, talking about her electrifying 2001 debut album, “Songs in A Minor,” and its induction into the 2022 class of the National Recording Registry.

She started writing the first songs on it at age 14 and released it to great fanfare at 18. She described her influences on the album as a “fusion of my classical training, meshed with what I grew up listening to,” which included the jazz from her mother’s record collection, along with the classic R&B and hip-hop that was prevalent in her New York City neighborhood.

What is about that set of songs that has resonated with listeners for two decades?

“It was so pure,” she said. “You felt the truth that was coming from me. I think that the New Yorkness in me was definitely a new energy. People hadn’t quite seen a woman in Timberlands and cornrows and really straight 100% off of the streets of New York performing classical music and mixing it with soul music and R&B and these songs that had big choruses and meaning … and people could find themselves in it.”

She was a perfectionist for the sound she wanted, turning her apartment — a sixth-floor walkup on 137th Street in the heart of Harlem — into an improvised studio. Her all-out vocals, belted out night after night, led to neighborhood fame long before the songs found their way to radio stations.

“We took the one bedroom that we had and turned it into a studio,” she said. “The closet was my little booth. I figured if we hung blankets on it, it would like create the sound we needed. The bed was still in the room. There was a bunch of equipment all around… I remember people on the street when I would come home, they would be calling me ‘Hit a High Note” because all night they heard me singing at the top of my lungs in this little Harlem apartment with the windows open because it was burning hot. So that became my little nickname on the block, ‘Hit a High Note.’ ”

The album would create a sensation due to her songwriting, vocals and piano playing. “Fallin’” was a No. 1 smash, with “A Woman’s Worth,” “Rock Wit U” and her take on Prince’s “How Come You Don’t Call Me Anymore” getting significant airplay. It’s an album that became part of the national soundtrack that year, a postcard from the era, that is now preserved in the national library.

Alicia Keys photo set inside a record
Alicia Keys National Recording Registry badge. Graphics: Ashley Jones.

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