Musician Yusef/Cat Stevens turns 70

The trauma sharpened Cat Stevens’ quest for a more spiritually focused life.

There’s an article in the September 15, 2017 New Yorker entitled The Unlikely Return of Cat Stevens. That’s the truth.

“In the years since he formally retired from the popular music world, in 1978, his name has popped up in the media from time to time… It was difficult to… reconcile this cold, humorless, unhappy, and severe-looking man with the joyful, understanding, goofy, wise songwriter whose music we’d known and loved.

“For a long time, the man who’d changed his name to Yusuf Islam had completely disowned his artistic output as Cat Stevens—a confusing, dispiriting slap in the face to those it once meant a great deal to.”

A GREAT deal.

Steven Demetre Georgiou, born on 21 July 1948 in the Marylebone area of London, was the youngest child of a Greek Cypriot father, Stavros Georgiou (1900–1978), and a Swedish mother, Ingrid Wickman (1915-1989). “They lived above the family’s restaurant, Moulin Rouge, and everyone, including the children, helped out with the business.”

His interest in music began as a young teen, playing piano and guitar by 15, inspired by the Beatles, folk music, and show tunes such as West Side Story. He also took up drawing, “a skill later displayed in the purposely naive paintings that adorned the covers of his best-known albums.

“By 1966 he had chosen the stage name Cat Stevens because… his girlfriend said his eyes had a feline shape and allure.”

He had some early success on his first two albums. But he made a major change in both his music and his philosophy after contracting tuberculosis, which nearly killed him.

Tea for the Tillerman, which became a Top 10 Billboard hit, sold over 500,000 copies within six months of its release. Teaser and the Firecat (1971) was equally successful.
“Many more hits followed, in an increasingly broad range of styles and arrangements…

“By that time, the singer had already started his religious sojourn… Stevens almost drowned off the coast of Malibu, California [in 1975]. The trauma sharpened his quest for a more spiritually focused life. He found his way into Islam, changing his name to Yusuf Islam in July 1978. The singer’s next album, Back to Earth (1978), would be his last pop record for decades.”

He was embroiled in a long-running controversy “regarding comments which he made in 1989 about the death fatwa on author Salman Rushdie.” He believes he was misunderstood, but 10,000 Maniacs removed his Peace Train from one of their albums. In perhaps a confusion over a similar name, he was on a No-Fly list into the United States in 2004.

He started making music again in the 1990s, “though, at first, it was of an entirely religious nature… He didn’t start exploring secular music again until the new millennium, leading to the release of An Other Cup in 2006, by which point he was again allowed to fly into the US.

Listen to:

The First Cut Is the Deepest from Mona Bone Jakon

Tea for the Tillerman
Where Do the Children Play?
Hard Headed Woman
Wild World
Sad Lisa
Father and Son

Teaser and the Firecat
The Wind; a great description of this song on his Rock and Hall Hall of Fame 2014 induction page
Morning Has Broken
Bitterblue
Moonshadow
Peace Train

Oh Very Young from Buddha and the Chocolate Box (1974)

Boots and Sand, about his 2004 exclusion from the US, recorded in 2008, featuring Paul McCartney, Dolly Parton, and Terry Sylvester

Yusuf / Cat Stevens – CBS Sunday Morning Interview, 2014

Saturday Sessions (CBS)- His most recent album re-covers some of his earliest music (2017)

Coverville: 599: The Cat Stevens Cover Story (August 5, 2009) and 1179: Scrambled Cover Stories for Don Henley, Carlos Santana and Cat Stevens (July 19, 2017)