Cat Stevens - Biography

Cat Stevens

 
Cat Stevens (born Steven Demetre Georgiou on July 21 1948), now known as Yusuf Islam, is a well-known British musician, singer-songwriter and a prominent convert to Islam.

At the outset of his musical career, Georgiou adopted the stage name Cat Stevens; under this moniker, he sold over 60 million albums, mostly in the 1970s. His most notable songs include "Morning Has Broken", "Peace Train", "Moonshadow", "Wild World", "Father and Son", "Matthew and Son", "The First Cut Is the Deepest", and "Oh Very Young".

Stevens became a convert to Islam in 1977, after a near-death experience. He adopted the name Yusuf Islam in 1979, and became an outspoken advocate for the religion. A decade later, controversy arose when he was reported to have made comments supporting a fatwa calling for the murder of author Salman Rushdie, and in 2004, returned to the public eye when he was denied entry into the United States after his name appeared on a no-fly list.

Yusuf Islam currently lives with his wife and children in London, where he is an active member of the Muslim community. He founded, and is chairman of, the Small Kindness charity, which initially assisted famine victims in Africa and now supports thousands of orphans and families in the Balkans, Indonesia, and Iraq. Islam also founded the charity Muslim Aid, but left as founding Chairman in 1999.

Of late, Yusuf Islam is scheduled to release a new pop album in November 2006 entitled "An Other Cup". This would be his first pop album in 28 years.

Early life and career

Steven Georgiou was the third child of a Greek-Cypriot father (Stavros Georgiou) and a Swedish mother (Ingrid Wickman). The family lived above the restaurant that his parents operated on Shaftesbury Avenue, a few steps from Piccadilly Circus and Soho.

Although his father was Greek Orthodox, Georgiou was sent to a Catholic school, St. Joseph Roman Catholic Primary School in Macklin Street.

When Georgiou was about eight years old, his parents divorced, although they both continued to live above the restaurant. Later, his mother moved back to Gävle, Sweden and took him with her. It was there that he started developing his drawing skills, due to the influence of his uncle Hugo (a painter).

At age 16, he left high school and was accepted, then later dismissed from, Hammersmith Art School. It was during this period he was first influenced by folk music.

Early musical career

At age 18 in 1966, eager to establish a music career, Georgiou sought the help of manager/producer Mike Hurst. Hurst enjoyed Georgiou's songs and had a friend financially support his first single, "I Love My Dog". Over the next two years, Georgiou toured with moderate success and placed several single releases in the British pop music charts under the name "Cat Stevens". His debut album was Matthew and Son which was released in 1966. At the end of 1967, Stevens released New Masters which failed to chart in the United Kingdom; the album is now most notable for "The First Cut Is the Deepest" which has become an international hit for P.P. Arnold, Rod Stewart and Sheryl Crow.

On August 14 1967, his voice joined with other recording artists on the airwaves of Wonderful Radio London bemoaning the loss of the pirate radio station which had helped create his first hit record.

In early 1968, at the age of nineteen, Stevens contracted tuberculosis. After several months in the hospital and a year of convalescence, Stevens returned to recording, but his attempts at a comeback single were poorly received.

Comeback after tuberculosis

In 1970, Stevens signed with Island Records and released Mona Bone Jakon, an introspective, folk music-based album that was markedly different from his earlier work. The album featured the songs "Lady D'Arbanville" that was written for Stevens' girlfriend at the time, actress Patti D'Arbanville; "Pop Star" that commented on his mixed success as a '60s teen hitmaker; and "Katmandu", featuring Genesis frontman Peter Gabriel playing flute.

The album presaged the coming singer-songwriter boom and set the stage for Stevens' international breakthrough album, Tea for the Tillerman. Tillerman combined a brighter sound and subject matter with Stevens' new folk style, and became a hit on both sides of the Atlantic, highlighted by the top-10 single "Wild World".

Having established a signature sound, Stevens enjoyed a string of successes over the following years. Teaser and the Firecat (1971) reached #2 in the US and yielded several hits, including "Peace Train", "Morning Has Broken" (featuring Yes's Rick Wakeman on piano), and "Moonshadow". Also in 1971, several of his songs were used in the soundtrack to the movie "Harold and Maude", including at least one that had not been on any album prior to its inclusion on a second greatest hits collection many years later.

Subsequent releases throughout the 1970s were met with consistent success; the final album under the name Cat Stevens was Back to Earth, released in late 1978.

