FAMED BRITISH #2
British Singer-Songwriter and Musician
As one of pop’s most creative talents, he sold over 40 million records and then turned his back on fame, changed his religion and his name. In 1948, Stephen Demetre Georgiou was born to a Greek father and a Swedish mother.
Although he was brought up within the Greek Orthodox community, Stephens’ parents sent him to a Roman Catholic school, where he developed a strong moral conscience.
The family owned a restaurant on Shaftesbury Avenue, in the West End of London, provided employment for Stephen his older brother and sister as they were put to work there waiting on tables from a very early age.
In 1957, Stephen saved enough pocket money to buy his very first single, a song by Little Richards, titled “Baby Face” and he cant get the melody out of his head.
Soon all of England are totally captivated by Leonard Bernstein’s passionate, pulsating music in the American musical “West End Story” now playing at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Haymarket and Stephen is among them. When Beatlemania enters the charts in 1963, Stephen now 15 years old convinces his father to buy him a guitar. The family already owned a baby grand piano, but it was more for show than actually was played as none of the children showed any interest. That was until his musical creativity came into play and along with his guitar, he worked out chord structure and melody.
His preferred genres are Folk and rhythm, and blues. As with most aspiring musicians, he gave it a good crack at putting a band together with a few buddies, but later decided that being a solo artist was the way to go.
Stephens made his debut appearance, during Folk Night at the Black Horse Public House, near his family home in 1964. Whilst continuing his studies at Hammersmith Art College focusing on painting and cartooning, he gains confidence and a regular audience playing at the campus pub and at folk clubs in nearby Soho.
Although painting and cartooning will remain lifelong passions, Stephen leaves college before graduation to concentrate on music having been inspired by the likes of Nina Simone, Bob Dylan and many other Blues Artists. So inspired, he starts to pen his own songs.
In 1965, Stephen enters a small demo studio in Regent Street to record “Back To The Good Old Times/Everythings Piling On”. His brother David then hoofs the pavement, with the intention of getting his brother a recording contract. For all his effort, Stephen signs a publishing deal with Ardmore & Beechwood, for which he records a series of demos, including “The First Cut Is The Deepest” at 30 pounds per song.
In 1966, Mike Hurst, a former member of the Springfield’s is looking to manage and produce new talent. Stephen goes along for the audition, and instead of giving his real name, uses Cat Stevens, because a past girlfriend told him once he had eyes like a cat. The audition goes well, but Hurst is noncommittal. They catch up again later that same year and record four songs to use as demos for recording companies. The demos brought about a management contract and a recording deal with Deram, Decca’s new label.
Of those four songs, Hurst decides to release “I love my dog” as his debut single and the song climbs the charts to #28. His follow up single “Matthew and Son” takes Britain by storm, turning Stevens into a pop phenomenon. He had all of the UK eating out of his hand by the time he released his album with the same title later that year, topping the charts at #2.
In 1967, he releases his third single “Im Gonna Get Me A Gun” which peaks at #6. The lyrics are quite aggressive and probably not what you would expect from Stevens, but it followed with a 28 day tour sharing a stage with musical greats Englebert Humperdinck, The Walker Brothers and Jimmy Hendrix Experience.
When the second album was being put together, Stevens had many heated arguments with Hurst about its arrangement and much darker, deeper side than its predecessor. After the album failed to chart, the two came to legal blows and the atmosphere was extremely tense at best.
By 1968, Stevens is diagnosed with tuberculosis, resulting in an emergency three month stay at King Edward VII Hospital and a further 9 months recovery at home after being discharged. His hard partying ways caught up with him. Stevens himself blamed his drinking, smoking and partying for the illness. It was whilst convalescing he started to read about Buddhism and began meditation.
By the end of the year, Stevens was releasing another song “Here comes my wife’. Strange, considering he was only 20 years of age and single himself. After the release, Stevens took a year long Hiatus from the music industry. Time to reflect on what was, and where he was going. Time to reexamine his pop star lifestyle.
Stevens loves to write songs and music, and his ultimate goal was always to compose musicals like his heroes Gershwin, and Bernstein. Now with a new manager “Barry Krost” who has a background in theatre, he encourages Stevens to forge ahead with his proposed musical about the Romanovs.
A script is prepared with co-writer Nigel Hawthorn, and Stevens writes a handful of songs to compliment the project including “Maybe Your Right”, “The Day They Made Me Tzar” and “Father and Son”. By year end, he will be signed with Chris Blackwell’s Island Records.
