Use the fewest words, sing the quietest voice, place fingers on strings with the lightest touch. Such are the apparent strategies of Cat Stevens. In his classic songs, there's a hush at the core, a whisper willed by a singer in search of focus.
Take "The Wind." The vocal that sits at the song's center doesn’t seem so much performed as channeled, as if it's emanating not from the singer, but from the acoustic guitars that stroke and trace the vocals, forming chords that curl into rounds. Listen closely and you'll hear a third element – uncredited, but palpable. Around Steven's soft voice and feathered guitars lies a specific kind of silence, and audible absence, creating an ambience unlike anything heard on any other recording.
The words and music of "The Wind" speak of eternity, yet they last just one minute and 40 seconds. It's an ideally ironic opening song for an album – Teaser and the Firecat – that both warms the listener and pushed the singer into a fervent search. Could anyone who heard such songs in 1971 have been truly surprised when, six years later, Stevens' snub of the music business – one of the most bracing and misunderstood rebukes in pop history – has its roots in the very material that first made him a star. His classical cuts, like "On the Road to Find Out," "Wild World" and "Into White," all center on seeking. They ache to pull back life's curtain, to find out what can and can't be seen. If so earnest a pursuit led Stevens to leave pop for a protracted time, it also accounted for his looming popularity in his commerical prime. The focus and introspection of his songs dovetailed perfectly with the rise of the singer-songwriter movement in the early 70s. That surge saw a broad range of artists moving away from the amplification and theatrically to mine the inner life. Of all the stars buoyed by this march – from Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne to Elton John and Carole King – Stevens rates as the most spiritually determined.
Yet that mission took nothing away from the beauty that made his songs into hits. Or the vocal range that made them widely varied. Or the mortal lusts and needs that made them relatable. Those skills owe a lot to an early start in music. From his youth, Stevens displayed a will to match formal melodies to fine words.
Born Steven Demetre Georgiou in 1948, in the Marylebone neighborhood of London, the singer had a Greek-Cypriot father (Starvos Georgiou) and a Swedish mother (Ingrid Wickman). They lived above the family's restaurant, Moulin Rouge, and everyone, including the children, helped out with the business. But by the time he was a young teen, the budding musician had started playing piano in earnest and, by 15, he added guitar to his skills, inspired by the Beatles. He was also influenced by West Side Story – intrigued by the musical's sweeping songs and knowing view of clashing cultures. Stevens' love of both show tunes and folk music would later show in his work: the former accounting for its rich perspectives, the later evident in its sonic sparsity.
As a youth, Stevens also took up drawing, a skill later displayed in the purposely naive paintings that adorned the covers of his best-known albums. In 1965, at age 17, the aspiring musician got his first published deal with Ardmore & Beechwood. He recorded his "The First Cut Is the Deepest" as a demo for them. The song would later become a modern standard.
By 1966, he had chosen the stage name Cat Stevens because, as he explained in interviews, his girlfriend said his eyes had a feline shape and allure. At 18, he met manager/producer Mike Hurst of the British vocal group the Springfields (which also included Dusty Springfield). Hurst helped Stevens land a record contract, leading to his first single, "I Love My Dog," which inched to number 28 in the U.K. It was followed by "Matthew & Son," a formal orchestral-pop confection that made it all the way to Number Two. His first full LP – also titled Matthew & Son – featured "I'm Gonna Get Me a Gun," which went Top 10 in 1967, and "Here Comes My Baby," a Top 5 chartmaker when the Tremeloes covered it.
While Stevens' follow up album, New Masters, fell short of the U.K. charts, it did include "The First Cut Is the Deepest," which became a smash when covered by P.P. Arnold. The song would be recorded by Rod Stewart, James Morrison, Sheryl Crow and scores more. Crow's 2003 version of the song won her a Grammy nomination two years later, and landed Stevens back-to-back ASCAP Songwriter of the year awards (in 2005 and 2006). But as promising a pop career as Stevens enjoyed, he found his image – as a budding pinup and polished star – unsatisfying. Even so, he might not have made a major change in both his music and his philosophy if a medical emergency had not shaken his life to the core. In 1969, he contracted tuberculosis, and the disease nearly killed him. He spent months recuperating in King Edward VII Hospital in West Sussex, followed by a full year of rest and recovery. The long stretch gave him the time he needed to imagine a different life, by a new point of view. It was here that Stevens began to study religion and philosophy. His creativity exploded. He wrote scores of songs: The albums they appeared on would rocket him to fame. Stevens vowed to leave behind the heavy orchestrations and booming echo chambers that defined his first two albums. To do so, he got rid of his first manager, and wrangled his way out of his initial contract with Deram Records. He hired agent Berry Krost, who landed him an audition with Chris Blackwell of Island Records. Blackwell gave him creative carte blanche, and Stevens set about honing his new sound with key help from producer Paul Samwell-Smith, formerly the bassist with the Yardbirds.
In America, Stevens signed with a label just as artist friendly as Island: A&M. Samwell-Smith then provided a crucial suggestion that helped Stevens complete the sound he sought. The producer introduced him to the former session guitarist Alun Davies, whose fingerings proved a perfect mirror for Stevens' crystalline new direction. Davies worked with Stevens throughout the rest of his commercial run, and even returned to perform with him when he re-emerged as Yusuf Islam nearly three decades later.
Their first album together, Mona Bone Fakon, released in June 1970, featured the hit "Lady D'Arbanville," about Stevens' girlfriend of the time, Patti D'Arbanville. The song helped the album go gold on both sides of the Atlantic. It was an ideal setup for the next album, the one that made Stevens a superstar and still endures in its popularity and resonance to this day. Released in November 1970, Tea for the Tillerman became a Top 10 smash, driven by the woodsey sounding, acoustic guitar-driven single, "Wild World."
Tillerman encapsulated the trademark Stevens sound. Despite its seeming simplicity, its melodies retained a formality that showed marked sophistication. Moreover, Stevens' vocal range allowed him to express a broad spectrum of characters and situations. The finest example, "Father and Son," found him singing both tenor and baritone parts with equal authority (delineating the title characters' differing points of view). It remains one of his most aching works.
Stevens equaled Tillerman's juggernaut less than a year later with Teaser and the Firecat (1971), which included his ranging from the rousingly idealistic "Peace Train" to the fresh-faced "Morning Has Broken" (with its classical piano part), to "Moon Shadow," which mimicked the holy glow of "The Wind."
Many more hits followed, in an increasingly broad range of styles and arrangements. One U.S. Top 10 song, "Another Saturday Night," even integrated Caribbean inflections. By the 1977 album Izitzo, Stevens ventured far enough from his past to bring in synthesizers, the supposed opposite of his seminal acoustic pieces.
By that time, the singer had already started his religious sojourn. In a revelatory incident in 1975, Stevens almost drowned off the coast of Malibu, California. The trauma sharpened his quest for a more spiritually focused life. He found his way into Islam, changing his name to Yusuf Islam in July 1978. The singer's next album, Back to Earth (1978), would be his last pop record for decades.
Stevens started to make music again in the 90s, though, at first, it was of an entirely religious nature. And Stevens endured media-fueled controversies over the years, fed by Islamophobia. He didn't start exploring secular music again until the new millennium, leading to the release of An Other Cup in 2006. Though the album reached no higher than number 52 on the U.S. charts, the undimmed beauty of its songs charmed critics.
Despite the decades separating this music from his earliest, An Other Cup presented a philosophical through-line. It focused on the quest for solace, the journey to calm, as well as on the acceptance of their evanescence. Considered together, Stevens' early and late songs form a singular question: How can music of such quietude carry such force? – Jim Farber