Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Cat came back - Cat Stevens, that is . . . or did he?

True, at one time – following my embracing of Islam – I was ready to cast the whole music thing behind me and get on with my new life far away from the spotlights, public appearances and adoring crowds.

In a letter to my record companies, I asked them to let me off my obligations, which involved producing another three albums. They graciously agreed… perhaps thinking that this was just another short-term spiritual excursion.

It wasn't. The Cat never came back. Instead, I changed my name to Yusuf, decided to get married, and bought a small semi-detached house in Hampstead Garden Suburbs, London, a few doors away from my mother.

- Cat Stevens/Yusuf
Rolling Stone Magazine
April 4, 2014

During the late 1960s and much of the 1970s, Cat Stevens' gentle folk rock sound filled the airwaves. He was one of the most successful songwriters and recording artists of the era with hit song after hit song. His hits includes "Moonshadow" (1971), "Peace Train"(1971), "Wild World" (1971), "Morning Has Broken" (1972), "Oh Very Young" (1974) and more. There were hit albums too: Tea for the Tillerman, Teaser and the Firecat and Catch Bull at Four.

Then it all ended abruptly before Stevens had even reached the age of 30.  The popular balladeer announced his conversion to Islam and declared that his religious beliefs were not compatible with his career as a singing star. How and why did he transform himself from a hard-living bohemian folk-rock singer into a devout Muslim?  Let's examine his background to find some answers.

Cat Stevens, now known as Yusuf Islam, was born Steven Demetre Georgiou on July 21, 1948 in a district of London, England called Marylebone.  He was the third child of a Greek Cypriot father, Stavros Georgiou, and a Swedish mother, Ingrid Wickman.  Along with his older siblings (his sister Anita, and brother, David),  young Steven lived above the restaurant his parents operated.  The restaurant, called The Moulin Rouge, was located at 245 Shaftesbury Avenue (with a second entrance on New Oxford Street), just steps from Piccadilly Circus and the Soho theatre district of London.

In an October 2014 interview with Ken Sharp for Rockcellar Magazine, the former Cat Stevens was asked what it was like growing up in the lively London theatre district.  Here is his reply:

It was the backdrop. And in a way one of the major influences of my life and career was the fact that I grew up in the center of London and the hub of the West End where theatres and coffee bars and jukeboxes played throughout the night. So in a way it was natural that I fell into the entertainment world. It was a natural step

Steven Georgiou was raised in a Christian home.  Although his father was of the Greek Orthodox faith and his mother was a Baptist, they chose to educate their son at a private Catholic school in London (St. Joseph Roman Catholic Primary School on Macklin Street).  Steven also attended other local schools in the West End, where he received poor grades in everything but art.  At a young age, he took an interest in piano and later, influenced by The Beatles, he was became drawn to guitar-playing.  While in his early teens, he persuaded his father to purchase a guitar for him.  He eagerly learned how to play the instrument and began composing his own songs.

Steven's parents broke up when he was about eight years old. They remained business partners, however, and the entire family, helped out at the restaurant.  Meanwhile, the teenage Steven aspired to become an artist like his uncle Hugo Wickman (his mother's brother), who was a well-known painter in Sweden.  He enrolled at Hammersmith Art College, considering a career as a cartoonist, but he couldn't get music out of his system.

In July of 1964, while still at Hammersmith, he made his folk music debut at a local London bar called Black Horse, performing under the name "Steve Adams." He began singing in small coffee houses, clubs and pubs around the city, and his music attracted attention. In 1965, he signed with Decca records and adopted the stage name "Cat Stevens," partly because a girlfriend had remarked that he had eyes like a cat.   Stevens certainly had the look of a troubadour. With wavy black hair and soulful eyes, he appeared sensitive and thoughtful.  The up-and-coming singer soon released his first album, Matthew and Son.  

Two tracks from Matthew and Son became quite successful as singles.  In October 1966, his composition "I Love My Dog" reached the British charts.  His next single, "Matthew and Son," was even more successful.  It entered the charts in January of 1967 and just missed becoming number one in the U.K.   In the United States, "Matthew and Son" straddled at the bottom of the charts. Although Stevens had been popular overseas, it was not until the American release of Tea for the Tillerman in 1970, with its hit single "Wild World," that he became a true star in the U.S.  The album went gold, and created interest in the singer's previous recordings.

