The return of the Cat: Yusuf Islam proves his old persona Cat Stevens still alive and well

Yusuf Islam with the CD and cassette on The Life Of The Last Prophet in 1995. -- PHOTO: BH
Yusuf Islam with the CD and cassette on The Life Of The Last Prophet in 1995. -- PHOTO: BH
The CD cover of Remember Cat Stevens - The Ultimate Collections. -- PHOTO: UNIVERSAL ISLAND RECORDS
The CD cover of Remember Cat Stevens - The Ultimate Collections. -- PHOTO: UNIVERSAL ISLAND RECORDS
Yusuf Islam, the former Cat Stevens when he was a pop icon in the 1970s. -- PHOTO: USA TODAY
Yusuf Islam, the former Cat Stevens when he was a pop icon in the 1970s. -- PHOTO: USA TODAY
Cat Stevens, (centre, in long sleeve shirt), and his nine-man band at the Singapore airport, where he stopped over on the way to perform in Tokyo in 1972. -- PHOTO: ST FILE
Cat Stevens, (centre, in long sleeve shirt), and his nine-man band at the Singapore airport, where he stopped over on the way to perform in Tokyo in 1972. -- PHOTO: ST FILE
Singer Cat Stevens, also known as Yusuf Islam, performs during the 10th edition of the Mawazine international music festival "World Rythms" in Rabat in May 2011. -- PHOTO: AFP
Singer Cat Stevens, also known as Yusuf Islam, performs during the 10th edition of the Mawazine international music festival "World Rythms" in Rabat in May 2011. -- PHOTO: AFP

When Yusuf Islam announced plans to attend this year’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony, legions of fans from an earlier lifetime wondered if he would use the occasion to riff on religion.

Given the way the tabloid press had often portrayed him since he gave up the glittering life of a pop superstar to become a Muslim in 1977, would we get a sermon at the ceremony?

Not a chance. Yusuf showed up on stage in Brooklyn, New York, guitar in hand, as the man he was being honoured as - Cat Stevens.

Smiling and sounding as robust as the velvety-voiced troubadour of 40 years ago, there was an almost audible gasp of appreciation when he launched a three-song set with his poignant paen about the growing pains that often come between Father and Son.

A seemingly reborn Cat Stevens, now 66, followed that with a crowd-rousing rendition of one of his biggest hits, Wild World.

Then, earlier this week, the London-born singer-songwriter announced his first album in five years - of blues, no less - and first concert tour of North American since 1976, to begin in Toronto on Dec 1.

Given his Hall of Fame performance, regularly broadcast here on HBO since June, the tour which also takes him to Boston, New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles is bound to be a sell-out.

Born Steven Demetre Georgiou in London in 1948 to a Greek Orthodox father and Swedish Baptist mother, the young Stevens attended a Roman Catholic primary school before the arrival of the Beatles inspired him to pick up a guitar, start making music himself and adopt a more fan-friendly stage name. Soon he was writing such evergreens as the First Cut Is the Deepest, later a massive hit for Rod Stewart, and Here Comes My Baby, a top ten for the Tremeloes.

My first encounter with Cat Stevens came in the very place where I’ve spent much of my own career, a newspaper office. I was a freshmen working for The Post, Ohio University’s student-run newspaper, when another editor began tossing out freebies of the latest record albums that had come to our office for review.

Though I had no idea who the artist was, the cover art of a bearded man having tea next to a tree that two children were climbing - painted by Stevens himself - intrigued me enough to grab Tea For The Tillerman.

From the first notes of Where Do The Children Play? to the brief title track that ended the album, I was hooked.

Despite the poverty wages paid by The Post and the newspapers where I spent summers as an intern in the early 1970s, I did not hesitate to actually pay for his next two albums, Teaser And The Firecat and Catch Bull At Four.

Even my mother found him to be the Cat's meow when she heard the latter album's lilting ode to the dawn, Morning Has Broken.

By 1974, it became obvious that quests for the meaning of life that fuelled many of Stevens’ songs was for real when he released Buddha And The Chocolate Box. In addition to praising the founder of Buddhism, he also wrote a song simply called Jesus, whose love he sang “will lead the blind”.

Three years later, Stevens converted to Islam, taking the name Yusuf, soon auctioned off all his guitars and turned to teaching and charity work, much to the dismay of fans who hoped he'd make music foever. In 1979, he married Fauzia Mubarak Ali, now 61, at Regent's Park Mosque in London, with whom he has five children and three grandchildren.

Along the way, some British tabloids began making Yusuf out as a fanatic, claiming, among other controversies, that he had voiced support for the fatwa calling for the death of Salman Rushdie for writing the Satanic Versions (he said he was misinterpreted) and supported terrorism. Later, though, Yusuf firmly condemned the 9/11 attacks on the United States and earned international awards for promoting peace in 2003, 2004, and 2007.

My own love for the music Yusuf created as Cat Stevens has never flagged. When Island Records remastered and re-released all of his albums in the late 90s I featured them on a special edition of my Zach’s Trax radio show, and my Life! column of the same name in The Straits Times.

And I have no qualms about admitting that the hairs on my arms stood on end when I heard him at the Rock Hall induction, and realised that he still believed the words he’d sung in the last track on his Buddha album, Home In The Sky:

Music is a lady That I still love Cause she gives me The air that I breathe

On my next trip to the I.M Pei-designed Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, which, thank heavens, is just minutes from where I live in the Cleveland area, I will search out Cat Stevens' signature on the Wall of Fame.

And if there is any doubt that the love and tolerance of Georgiou/Stevens/Yusuf for people of all creeds remains as strong as ever, his final song at the induction ceremony said it all; he took us all for a ride on the Peace Train - accompanied by a Christian gospel choir.