In 1970, Stevens releases “Lady D’Arbanville”. A melancholy olde English ballad in which the lady in question (an ex-girlfriend of Stevens) is metaphorically laid to rest. The song is nothing like his previous songs, but is a huge hit regardless reaching #8.
Now cashed up, Stevens decides to move out of the family home, in favour of a three story house in Fulham and puts most of his energy into a Japanese Garden and small studio in the basement. It is here where he will remain until he leaves England for tax reasons four years later.
With the release of “Mona Bone Jakon”, Stevens emerges with an album of highly personal songs. The title track ‘Wild World” peaks at #11.
“Tea for the Tillerman” released in 1970, was Stevens first album to be issued in America under Stevens newly minted deal with A&M Records. Stevens travels to America and makes his stage debut. By the end of the short set, he has won over the audience and receives three encores. He returns home to a sold-out show at Fairfield Hall.
In 1971, back in America, Stevens song “Moonshadow” makes its stage debut. Though the song will have to wait to be recorded back in the Uk as the feature song on his next album “Teaser and the Firecat”. From that album, “Moonshadow”, “Where do the Children Play” and “Peace Train” all chart well giving him notoriety in America.
In America, “Peace Train” was released first, peaking at #8 followed by “Moonshadow” reaching #2. A US tour would follow in October to promote the album playing to bigger audiences.
In November, Stevens released the single “Morning Has Broken” peaking at #9 UK and #6 in the US. It was also the year that saw Stevens head “Down Under” to embark on his first Australian Tour.
His next album “Catch Bull At Four” would be recorded at various studios including the Chateau d’Herouville in France, at Manor Studios, Oxfordshire, and at Morgan Studios in London. The title of the album refers to the Zen Buddhists 10 stages of enlightenment. In December the “Catch Bull At Four” tour comes to a successful close with a sold out concert at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Fans brave the thickest London fog to get to the show.
In 1973, he releases “Foreigner” a very R&B infused album.
His next album “Buddha and The Chocolate Box” would produce two hits “Oh Very Young” peaking at #10 in the UK and #2 in the US and “Another Saturday Night” recorded in studios during his tour in Australia reaches #6 in the US and #19 UK.
Stevens then decides to take a well earned Christmas break from music, travelling to Switzerland where he studies numerology. However, music isn’t far from his mind, so it is here in Switzerland where he completes the rest of his next album appropriately titled “Numbers” released in 1975.
In 1976 whilst performing at the Palacio Municipal in Barcelona, Stevens fractures his right heel while leaping down a flight of hotel stairs running from the paparazzi. He finished the tour in a cast and in considerable pain. He then goes swimming in the Mediterranean hoping to sooth his aching heel, when he is stung by a jellyfish.
His next performance at Karaiskaki Stadium is held the night before school exams, so the concert is half full which further infuriates Stevens. After giving a half hearted performance of “Father and Son”, Stevens drops his guitar and storms off the stage. The concert came to an abrupt halt and Stevens still under contract to the promoter, had to reimburse him.
Stevens was loosing interest fast in maintaining his superstar status.
After another concert to another near empty hall, Stevens pays nearly 300,000 pounds to cover the costs of the mammoth production and never tours again.
Stevens would go on to produce “Izitso” his next album, featuring the single “Remember the Days of the Old Schoolyard” peaking at #44 UK and #33 in the US before entering the Regents Park Mosque in London and formally embracing Islam.
In 1978, During his Islamic studies Cat felt a powerful affinity with the story of Joseph and decided to take its Arabic equivalent as his new name, becoming Yusuf Islam. His contract with Island/A&M still required him to record one more album. It comes with the title “Back To Earth” but rates poorly on the charts, both album and singles.
Yusuf’s father passes away and in 1979, he marries Fawziah Ali at Regents Park Mosque. Fawziah had never heard of Yusuf or his music, she was an Elvis fan at the time. He decides to move back to Britain, to be closer to his ageing mother in Hampstead.
In 1979 Yusef makes a huge announcement that he no longer wishes to do stage performances. When asked if it was a “forever” decision, he replied “I cant be dogmatic and say that I never will again”. I just think that’s not the way I want to go from now on”.
In doing so, walking away from fame and his career as a music star, the was able to start a family and dedicate himself to charitable work. In 1980, the couple welcome their first child, a girl name Hasanah. Hasanah would later welcome 5 siblings.