By his late teens, Cat Stevens was headed for stardom and he was tasting the fruits of fame.  ''My first experience was a dazzling one, as an 18-year-old with a hit record and girls chasing me all over Europe,'' he told Karl Quinn in a 2012 interview for the Sydney Morning Herald. ''There I was on tour with (Jimi) Hendrix and everything that was a consequence of that. I didn't learn that much, I just succumbed to the moment, and that was stardom."

Stevens did not only fall under the spell of stardom, he also succumbed to the lure of alcohol and drugs.  "For sure we did all that," he admitted to Karl Quinn.  "And because of that I contracted tuberculosis at (21). That was an important inoculation, because I knew then that whatever I did next I must keep more control, I must keep my own interests at heart, and not worry too much about what the manager and agents, and even the public, were saying.''

Although Cat Stevens was experiencing success as a pop star, he was not satisfied.  He longed to release some of his more mature songs. Decca, however, refused to accommodate him.  They preferred that the singer continue to focus on a teenage audience.  This disappointed Stevens and caused him to sink into a depression.  The depression, combined with his stressful and hard-partying lifestyle, had a negative effect on his health.

After contracting tuberculosis in 1968, Cat Stevens became gravely ill.  According to the BBC' News website, "the singer 'spent three months in hospital and another year recuperating."  The illness prompted him to take a look at his life and to embark on a spiritual journey.  He underwent an existential crisis and spent years searching for answers.  During his quest for enlightenment,
Stevens investigated eastern faiths such Zen Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism, and he also looked into astrology, tarot cards and numerology.

While vacationing in Morocco, Cat became captivated by the sound of the Muslim call to prayer. He was deeply impressed by this "music to God."  In 1976, he came close to drowning off the Malibu coast in California.  He vowed to do God's work if his life were spared.  A wave soon came and transported him safely to shore.  The near-death experienced strengthened his resolve to find spiritual fulfillment.

That same year, following a visit to a mosque in Jerusalem, Cat Stevens' brother David gifted him with a copy of the Qur'an as a 28th-birthday present. Stevens read it, and after an intense study of Islam, he decided that he had found the answers to his questions about the meaning of life. On December 23, 1977, Stevens officially converted to the Muslim faith.  He auctioned off his guitars and devoted himself to charitable and educational causes within the Islamic community.  On July 4, 1978, he changed his name to Yusuf Islam.

In order to fulfill contractual obligations, Yusuf produced one more album under the name "Cat Stevens."  The album. Back to Earth, was recorded in November of 1978 and released on December 3, 1978.  On the very day of the album's release, the singer's father, Stavros Georgiou, passed away.

On September 7, 1979, the former Cat Stevens wed Fauzia Mubarak Ali, the daughter of a Surbiton accountant (Surbiton is a suburban area in south-west London).  Their marriage has been falsely described as an arranged one,  In a November 10, 2006 story by Alexis Pedridis in The Guardian, Stevens himself said: "I simply had two girls that I was, in a way, interested in marrying. I invited them home separately and asked my mother which one she thought I should marry and, by God, she was perfectly right.".

The nuptials took place  at Regent's Park Mosque in London, The couple raised five children (four daughters and son named Muhammad) and are now grandparents. (There was a sixth child, their youngest, who died at 13 days).

Fauzia Mubarak Ali

Since his conversion to the Muslim faith, the former Cat Stevens has become embroiled in some bitter controversies.  In February of 1989, he received a great deal of media criticism for seeming to condone Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa on author Salman Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses.  He later claimed to be misinterpreted and that the statement was the result of his naivety at the time.  He denied ever calling for the death of Salman Rushdie.

Yusuf unequivocally condemned the 2001 World Trade Centre terrorist attacks and the July 7. 2005 London bombings.  Here is his statement at the time of the 9/11 attacks.