Conversion and life as Yusuf Islam

When Stevens nearly drowned in an accident in Malibu in 1975, he pleaded with God to save him. Stevens described the event in a VH1 interview some years later: "I suddenly held myself and I said, 'Oh God! If you save me, I'll work for you.'" The near-death experience intensified his long-held quest for spiritual truth; when his brother David gave him a copy of the Qur'an, Stevens began to find peace with himself and began his transition to Islam. He formally converted to the Islamic faith in 1977 and he legally changed his name to Yusuf Islam.

Muslim faith and musical career

Following his conversion, Islam abandoned his career as a pop star. Song and the use of musical instruments is an area of debate (considered prohibited by Haram) in Muslim jurisprudence (law) and is the primary reason Cat Stevens retreated from the pop spotlight. At one point he wrote to the record companies asking that his music no longer be distributed, but his request was denied.

In 1981 Islam founded Islamia Primary School in Salusbury Road in the north London area of Kilburn.

In 1985, Islam decided to return to the public spotlight for the first time since his religious conversion at the historic Live Aid concert, inspired by the famine threatening Ethiopia. Though he had written a song especially for the occasion, his appearance was skipped when Elton John's set ran too long.

Current musical career

For several years during the 1990s, he made recordings featuring Islamic lyrics accompanied only by basic percussion instruments in his compositions. He also produced an album called A is for Allah as an instruction for children after realizing there were few materials designed to educate children about the Islamic religion. He later established the record label called Mountain of Light Productions that donates a percentage of its proceeds to Islam's Small Kindness charity.

In 2003, after repeated encouragement from within the Muslim world, Yusuf Islam once again recorded the song "Peace Train" for a compilation CD which also included performances by David Bowie and Paul McCartney.

He performed ""Wild World"" in Nelson Mandela's 46664 Concert with his former session player Peter Gabriel, for which he both performed and recorded in the English language for the first time in twenty-five years. Islam explained that the reason why he had stopped performing in English was due to his own misunderstanding of the Islamic faith:

This issue of music in Islam is not as cut-and-dried as I was led to believe ... I relied on heresy [sic], that was perhaps my mistake.

In a separate press release, Islam rationalises his revived recording career:

After I embraced Islam many people told me to carry on composing and recording but at the time I was hesitant for fear that it might be for the wrong reasons. I felt unsure what the right course of action was. I guess it is only now after all these years that I've come to fully understand and appreciate what everyone has been asking of me. It's as if I've come full circle - however, I have gathered a lot of knowledge on the subject in the meantime.

In December 2004, he and Ronan Keating released a new version of "Father and Son". It debuted at number two, behind Band Aid 20's "Do They Know It's Christmas?". The proceeds of "Father and Son" were donated to the Band Aid charity. Keating's former group, Boyzone, had also had a hit with a cover version of the song a decade earlier.

In early 2005, Islam released a new song entitled "Indian Ocean" about the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake. The song featured Indian composer/producer A. R. Rahman; A-ha keyboard player, Magne Furuholmen and Travis drummer, Neil Primrose. Proceeds of the single went to help orphans in Banda Aceh, one of the areas worst affected by the tsunami, through Islam's Small Kindness charity. At first, the single was only released through several online music stores but now highlights Cat Stevens: Gold.

On 28 May 2005 Yusuf Islam delivered a keynote speech and performed at the Adopt-A-Minefield Gala in Düsseldorf. The Adopt-A-Minefield charity, under the patronage of Sir Paul McCartney and Heather Mills McCartney, works internationally to raise awareness and funds to clear landmines and rehabilitate landmine survivors. Yusuf Islam attended as part of an honorary committee – which also included Sir George Martin, Sir Richard Branson, Dr. Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Klaus Voormann, Christopher Lee and others.

In mid-2005, Yusuf Islam played guitar for the Dolly Parton album of cover songs entitled, "Those Were The Days", on her version of "Where Do The Children Play". Parton herself had recorded a cover of "Peace Train" a few years earlier.

2006 album

In March 2006, Billboard magazine reported Yusuf Islam had finished recording his first pop album since 1978. The album, An Other Cup, will be released by Polydor Records and internationally by Atlantic Records in November 2006—on the 40th anniversary of his first album, Matthew and Son. The album has been produced by Rick Nowels, who has worked with Dido and Rod Stewart.[7] Speaking about the album, David Joseph, co-president of Polydor, said:

Yusuf is one of the most unique artists the UK has ever produced. The new album is sensational and will prove to be one of the biggest musical highlights of the year. His voice and melody are totally timeless.

