Stephen Demitri Georgiou, 21 July 1948, London, England. For Yusuf Islam, the constant search for the meaning of life that littered his lyrics and arose in interviews, seems to have arrived. Those who criticized his sometimes trite espousing now accept that his conversion to the Islamic faith and his retirement from a music world of sin and greed was a committed move. His legacy as Cat Stevens is a considerable catalogue of timeless songs, many destined to become classics.
The son of a Swedish mother and a Greek Cypriot father, Stephen Georgiou was raised in the Greek Orthodox faith while growing up in London. He first began performing under the name Steve Adams while attending Hammersmith College. In 1966, producer Mike Hurst spotted the singer performing and was so impressed that he arranged to record the newly christened Cat Stevens original song, I Love My Dog. Tony Hall at Decca Records was similarly impressed and Stevens became the first artist on the new Deram Records imprint. The record and its b-side Portobello Road showed great promise and reached the UK Top 30. Over the next two years Stevens delivered many perfect pop songs. Some were recorded by himself but many other artists queued up for material from this precociously-talented teenager. His own UK hits, Matthew And Son (number 2), Im Gonna Get Me A Gun (number 6) and A Bad Night (number 20) were equalled by the quality of his songs written for other artists; the soulful The First Cut Is The Deepest by P.P. Arnold and the addictive Here Comes My Baby by the Tremeloes. His two Decca albums are packed full of short, infectious songs, although they suffer from dated accompaniments.
Stevens contracted tuberculosis in 1968 and spent three months in hospital. During his convalescence he took stock of his life, and after releasing the failed comeback single Where Are You switched over to the Island Records label. Over the next eight years the astute listener can detect a troubled soul. 1970s Mona Bone Jakon was the first in the series of albums that came to define what was known as bedsitter music, and featured the beautiful UK Top 10 hit Lady DArbanville (dedicated to his ex-girlfriend Patti DArbanville). It was followed by three hugely successful works: Tea For The Tillerman, Teaser And The Firecat and Catch Bull At Four. These albums revealed the solitary songwriter, letting the listener into his private thoughts, aspirations and desires. Stevens was the master of this genre and produced a wealth of simplistic, yet beautiful songs. Anthems like Wild World, Peace Train and Moonshadow, love songs including Hard Headed Woman and Cant Keep It In, are all faultless and memorable compositions. Stevens was at his sharpest with his posing numbers that hinted of dubiety, religion and scepticism. Two of his finest songs are Father And Son (from Tea For The Tillerman) and Sitting (from Catch Bull At Four). The first is a dialogue between father and son, and gives the listener an insight into Stevens lonely childhood in Soho. The line How can I try to explain, when I do he turns away again, its always been the same, same old story the child continues with from the moment I could talk, I was ordered to listen, now theres a way that I know, that I have to go, away, I know I have to go. The song is astonishingly powerful in relating Stevens own turmoil to virtually every person that has ever heard the song. Sitting is similarly powerful, although it is a song of great hope. It opens confidently, Ooh Im on my way I know I am, somewhere not so far from here, all I know is all I feel right now, I feel the power growing in my hair. Few were unmoved by these two songs.
In his 70s heyday Stevens had eight consecutive gold albums and 10 hit singles in the UK and 14 in the USA. Catch Bull At Four topped the US album charts in 1972, the same year that Stevens contributed several songs to the soundtrack of the hit movie Harold And Maude. In 1975, while swimming off a Malibu beach, he got into trouble and began praying, declaring that if he was saved he would dedicate his life to God. After making it back to shore he stayed true to his promise, and despite recording a few more albums began to distance himself from the music scene. He enjoyed one final transatlantic hit in 1977, duetting with Elkie Brooks on (Remember The Days Of The) Old School Yard, but after releasing the Back To Earth album the following year announced that Cat Stevens had officially retired. He converted to Islam and changed his name to Yusuf Islam. In 1979, he entered into an arranged Muslim marriage and four years later founded a Muslim school in London. In recent years he has been very active teaching and spreading the word of Islam. In 1991 prior to the first Gulf War he travelled to Baghdad to seek the freedom of hostages. Reports in 1994 suggested that he was ready to return to the world of the recording studio, albeit only to offer a spoken word narrative on Mohammed - The Life Of The Prophet. He also wrote and performed two new songs for a 1998 Bosnian charity album I Have No Cannons That Roar.
In 2003, the former Cat Stevens began a quiet comeback to the music scene, re-recording Peace Train to express his opposition to the war in Iraq and making the track available for download. Later in the year he played a concert at Londons Royal Albert Hall. His name was splashed all over the media the following September when he was refused entry to the US, supposedly because his name appeared on a terrorism watch list. This ugly diplomatic incident overshadowed news that the singer had returned to the studio to record a new version of Father And Son with Irish artist Ronan Keating. The latter had already recorded a hit version of the track during his time with the Irish boy band Boyzone. The duos version reached the UK Top 5 in December.
Long-standing fans were naturally overjoyed to hear that the now commercially named Yusuf was recording a non-Islamic album. The resulting An Other Cup, released at the end of 2006, was a step back in time. Yusuf not only enlisted the services of former musical colleagues, notably Alun Davies (guitar) and Danny Thompson (bass), but he created the exact tonal sound of his classic albums. His voice was unchanged and the quality of the songs was first class; albeit, the lyrics were restating old themes of searching, spirituality, love and happiness, and some bordered on being trite. For the most part it was a resounding welcome back to one of the greatest ever singer-songwriters.
Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.