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Cat Stevens

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Cat Stevens

The British singer-songwriter known as Cat Stevens has had many identities in his life: popstar, folk singer, and, most recently, Muslim activist. After a highly successful career in musicduring which he sold over 25 million albums, Stevens left public life in 1979 and took the name Yusuf Islam, becoming a devout Muslim active in cultural education causes in Britain.

Born in London in 1948 to a Swedish mother and a Greek Cypriot father, Stephen Demetri Georgiou was educated in Sweden, where he studied native songs and dances aswell as classical music. In the '60s he returned to London, where his father owned a restaurant, and entered Hammersmith College art school.Georgiou began performing guitar-based folk-pop under the name Cat Stevens, andbecame a regular in local pubs and coffeehouses. Stevens soon attracted the attention ofindependent record producer Mike Hurst, a former member of the folk-pop group the Springfields; in the summer of 1966 Stevens recorded a demo with Hurst, who shopped it around Britain and landed Stevens a deal with the new label Deram Records.

At 19 years of age Stevens released his debut album, Matthew And Son, a pop-rock record which became a hit in the U.K., the title single and "I Love My Dog"both charting in the Top 10. Stevens toured Britain as part of a bizarre package tour withJimi Hendrix and Engelbert Humperdink, and released his sophomore effort New Masters the following year. The 1967 album marked the start of Stevens' long-timecollaboration with singer/guitarist Alun Davies, but was a commercial failure. (A singlefrom New Masters, "The First Cut Is the Deepest," became a hit for Rod Stewartin the 1970s.)

Several years of wild living caught up with Stevens in 1969, when, near death,he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and spent a year in the hospital undergoing treatment.While recovering, Stevens underwent a spiritual crisis and began studying Eastern religions, practicing vegetarianism, and writing highly introspective songs. A changed man, Stevenssigned a new record deal with Island, who had just landed a U.S. distribution agreement withA&M, and began recording new material.

Stevens' first A&M release, 1970's Mona Bone Jakon, was a solid album that established Stevens' new image as a sensitive singer-songwriter. His next record, Tea for the Tillerman, was released later that same year to overwhelming success.With the hit singles "Wild World" and "Father and Son," the album became an instantfolk-pop classic and went to No. 1 in the U.S., earning gold status.

Before Tillerman Stevens had toured America several times, playing acoustic guitar as an opening act for rock bands like King Crimson and Seatrain; after TillermanStevens began headlining extravagant performances, replete with magicians and tigers, dancers and back-up singers. An unprecedented prime-time appearance on ABC's"In Concert" program cemented his status as a U.S. superstar.

1971's Teaser and the Firecat repeated Tillerman's success and contained theinternational anti-war hit "Peace Train." The album also spawned a children's book andshort film. 1972's Catch a Bull at Four was Stevens' first and only No. 1 album, and was followed the next year by the less-acclaimed The Foreigner, which wentto No. 3.

In 1973 Stevens' brother David visited Israel and, aware of his brother's fascination withreligion, returned with a copy of the Koran as a souvenir. Stevens was awed bythe book and began studying Islam. His next album, 1974's The Buddah and the Chocolate Box, reached No. 2 in the U.S. but marked the end of Stevens' most fertileperiod as a performer, his growing interest in Islam slowly eclipsing his songwriting.

1975's Numbers was an ill-fated concept album that was the first of Stevens'recordings to peak below the Top 10 in Britain. Sensing that the end was near, A&M issued a Greatest Hits collection that June.

In 1977 Stevens made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and released the pop album Izitso,a commercial album that was decried by long-time fans as a sellout. In December of thatyear Stevens formally converted to Islam at a London mosque, taking the new nameYusuf Islam. A&M released what was to be the last Cat Stevens album, Backto Earth, in early 1978; by 1979 Stevens/Islam had married and retired from pop music.

During the 1980s Islam settled in London with his wife and five children and became very involved in the local Muslim community, founding one of Britain's topIslamic schools. Meanwhile A&M released a second "greatest hits" package in 1984(entitled Footsteps in the Dark), which included previously unreleased songs Stevens recorded for the 1971 cult movie Harold and Maude.

Yusuf Islam had nearly faded from public consciousness when in 1989 he made the infamous announcement that he supported the Ayatollah Khomeini's death sentence for Satantic Verses author Salman Rushdie. American radio stations stopped playing Cat Steven songs in protest -- WNEW in New York even gave away free copies of The Satanic Verses to listeners who turned in their old Cat Stevens records.

In 1995 Islam released his first "record" since retiring from pop music, a two-CD set calledThe Life of the Last Prophet which features one disc of Muslim chanting andanother disc of Yusuf Islam reading a 66-minute biography of Muhammad. Though it was ignored in the West, the double-album reached No. 1 in Turkey and was a hit in most of the Muslim world, where it was lauded by critics.

In 1997 Yusuf Islam announced that he is working on an album of Bosnian songs and poems,including a new song Islam wrote about Muslim children killed in the Balkan wars.


 

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