"No One" Can Get In The Way Of Alicia Keys

Alicia Keys
Alicia Keys is only 26 but has already had an entire career's worth of dreams come true. Her songs top the charts, her concerts sell out worldwide, she's on the big-screen and the small screen.

This week, she releases her fourth album, "As I Am." The first single has already hit number one. But she isn't feeling pressure to make this album the biggest commercial success of her career.

"I don't think that I need to feel pressure about things like that," she told Early Show news anchor Russ Mitchell. "I know that musically and where I am in my mind and my space, it's definitely my best work yet. That, I know. So, you can't beat that."

Keys doesn't lack for self-confidence. And you can trace that, and her music, directly back to her childhood. Her first major acting role came at the age of 5 when she played Rudi's friend on "The Cosby Show."

"My name was Maria, and I was a friend of Rudi's. And she had a big sleepover. I was little Maria, I had little short hair."

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Her love of music also came at an early age. She was 6 when she began begging her mother for piano lessons.

"She's like, 'How? We don't have a piano. We can't afford a piano. Lessons? What do we do?'" Keys said. "She was trying to figure it out. But, you know, she did."

All thanks to a bit of happenstance. A friend of her mother's was moving and told Keys, who was 8 or 9 at the time, that if she and her mother could move it, they could have it.

"That was absolutely a breakout moment because without that piano, my first piano ever, I would never be who I am," Keys said.

It even inspired her to change her name. She was born Alicia Augello-Cook. She re-named herself Keys after the piano keyboard.

She grew up in Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen on the city's West Side. It was just her and her mother, Terri, a paralegal and struggling actress. Her father, a flight attendant, left them when she was two. Keys says she and her mother are "extremely close."

They're still so close, in fact, that when we stopped in to see Keys shooting a video for her new album, we found her mother in the center of the action, playing a doctor.

"She's like, you know, one of my main rocks in my world," Keys said. "I call her my rock. You now, she anchors me. She is the woman that raised me, she is the woman that made me who I am."

And the city itself had a big impact.

"This neighborhood definitely affected me musically," she told Mitchell as they walked through Hell's Kitchen. "Hearing Latin music, to the way that hip hop was coming through every car or radio or street corner. There was no end.

"I would have to say it was soul music that definitely knocked me over. That emotion that was captured in those songs - Nina Simone or Curtis Mayfield, or Aretha Franklin. It was this sound that spoke directly right there to your heart. I wanted to say things like that that made people feel like how I felt."

By 14 she was writing songs. She whizzed through high school and was only 16 when she graduated Valedictorian. Then, two tempting offers: a scholarship to Columbia University and a contract with Columbia Records.

"And I just knew it was a sign," she said. "I was like, 'Oh my goodness. You can't tell me this is not a sign. Columbia Records, Columbia University. This is meant to be!'"

She tried making records and going to college simultaneously. It didn't work out so well.

"And so I realized, you know, this isn't right," she said. "I'm like instead of being great at at least one thing, or great at something, I was becoming bad at both. And I knew something had to change."

So she dropped college, but soon learned some hard lessons about the record business. She felt she was being pressured to be someone she was not: a singer like Mariah Carey or Whitney Houston.

"Anyone who they could kind of already know how to market and promote and put together in a nice package with a bow on it," she said. "But I was different. I was from the street. And there was a certain appeal to that, but they just were confused. Like, 'Don't you just wanna put on a dress and sing?'"

She left Columbia, signing with legendary producer Clive Davis. He took her to his company, J Records, and encouraged her to do her music, her way.

She went straight to the top.

So far her albums have sold 20 million copies. It seems no awards show is complete without Alicia Keys. She has won nine Grammies and 11 Billboard awards.

"My biggest dream when I was younger was, I wanted to have a sea of people to sing the words that I was singing, or that I wrote," she said.

That dream has certainly come true. Now she's testing her voice in other ways, speaking out about the causes she believes in. A couple of weeks ago she co-hosted a benefit for African children with AIDS. She pulled in an "A-list" of names, like U2's Bono.

"Alicia is a very articulate voice for people in the developing world, particularly Africa, who don't have any voice," he said.

She also starred in this year's movie "Smokin' Aces," and remained firm about what she would, and wouldn't, do. She refused to use the "N-word" in the movie.

"There was a lot of it in the script, and I was definitely, like, 'No, I don't wanna do that.' I just didn't think it was necessary," she said.

Keys has learned a lot of lessons in a short time.

"It's really important to be who I am," she said. "A lot of times people don't want you to be who you are. They want you to be who they want you to be. And it's hard to go against that and say 'no,' because you risk losing everything. But I think in some ways if you don't remain who you are, you're losing everything anyway."

Her new album is called "As I Am"; that about says it all.

"In my mind, it's already a success because I've done it," she said. "And I've created more than I could have ever dreamed of creating with this music."