Islam wrote all the songs for the album and recorded it in both the United States and the United Kingdom.

Controversy

Salman Rushdie

On February 21 1989 Yusuf Islam addressed students at Kingston University in London about his journey to Islam. He was asked to describe the controversy in the Muslim world and the fatwa promising Salman Rushdie's execution. Islam claims to have only stated the legal consequences from the Qur'an and not actually have made any claims of support for the fatwa. Newspapers quickly denounced Yusuf Islam's "support" for a possible assassination of Rushdie. Shortly afterwards he released a statement clarifying that he was not personally encouraging anybody towards vigilantism.

The New York Times reported on May 23 1989 that Islam was to be on a British television program the following week, and was quoted as saying:

[If Rushdie turned up at my doorstep looking for help,] I might ring somebody who might do more damage to him than he would like. I'd try to phone the Ayatollah Khomeini and tell him exactly where this man is.

Islam's most recent clarification of the issue is stated in a 2003 article on CatStevens.com, wherein he says that he never stated support but was straightforwardly describing what he understood of Muslim law, and laying the controversy at the door of "journalistic malice":

I was simply a new Muslim who had stated something which I considered quite plain and obvious and if you were to ask a Bible student you know what the Ten Commandments were you would expect him to repeat them honestly, you wouldn't blame him for doing so; the Bible is full of similar headlines if you’re looking for them.

The backlash over the Rushdie incident included the band 10,000 Maniacs, who had covered "Peace Train" on their 1987 In My Tribe album. The band deleted the song from subsequent pressings of their album as a protest against Islam's alleged remarks.

Denial of entry into the United States

On 21 September 2004 Yusuf Islam was travelling on United Airlines Flight 919 from London to Washington. While the plane was in flight, the Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System flagged his name as being on a no-fly list. Customs agents alerted the Transportation Security Administration, which then diverted his flight to Bangor, Maine, where he was detained by the FBI.

The following day Islam was deported back to the United Kingdom. The United States Transportation Security Administration claimed there were "concerns of ties he may have to potential terrorist-related activities." The United States Department of Homeland Security specifically alleged that Islam had provided funding to the Palestinian Islamic militant group Hamas, although it did not offer any proof of its allegation.

Islam's deportation provoked a small international controversy and led British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw to complain personally to Secretary of State Colin Powell at the United Nations. Powell responded by stating that the watch list was under review, and added, "I think we have that obligation to review these matters to see if we are right."

His identification as being on the watch list may be in error. On 1 October 2004 Islam was reported to have requested the removal of his name and stated, "I remain bewildered by the decision of the US authorities to refuse me entry to the United States." According to an official statement by Islam, the man on the list was named Yousef Islam, indicating that Yusuf Islam himself was in fact, not the suspected terror supporter.

Libel case

As a footnote to the actions taken by the U.S. government in deporting Yusuf Islam as a terrorist, The Sun and The Sunday Times British newspapers had published reports in October 2004 which stated that the U.S. was correct in its action. As a result Yusuf Islam sued for libel, and received a substantial out-of-court, "agreed settlement" and apology from the newspapers. Both newspapers acknowledged that Islam has never supported terrorism and that, to the contrary, he had recently been given a Man of Peace award. Islam responded that he was:

...delighted by the settlement [which] helps vindicate my character and good name. ... It seems to be the easiest thing in the world these days to make scurrilous accusations against Muslims, and in my case it directly impacts on my relief work and damages my reputation as an artist. The harm done is often difficult to repair.

He added that he intended to donate the financial award given to him by the court to help orphans of the recent Indian Ocean Tsunami. Yusuf Islam wrote about the experience in a newspaper article titled "A Cat in a Wild World".

Awards

Cat Stevens was nominated to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005, but not voted in.

On 10 November 2004, Yusuf Islam was presented with a Man of Peace award by the private foundation of former USSR president Mikhail Gorbachev, for his 'dedication to promote peace, the reconciliation of people and to condemn terrorism'; the ceremony was held in Rome, Italy and attended by five Nobel Peace Prize laureates. Almost a year later, on 4 November 2005, he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Gloucestershire for services to education and humanitarian relief.

On 20 October 2005, Yusuf Islam was named Songwriter of the Year, and also received Song of the Year honors for "The First Cut Is The Deepest", at a special presentation in London. At the ceremony, The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) honored the top British writer and publisher members of the UK's Performing Rights Society.

Cat Stevens' song "Tea for The Tillerman" is the theme tune for the Ricky Gervais sitcom Extras.

Cat Stevens Official Website

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