Who He Is: A man of multiple names and career phases, born in England of Greek Cypriot and Swedish ancestry, and christened Steven Giorgiou by his parents. In the mid-1960s, he began performing as Cat Stevens, recognizing (probably correctly) that his “ethnic” name was not going to be a draw or a grab in the venues and idioms that he wished to play. He quickly rose to (UK) chart-topping prominence as a prototypical and stereotypical Carnaby Street pop star, with multiple successful singles culled from a pair of fine, richly-orchestrated (bordering on over-wrought) albums. In 1969, Stevens contracted tuberculosis and spent over a year in convalescence and spiritual reflection. His career re-launched in 1970 with the Mona Bone Jakon album, a stripped-down folk record that put the focus squarely on Stevens’ voice and songs. It also marked his first collaboration with guitarist Alun Davies (more on him below), and featured a young Peter Gabriel playing flute on one track. Over the next eight years, Stevens issued eight studio albums, one live record, and a hugely-successful Greatest Hits collection, cementing his commercial and critical reputation as one of the era’s finest singer-songwriters. In the late 1970s, Stevens converted to the Muslim faith, changed his name to Yusuf Islam, and retired from the music industry. He sadly became something of a cultural pariah in the the early 1990s based on reported comments about the fatwa imposed on author Salman Rushdie. Many years later, he stated that his remarks at the time were the result of leading questions posed by a journalist to a man young and naive in his new faith, and that he regretted and rebuked any interpretations of his words that supported a bounty on the head of the (in)famous author of The Satanic Verses. His public life, on a macro basis, has included so much goodness and so much charity that I accepted and continue to accept his explanation and apology in good faith. In 2006, Yusuf returned to the pop music world with the release of his An Other Cup album; he has since released four additional studio albums, and (pre-COVID) had returned to touring in secular venues, after decades of only recording and performing in religious settings.
When I First Heard Him: Probably on AM radio in the early 1970s, though my deepest connection to him came a bit later. As was the case with Neil Diamond, Simon and Garfunkel, and The Bee Gees (among others), my father’s cassette tape collection served to get me obsessed with the artist in question, in this case through Stevens’ 1975 Greatest Hits collection. I loved it to pieces, and I know that the first one of his albums that I bought (as a vinyl record, not as a tape) with my own money was Buddha and the Chocolate Box (1974), which probably remains my favorite of his classic-era albums to this day. I also scored the guitar/vocal music book for that Greatest Hits album, and spent a lot of time playing and singing those songs, both for myself and for others. One Cat-related incident sticks to mind above all others: I was asked by my church’s youth pastor to offer a solo acoustic version of Stevens’ arrangement of “Morning Has Broken” at a sunrise Easter service in a town park on Long Island, some time in the late ’70s. I did so, and it went down gangbusters, if I say so myself. After my opening performance before the rising sun and the church’s large congregation, the grown-ups got down with getting their faith on, while I slipped into the nearby woods with my girlfriend of the time, where we made out in the chilly morning dew. Who says the spiritual and the physical can’t occupy the same times and spaces, if we really want them to?
Why I Love Him: Steven/Cat/Yusuf has a great, emotive voice, generally deployed in the service of deeply-melodic, thematically-sensitive songs with ear-worm caliber hooks and smart lyrics. His AM radio hits are mostly great, but some of the deep-cut tracks on his classic-era albums offer the greatest return on listening investment. I must note that the very best Cat Stevens albums and songs are the ones that he recorded with his core ’70s band/team: guitarist Alun Davies, drummer Gerry Conway, keyboardist Jean Roussel, bassist Bruce Lynch, and producer Paul Samwell-Smith. Lots of solo artists (David Bowie comes to mind, for example, with his Davis-Murray-Alomar-Visconti team) have long and fulfilling careers working with an evolving cast of supporting players, though one era clearly rises above all others in terms of recording and concert quality, because the typically-anonymous musicians who work on behalf of their marquee-named group leaders make collective and collaborative magic together, without ever receiving the critical credit they are due. Cat Stevens’ 1970s band was a killer ensemble of that variety, and every one of my Top Ten Cat Tracks below features some combination of that team, hitting it out of the park, over and over again.
#10. “Peace Train” from Teaser and the Firecat (1971)
#9. “On the Road to Find Out” from Tea for the Tillerman (1970)
#8. “Lady D’Arbanville” from Mona Bone Jakon (1970)
#7. “Where Do The Children Play” from Tea for the Tillerman (1970)
#6. “Trouble” from Mona Bone Jakon (1970)
#5. “Majik of Majiks” from Numbers: A Pythagorean Theory Tale (1975)
#4. “Music” from Buddha and the Chocolate Box (1974)
#3. “Longer Boats” from Tea for the Tillerman (1970)
#2. “Sitting” from Catch Bull at Four (1972)
#1. “Sun/C79” from Buddha and the Chocolate Box (1974)