Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Birthday of a Cat

You may not know the name Yusuf Islam, but you may be familiar with the name Cat Stevens.

They are one and the same. And he has answered to several names in his life.

On this day in 1948, Steven Demetre Georgiou was born in London. His father was a Greek–Cypriot. His mother was Swedish. They ran a restaurant near Piccadilly Circus in London.

When he embarked on a musical career as a solo artist, he took the name Cat Stevens because "I couldn't imagine anyone going to the record store and asking for 'that Steven Demetre Georgiou album.' " So he made his first name his last name and added an "s." He settled on "Cat" as his first name because "in England, and I was sure in America, they loved animals."

I suppose that conclusion is open to debate. Not everyone loves animals. And some people may like cats but they are allergic to them. Nevertheless, the record–buying public seemed to love Cat Stevens. In the 1970s, he had several hit albums and hit singles. I think it would be difficult to find anyone over the age of 40 who never heard even one of his songs — and there were many that were played frequently on the radio.

I remember the first time I was exposed to the name of Cat Stevens. I was visiting the home of one of my friends in the early 1970s, and his parents had an extensive cassette collection displayed in racks in the living room. Next to cassettes of albums by Simon and Garfunkel and other popular artists of the day I saw cassettes of "Tea for the Tillerman," "Teaser and the Firecat" and "Foreigner," three of his most popular albums.

The name intrigued me, and I wanted to hear his music. Then, after I sought out his music and heard it, I realized I had heard it before without knowing the name of the performer.

It was in the late 1970s that he converted to Islam, married and mostly gave up his career as a composer and a performer. But his recordings continued to sell. In fact, it was estimated a couple of years ago that his earnings are about $1.5 million annually, even though it has been more than 30 years since he released a record under the name Cat Stevens.

He took the name Yusuf because it is Arabic for Joseph. He said he felt drawn to the Old Testament story of Joseph, a man who had been bought and sold, because his experience in the music business made him feel like he was bought and sold.

He remained out of the spotlight in the 1980s and into the 1990s, devoting himself to educational pursuits, but he gradually returned to music. In 2001, following the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, he expressed his "heartfelt horror" and sang "Peace Train" for the Concert for New York City that October. It was the first time he had performed that song in public in more than two decades.

Three years later, when he was flying to the United States to meet with Dolly Parton, he was denied entry into the country and sent back to the United Kingdom because the CAPPS system flagged him as a security risk. Parton had recorded "Peace Train" nearly 10 years earlier and was planning to record another of his songs. That, apparently, was the reason he was traveling to America.

As is often the case with artists, he turned the experience into a composition — a song called "Boots and Sand." He recorded it last year with Parton, Paul McCartney, Alison Krauss and Terry Sylvester. The song is an iTunes bonus track on his recently released album, "Roadsinger."

It seems ridiculous that anyone could ever have thought that Cat Stevens, a pacifist and philanthropist, was any kind of security risk or represented a threat of any kind. But that is symptomatic of the post–9/11 world in which we live. Especially if one is a Muslim.

Well, happy 61st birthday, Cat. Er, Yusuf.