Jul 212013

They Say It’s Your Birthday celebrates an artist’s special day with other people singing his or her songs. Let others do the work for a while. Happy birthday!

Cat Stevens, now known as Yusuf Islam, was born Steven Georgiou 65 years ago today. His popularity exploded in the early-mid 1970s, and then, for all intents and purposes, he vanished from the music world for decades. Some of his disappearance can be attributed to changing musical tastes, but the main reason for the long disruption in his musical career was his conversion to Islam. Unlike his contemporary Richard Thompson, who converted to Islam a few years earlier, Stevens’ conversion not only led him to stop performing, but also embroiled him in controversy; his comments about the fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie in 1989 caused a typical media overreaction, with calls for (and actual) destruction of Cat Stevens albums and the removal of a very good cover of “Peace Train” from later pressings of a 10,000 Maniacs album.

In the 1990s, Islam began a slow return to performing, initially focusing on Islamic music and issues; more recently, he has returned to secular music, often with charitable purposes. His appearances included performing at Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s satirical pre-election “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear,” where he sang “Peace Train,” while Ozzy Osbourne sang “Crazy Train.”

Stevens’ period of popularity and high-quality music was relatively short, but his good stuff is so extraordinary that it has continued to influence other musicians, and his work has been regularly covered over the years.

P.P. Arnold – The First Cut Is The Deepest (Cat Stevens cover)

Rod Stewart may have had the bigger hit, but this was the first released version of “The First Cut Is the Deepest,” and it is a soulful, torchy performance by Arnold, a former Ikette who later toured with the Rolling Stones. At Mick Jagger’s suggestion, she stayed in London, and the producers of her debut album included Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham and Jagger. After “First Cut,” she had some limited success in music and later turned to acting. Anyone interested in learning more about the struggles of top notch backup singers, including another former Ikette, Darlene Love, and other women who have sung with the Stones, including Merry Clayton and Lisa Fischer, needs to find and watch the incredible documentary film 20 Feet From Stardom.

The Holmes Brothers – Trouble (Cat Stevens cover)

“Trouble,” from Mona Bone Jakon is an example of the more introspective, stripped down songs that Stevens wrote during his recovery from a serious bout of tuberculosis. Although not a hit, it has been often covered, possibly because of its unforgettable use in the cult film Harold and Maude. The Holmes Brothers’ version is from the soundtrack to the TV show Crossing Jordan, an all-covers collection. It is faithful to the pensive tone of the original, and enhances it with the brothers’ trademark gospel-tinged harmonies.

Me First & The Gimme Gimmes – Wild World (Cat Stevens cover)

Tea for the Tillerman is one of the truly great singer-songwriter albums; virtually every song is a gem. “Wild World” was a song written to Stevens’s former girlfriend, Patti D’Arbanville, a model and actress with a long IMDB entry and a nearly as long list of relationships, including having a child with Don Johnson. Me First & the Gimme Gimmes, a punk supergroup of sorts, have a formula — take a popular song from one genre and turn it into a catchy pop-punk song — which has amused some and annoyed others for years. “Wild World” holds up surprisingly well after its transformation.

Johnny Cash w/ Fiona Apple – Father and Son (Cat Stevens cover)

This is one of the most poignant songs on Tillerman, featuring a dialogue between a father who doesn’t understand his son’s need for individuality, and a son who can’t really articulate why he feels this need. It turns out to have been written for a never-completed musical about the Russian Revolution, proving that great art is truly timeless. This cover takes a slightly different approach — Cash sings both parts in his legendary deep voice, straining with age, and Fiona Apple harmonizes with him on the son’s part. This is the second time Cash covered the song — the first time in 1974 as “Father and Daughter,” in which he sang the father’s part and his stepdaughter, Rosie Nix, sang the daughter’s part.

Rani Arbo and Daisy Mayhem – If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out (Cat Stevens cover)

Two of the nine songs that Stevens contributed to the Harold and Maude soundtrack were not released on his regular albums, including this joyful ode to individuality, which eventually found its way onto collections and anthologies. It is well covered, in a charming folk/bluegrass/swing hybrid style, by this New England-based band.

Labelle – Moonshadow (Cat Stevens cover)

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and according to Stevens, this song was inspired by Stevens seeing his shadow in moonlight. But its uplifting message helped make it a charting single and one of Stevens’s more enduring compositions. Labelle’s cover, released not very long after the Stevens original, is another example of how well his spare folk songs lend themselves to soul interpretations. The soaring vocals and funky arrangements transform the personal message of the original into a universal gospel triumph.

Gandalf Murphy w/ Dar Williams and John Gorka – Peace Train (Cat Stevens cover)

“Peace Train” was Stevens’s first Top 10 hit in the United States, and once again, its message has helped it to stay relevant, even as it has occasionally been caught up in controversy, as discussed above. Nevertheless, it has been often covered and has appeared in soundtracks. This version by Gandalf Murphy, a band best known for its live performances, was recorded at the 2007 Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, and features vocals from Dar Williams and John Gorka.

Cat Stevens – Another Saturday Night (Sam Cooke cover)

This may be the only cover that Stevens released, and it is telling that he chose this Sam Cooke classic. Originally a mere single, it’s gone on to appear on greatest-hits albums and other compilations. Where Cooke’s version was loose and merry, a good-natured acknowledgement of his bad luck with the ladies (which nobody in their right mind believed), Stevens imbues “Another Saturday Night” with palpable frustration and still manages to provide an uplifting feeling to the song. This inherent understanding of a genre just might explain why soul-based covers of his songs work as well as they do.

Learn more about Cat Stevens in the less taxing video format here, and get his music on iTunes and Amazon. You can also learn more about him on his Yusuf Islam homeage.

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  One Response to “They Say It’s Your Birthday: Cat Stevens”

Comments (1)
  1. “Another Saturday Night” may indeed be the only cover released by “Cat Stevens”, but as Yusef Islam he teamed with Klaus Voormann on a lovely version of George Harrison’s “The Day The World Gets Round”. Worth seeking out.

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