Yusuf Islam was born Stephen Demitri Georgiou on July 21, 1948 in London, England. For Yusuf, 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 catalog 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 two), "I'm Gonna Get Me A Gun" (number six) and "A Bad Night" (number 20) were equaled 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. Mona Bone Jakon (1970) was the first in the series of albums that came to define what was known as bedsitter music, and featured the beautiful UK Top Ten hit, "Lady D'Arbanville" (dedicated to his ex-girlfriend Patti D'Arbanville). 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 "Can't 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 there's 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, I'm 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 ten hit singles in the UK and fourteen 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, dueting 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 traveled 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 London's 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 duo's version reached the UK Top Five in December.
An Other Cup is Yusuf's first album of modern pop songs since 1978's Back to Earth
. On his return to music, Yusuf says "I feel right about making music and singing about life in this fragile world again. It is important for me to help bridge the cultural gaps others are sometimes frightened to cross."
Just when we need him most, Yusuf is back with Roadsinger (2009), an eleven-song collection about the evanescent dreams of life and the promise that spiritual fulfillment brings for those who are ready to travel far enough.
“While writing these songs I was getting a new idea every day and every song said, 'sing me’, Yusuf says, sitting casually on a sofa in a hotel suite in Los Angeles. “You don’t 'make’ the music; you just interpret something that’s passing through you.”
The enjoyment that comes in being part of this process of creating music is palpable in every note on Roadsinger. And Yusuf is certain that every step of his amazing journey has led him to this place. “Songwriting is a life vocation if you’re really serious about it,” he says. “And, therefore, it comes from your experiences and the times, tastes and troubles that make up your life.”
Yusuf traveled all over the world to record Roadsinger, including studios in London, Dubai, and others. He produced the album himself, with assistance on three tracks provided by producer Martin Terefe, best known for his work with Jason Mraz, KT Tunstall, James Morrison and Ron Sexsmith. Some of his musical friends - Michelle Branch, Gunnar Nelson, James Morrison, Terry Sylvester and Holly Williams, also chime in on backing vocals.
Much of Roadsinger was recorded live with few overdubs, giving the album an organic, unpretentious feel. Yusuf says, “I borrowed from my own experience making Tea for the Tillerman, I realized that some of the best tracks were all live so I went back into recording things live again.”
Yusuf also revisits his past on the compelling, lovely “Be What You Must” which opens with the lilting, delicate piano melody of “Sitting”, an enduring hit from Catch Bull at Four. Accompanied by a children’s choir, Yusuf bravely and boldly sings that in order to “Be what you must, you must give up what you are.”
Like his best music over the decades, Roadsinger is about a journey of love, after rejection; truth beyond illusion and, ultimately, hope from the opening track, “Welcome Home”, in which Yusuf invites “all seekers this way,” to the closing “Shamsia”, a gentle, meditative instrumental, where he sends us lovingly back into the world of musical sunshine.
But, luckily for us, Yusuf says his musical “seeking” is far from done so we can count on him to keep looking for the answers. “Seeking the perfect song is always the task of every songwriter and you never make it,” he says. “And that’s a great thing, that there’s always something more to write about, something more to sing out loud about.”