I wish to express my heartfelt horror at the indiscriminate terrorist attacks committed against innocent people of the United States yesterday. While it is still not clear who carried out the attack, it must be stated that no right-thinking follower of Islam could possibly condone such an action. The Qur'an equates the murder of one innocent person with the murder of the whole of humanity. We pray for the families of all those who lost their lives in this unthinkable act of violence as well as all those injured; I hope to reflect the feelings of all Muslims and people around the world whose sympathies go out to the victims of this sorrowful moment.

On September 21, 2004, Yusuf  boarded a United Airlines flight from London to Washington. D.C. He was scheduled to meet up with Dolly Parton, who had recorded "Peace Train" and was planning to include him on her new album.  However, during the flight, his name was tagged as being on The No Fly List.  The plane was rerouted to Bangor, Maine and Yusuf was detained by U.S. Department of Homeland Security officers.  The next day, he was refused entry into the United States and was flown back to Britain.  Homeland Security later said there were "concerns of ties he may have to potential terrorist-related activities" and added him to a "watch list."

In October of 2004, two British newspapers, The Sun and The Sunday Times, endorsed the United States' refusal to allow Yusuf entry into the country, accusing the singer of supporting terrorism.  He responded by launching a successful libel suit against the two papers.  An out-of-court settlement was reach and both papers issued apologies to him.

The incident sparked an international controversy and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw complained to his American counterpart, Secretary of State Colin  Powell.  However, in 2006, Yusuf had no problem entering the United States for performances and interviews

In the 1990s, Yusuf Islam began his gradual return to a musical career.  He was driven. he told interviewer Karl Quinn, "by a desire ''to start bridging some of my dreams unfulfilled."  He was especially motivated by his desire to write a musical - and yes. he did write that musical.  He called it Moonshadow: The Musical, .after the blockbuster hit from his 1971 album Teaser and the Firecat.

In the same way Mamma Mia highlights the music of ABBA, Moonshadow: The Musical, consists of a story based around a long list of Cat Stevens songs.  It premiered at the Princess Theatre in Melbourne, Australia on May 31, 2012, with Yusuf in attendance.  The show received mixed reviews and closed early.  

When he returned to making music, Yusuf's initial works featured only percussion sounds and Islamic-themed lyrics.  ln 2006, he recorded and actively promoted An Other Cup, his first pop music album of new songs in 28 years.  In 2009, he released Roadsinger (To Warm You Through the Night). The album made its debut on the Billboard 200 at position number 41 and on the UK charts at nuuber 10. One of the tracks, "Everytime I Dream," was inspired by the Salmon Rushdie controversy.

On October 27, 2014, Yusuf/Cat Stevens released a  a new album called Tell 'em I'm Gone, produced by Legacy Recordings.  The  ten-track album, his first since 2009's Roadsinger, contains a mixture of cover songs and new material.  The Cat id definitely back, but he has been changed by age, experience and his conversion to Islam.  His hair and beard are grey now, but his voice is intact.

In 2011, the former Cat Stevens embarked on a European tour, performing in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, Belgium and Sweden.  He is about to embark on another tour, which includes North America, where he hasn't performed in 36 years.  It's called the "Peace Train... Late Again Tour" and its first North American stop will be my city, Toronto.  Here's the schedule, according to his website.

Nov 4, 2014 - London  Hammersmith Eventim Apollo
Nov 5. 2014 - London  Hammersmith Eventim Apollo
Nov 9, 2014 - Brussels  Forest National
Nov 11, 2014 - Milan  Mediolanum Forum
Nov 13, 2014 - Vienna  Stadthalle
Nov 16, 2014 - Paris  Zenith
Nov 20, 2014 - Berlin  Tempodrom
Nov 23, 2014 - Hamburg  CCH1
Nov 25, 2014 - Dusseldorf  Mitsubishi Electric Hall
Dec 1, 2014 - Toronto  Massey Hall
Dec 4, 2014 - Philadelphia  Tower Theatre
Dec 7, 2014 - Boston  Wang Theatre
Dec 9, 2014 - Chicago  The Chicago Theatre
Dec 12, 2014 - San Francisco  Masonic Auditorium
Dec 14, 2014 - Los Angeles  Nokia Theatre

After all these years, how does Yusuf/Cat Stevens view his musical legacy?  He has said that "Moonshadow" is his favourite of all his old songs. In a July 1, 2006 article for American Songwriter ("Cat Stevens: Full Circle," by Ken Sharp), the singer/songwriter expressed his pride in the 1971 ballad.  He declared, "'Moonshadow"' is what I call the eternal optimist's anthem, which is fine.  If that's the final word on my music, I think that's what should be remembered."

