Cat Stevens: A Legacy of Lasting Favorites

Posted in MusicWorld on May 19, 2004 by

The artist best known as Cat Stevens is a man of many names — born Steven Georgiou and now named Yusuf Islam — as well as a number of musical incarnations and at least a small measure of controversy. But his songs transcend all of that, as lasting favorites that continue to resonate in his own recordings and numerous cover versions.

His songwriting legacy includes such classics as "Peace Train" (recorded by 10,000 Maniacs, Dolly Parton and Don Williams), "Wild World" (cut by Jimmy Cliff and Maxi Priest) and "The First Cut is the Deepest" (covered by Rod Stewart and, recently, Sheryl Crow). The list of others who have performed songs written by Stevens is as diverse as the modern music scene itself: Pearl Jam, Wayne Newton, Sarah McLachlan, Johnny Cash, Patti LaBelle, The Mavericks, Gilberto Gil, New Order, Floyd Cramer, Yo La Tengo and Elton John, to name but a few. And his catalog includes such other classics as "Moon Shadow," "Where Do The Children Play," "Morning Has Broken" and "Sad Lisa."

It's all an amazing accomplishment for a singer, writer and guitarist who was The Offspring of a Greek father (who ran a London restaurant) and Swedish mother. Raised and educated in Sweden, where his studies included classical music, Stevens landed in England during his late teens. Songs from his debut album, Matthew and Son , made him a U.K. pop star while a hit version of "There Goes My Baby" by The Tremeloes began his decades-long string of high profile covers.

After a bout with tuberculosis in 1969, Stevens reemerged as a unique folk-rock troubadour whose gentle style nonetheless conveyed songs of stunning depth, intensity and resonance. Albums like Mona Bone Jakon , Tea for The Tillerman , Teaser and The Firecat and others made him a staple on American pop and album radio as well as an international star. A longtime spiritual bent led him to convert to Islam in 1979 and not long after change his name and leave the music business. A decade later he made headlines with a statement supporting Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa (Islamic death sentence) against novelist Salman Rushdie that Stevens later claimed to have been misinterpreted. The controversial declaration caused many U.S. radio stations to pull the music of Cat Stevens from their playlists. But the lasting strength of his creations and heart found within them has overcome that situation.

Last year Stevens returned briefly to the pop music scene to re-record "Peace Train" for an album to benefit the children of Iraq that also included contributions from Paul McCartney, David Bowie, George Michael and other British pop stars. “'Peace Train' is a song I wrote, the message of which continues to breeze thunderously through the hearts of millions of human beings," says Stevens, "and there is a powerful need for people to feel that gust of hope rise up again."