Yusuf makes the Hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to the holy city of Makkah to the House of God built by Prophet Abraham. He auctions off his musical instruments and gold records and divides the proceeds between various charities. Yusuf became heavily involved with education and humanitarian relief. He helped to found the Muslim Aid charity and participated directly in their early initiatives throughout Africa, Asia, and Europe. In addition, he founded a Muslim primary school in North London in 1983.
Cat Stevens was no more. “Sometimes I had to close my mind to everything else in order to achieve my goal,” Yusuf explains. “I did that when I was a songwriter. I almost didn’t listen to anybody else’s music, because I thought it might influence me, and I’d end up copying them. And I did it when I entered my spiritual discovery of Islam. It made me think only about just that, and I didn’t want to think about anything else.”
In the late 1990s, Yusuf and his wife, Fawziah, established the Small Kindness charity in response to the devastating conflicts in the Balkans. The charity focused its efforts on the needs of orphans, widows, and families. Small Kindness continues to help vulnerable victims of humanitarian disasters and has received international recognition for its work.
Yusuf started to focus on educations recordings, producing them on his own label “Mountain of Light” beginning with “The Life of the Last Prophet” in 1995. Around 2000 he was focussing more on albums for a younger audience, producing cds for children in Muslim including “A is for Allah” and “I Look I See”.
In 2004, Yusuf was on a United Airlines flight from London to Washington to meet with Dolly Parton when the flight was diverted to Bangor Maine. Yusuf was flagged as being on America’s “NO FLY LIST”. When the plane landed, he was immediately removed from the flight and detained by the Department of Home Security. The following day he was denied entry and flown back to the UK. In an interview, a representative from Homeland Security said there were concerns of ties he might have had with potential terrorist-related activities. This wasn’t his first run in with government officials. Back in 2000 Yusuf, the Israeli government deported him over allegations that he provided funding to the Palestinian organisation Hamas. Yusuf later denied knowing anything about the organisation. He didn’t even know such a group existed.
September 11 had a huge impact on Yusuf, and once again he felt compelled to take to the global stage speaking out against the atrocities, against fanaticism and war, calling for peace and unity. He began performing again using some of his old repertoire, most notably “Peace Train” on account of the title and lyrics in the song. The only difference in its delivery was, that it would be done without instruments, usually in spoken word, or a cappella arrangements.
For his fans, they would have to wait another five years before he would return with the release of his album “An Other Cup”. The album was enthusiastically received though it took another three years before the album “Roadsinger” surfaced cementing his relationship with the music industry.
A tour followed, featuring his huge catalogue of old and new songs, first playing to his UK audience 2009, Australia 2010 and the rest of Europe in 2011.
In 2012, Yusuf chose a different musical avenue to stage a musical he wrote himself titled “Moonshadow”. It was launched to an Australian audience first in May of the same year. The story is about a young man and his struggle against an oncoming darkness, his Moonshadow using the songs that made the man he had become throughout his career.
Yusufs, return to music was embraced throughout the world, but in the US he had an emotional reaction to his performance after being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014. He would return to America in 2016 for the “Cats Attic” tour to commemorate the event.
2017 and a fifteenth studio album release “The Laughing Apple” earned Yusuf his first ever Grammy nomination. It also coincided with the 50 year anniversary of the release of “I Love My Dog” and the start of his illustrious career. To celebrate, he extended his “Cats Attic” tour to take in Australia, New Zealand and never before chartered territory, South Africa. With encouragement from Musician and good friend Peter Gabriel, Yusuf returned to a live musical performance. Over 1 million Aussie dollars was donated to various charities underlining Yusuf’s commitment to supporting those most in need.
Yusuf continues to put his creativity to work on many different projects. He recently completed his much anticipated autobiography, to be released in 2021. In addition, he is producing a super deluxe boxed set of his entire catalogue of music. He will also be continuing his humanitarian efforts delivering medical aid and education to those in need and promoting peace and respect amongst children of all colours and races.
Closer to home, on the 29th March 2019, Yusuf performed in Christchurch, New Zealand at the National Remembrance Service for Victims and families of the Christchurch Mosque Shootings.
If one was to write about Yusuf’s life in great detail, this article would never be published. What I have attempted here is to give embrace a small part of this great mans work and charitable offerings. Throughout the course of this amazing mans life, Yusuf has won over peoples hearts and with the use of his endearing lyrics, he has entertained millions and not just talked about his charities, but given so much of his own money to empower them. Yusuf we your fans salute you.