In 2009, when Yusuf appeared on The Chris Isaak Hour, he explained how the song came about:  "I was on a holiday in Spain. I was a kid from the West End (of London) - bright lights, et cetera.  I never got to see the moon on its own in the dark, there were always streetlamps. So there I was on the edge of the water on a beautiful night with the moon glowing, and suddenly I looked down and saw my shadow. I thought that was so cool, I'd never seen it before."        


Some sources list Cat Stevens' birth date as July 21, 1947.      

*  His mother, Ingrid Wickman, passed away c. 1989.  She was a native of Gävle, Sweden.

*  Stevens' former girlfriend, American actress Patti D'Arbanville, was the inspiration for the song "Lady D'Arbanville" from his 1970 album Mona Bone Jackson.  She apparently also inspired two of his other songs - "Hard-Headed Woman "and "Wild World."

*  For several months in 1971, Cat Stevens was romantically linked with another American - singer Carly Simon.  The two met while Stevens was preparing for his first American shows at the Troubador in Los Angeles.  During their relationship, they wrote songs about each other.  For example, Cat Stevens wrote the song "Sweet Scarlet" from his album Catch Bull  at Four for Carly. Simon, however, married James Taylor on November 3, 1972.

Cat Stevens with ex-girlfriend Carly Simon

* Although Cat Stevens chose a music career over and art career, he is a talented artist.  He drew and designed his album covers, most famously for Tea for the Tillerman and Teaser and the Firecat.

*  In 1965, Cat Stevens signed a publishing deal with Ardmore & Beechwood and recorded several demos of his compositions, including "The First Cut is the Deepest."  He had originally planned on being a songwriter and wrote the tune with the intention of promoting it to other artists.

"The First Cut is the Deepest" has the distinction of being a hit for four different artists: P.P. Arnold (1967); Keith Hampshire (1973); Rod Stewart (1977) and Sheryl Crow (2003).  In May of 1967, the P.P. Arnold version reached number 18 on the UK Singles Chart.  Stevens himself did not record his own version until October of 1967.  It appeared on his second album, New Masters, which was released in December 1967.  He has never released his original recording of the song as a single.

By the way, Cat Stevens reportedly sold "The First Cut is the Deepest" to P.P. Arnold for 30 pounds.

*  In 1978, after his conversion to the Muslim faith, Cat Stevenss adopted the name Yusuf Islam. "Yusuf" is the Islamic translation of "Joseph."  Stevens chose the name because he identified with the Joseph whose story is told in the Bible and the Qur'an and who was sold into slavery.  He now calls himself Yusuf/Cat Stevens professionally because so many people recognize him as "Cat Stevens."

*  Yusuf/Cat Stevens and his wife, Fauzia (who's of Afghan and Turkish descent). currently reside in London and spend part of each year in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.  Their son, Muhammad Islam, is a singer-songwriter who has adopted the name Yoriyos,  Yusuf credits Muhammad with inspiring him to pick up the guitar again after so many years.  His then-17-year-old placed his own guitar where his father couldn't help but notice it.  "He bought a guitar back into the house and was writing songs in his bedroom," Yusuf has said.  "I had no idea he was doing it or that he was so talented."

On November 27, 2006, at the age of 21, Muhammad released his debut album, Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, under the name Yoriyos.  The release of Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee came just a couple of weeks after Another Cup, his father's first album in 28 years.

The former Cat Stevens with his son

*  In April of 2014, Yusf was inducted into the Rock and Rock Hall of Fame for his work under the name of Cat Stevens.  He was inducted by Art Garfunkel at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York.

- Joanne