For the balance of the 1970s Cat Stevens was a trans-Atlantic superstar whose soft, romantic, hooky, and often-mystical singles were Top Ten mainstays. After eight gold albums in a row, the commercially and critically lauder singer/songwriter’s star began to fade. By the late-1970s, following a near-drowning experience, Stevens converted to Islam and changed his name to Yusef Islam dropping out of music throughout the 1980s and most of the 1990s. By the turn of the millennium, however, he began to make a comeback albeit under a different persona.
The son of a Greek father and Swedish mother, Stevens (b. Steven Demetri Georgiou, Jul 21, 1947, London, Eng.) spent his early youth developing a love of Greek folk songs and dances. By the time he entered secondary school, he had also taken an interest in rock and roll and English and American folk music. While attending Hammersmith College in the mid-1960s, he began writing his own songs and performing solo.
In 1966 independent producer Mike Hurst (formerly with the Springfields) produced Stevens’ first U.K. hit single, “I Love My Dog.” In 1967 “Matthew and Son” went to Number Two on the British chart. Meanwhile, Stevens’ tunes were British hits for other performers as well. P.P. Arnold hit with “The First Cut Is the Deepest” (later covered by Rod Stewart and Sheryl Crow), the Tremeloes with “Here Comes My Baby.” Stevens toured England and Europe, becoming something of a teen idol, and shared bills with Jimi Hendrix and Engelbert Humperdinck, among others.
But Stevens became disenchanted with what he considered the shallowness of his ventures. After his 1968 hit “I’m Gonna Get Me a Gun” (Number Six U.K.), he tried to work ambitious classical arrangements into his tunes, to his producers’ chagrin. Stevens’ career then came to a standstill when he contracted a near-fatal case of tuberculosis in late 1968 and was confined to a hospital for a year. He took that time to work on his new material, which was unveiled in Mona Bone Jakon, a critical success that yielded a British hit single in “Lady D’Arbanville” (Number Eight U.K., 1970) (purportedly about the actress Patti D’Arbanville). The muted accompaniment was by flutist Peter Gabriel (who would soon find his own fame in Genesis), percussionist Harvey Burns, and perennial Stevens collaborator guitarist Alun Davies.
Stevens’ next album, Tea for the Tillerman, hit the U.S. Top Ten and stayed on the charts for well over a year, yielding the hit “Wild World.” Stevens was now a highly successful concert performer as well. The next album was another hit; Teaser and the Firecat went to Number Three, then gold, and contained the hits “Morning Has Broken” (Number Six), “Peace Train” (Number Seven), and “Moon Shadow” (Number 30). Though Catch Bull at Four and Foreigner were also certified gold, they yielded no big hits. At that time, unbeknownst to many of his fans, Stevens was living in Brazil, donating much of his earnings to charities such as UNESCO. With Buddah and the Chocolate Box, featuring “Oh Very Young” (Number 10), and Numbers, Stevens’ sales dropped off.
In 1975 Stevens began studying the Koran and later converted to the Muslim religion. In late 1981 the rechristened Stevens announced, “I’m no longer seeking applause and fame,” and auctioned off all his material possessions, including his gold records. By then he had married Fouzia Ali; as of the late 1980s, they had five children, and he was running a Muslim school outside London. In 1987 10,000 Maniacs covered “Peace Train,” and the following year Maxi Priest hit the U.K. Top Ten with a version of “Wild World.” What might have grown into a Stevens revival, however, was nipped in 1989, when the media reported that the singer allegedly supported Iran’s death-sentence condemnation of Satanic Verses author Salman Rushdie, whose book had supposedly blasphemed the Muslim faith (Stevens claims he was misinterpreted). American radio stations observed an airplay boycott of Stevens’ material; 10,000 Maniacs removed “Peace Train” from later pressings of the album on which it appeared.
In the mid-’90s Yusef Islam founded his own label, Mountain of Light, on which he released spoken-word albums. The albums A Is for Allah (2000) and I Look, I See (2003) contain songs for children in addition to spoken pieces. He followed those with the concert disc A Night of Remembrance: Live at the Royal Albert Hall. In 2000 Islam, who has supported humanitarian efforts in Bosnia, oversaw the release of a Stevens retrospective and began to resurface in the music press, claiming to have been unfairly vilified and misquoted about the Rushdie incident. Twenty-eight years after he left the major-label pop world as Cat Stevens, he returned on Atlantic Records as Yusef Islam with An Other Cup (Number 52, 2006), a set of folk-pop songs that hearkened back to his pop-star days but with clear religious messages. He continues to release religious albums and music for children independently.