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Originally Broadcast January 5th 2001

Cat Stevens
Listen Again to this show
Listen to Bob Harris' interview with Yusuf Islam.
In late September 2001 Yusuf Islam gave one of the most revealing interviews of his career to Radio 2's Bob Harris. From his youth in London's West End, through his pop stars years and his subsequent conversion to Islam, it's a fascinating journey.

Cat Stevens was one of the most popular artists of the 1970s, with a string of best selling albums which virtually defined the concept of the sensitive singer songwriter. Albums such as Teaser and the Firecat and Tea for the Tillerman were classics of their genre, and his tours regularly sold out. Rising again after an abortive career as 60s pop star, Stevens' introspective and often highly personal songs connected with a huge audience and made him a star.

Then, in 1978, he turned his back on it all, embraced Islam and changed his name. For many of his long time fans, it was a baffling decision - why would a man who appeared to have it all throw it all away? Now, in a major interview for Radio 2, Yusuf Islam charts the long journey from pop stardom to religious enlightenment and reveals the reasons behind his decision.

Steven Giorgiou was born in London in 1948, the son of a Greek Cypriot father and Swedish mother. He was raised in the heart of London's West End where his parents ran a café, just round the corner from the then heart of the British music industry, Denmark Street. Young Steven developed two consuming passions, music and art, and initially fell under the spell of Bernstein's West Side Story when it opened in nearby theatreland in 1958. The arrival of The Beatles in 1963 inspired him to get his first guitar, but he was also listening to blues and folk music.

Early demos (one of which is included on his new boxed set) led to a deal with the fledgling Deram label. Along the way he changed his name to Cat Stevens and before long found himself a bona fide pop star, with hits such as Matthew and Son and I Love My Dog. However, sudden fame carried its own pressures. In February 1968, he was admitted to hospital suffering from tuberculosis.

"I felt I was on the brink of death," he tells Bob Harris in the programme. "At the same time I had incredible hope. I kind of made the best of it as much as I could. Now I had a break I could review myself and decide where I wanted to go and not necessarily where my agent felt I should go."

By the time Stevens left hospital he had started writing songs again. He told Melody Maker: "I think I will just use guitar as backing. I'm not doing a traditional folk thing, but a contemporary thing - my own version of folk, if you like." He had also started studying various religions, and his new material reflected this mood of reflection.

The first evidence of this new direction was the Mona Bone Jakon album, which emerged in May 1970. The new decade brought a new Cat Stevens, now sporting long hair and beard. The album reintroduced him to the charts, but it was the follow up, Tea for the Tillerman, which launched him onto the international stage and gave him his first top ten in the states. The follow up, Teaser and the Firecat, was even more warmly received, producing three hit singles.

Stevens' star would continue to rise, but within himself he was becoming increasingly troubled. Typically, this was addressed in songs such as Sitting or the Majik of Majiks, which contained the line "What kind of man can make me turn/and see the way I really am". The beginnings of an answer came to him when he was swimming in the Pacific near the home of record company boss Jerry Moss. Caught in a strong current, he found himself fighting to get back to shore.

"There was no-one on this earth who could help me and I did the most instinctive thing," he told Bob Harris. "I just called out and said 'God, if you save me I'll work for you' and in that moment a wave came from behind me and pushed me forward."

The following year his brother David gave him a copy of the Koran as a birthday present. Increasingly drawn to it, Stevens began losing interest in the music industry. In December 1977 he formally embraced Islam at Regent's Park Mosque and soon after changed his name to Yusuf Islam. The Back to Earth LP, released in November 1978, was the final Cat Stevens album - with no artist to promote it and no chance of a tour, it sold poorly, but by now yusuf had no interest in playing the pop star game.

In the years that followed he devoted himself to his faith. Initially he channelled his efforts into the establishment of the UK's first Muslim school, but by the mid-eighties he began giving lectures at universities throughout Britain. Increasingly he's been an articulate spokesperson for Britain's Muslim community - in the wake of the September 11 atrocity he was once more called upon to defend his faith, advocating peace and tolerance at a time of anti-Islamic hysteria. He's also made forays into recording again, with the spoken word album The Life of the Last Prophet in 1995. 2001 saw the release of a box set, collecting work from all the stages of his career.

Strange as it may have seem to many of his fans, Yusuf Islam is far happier today than he ever was at the height of his stardom in the seventies. He also seems to have come to terms with his former life, working with A&M in the production of the box set, writing some touching liner notes and contributing previously unreleased material.

"Being more mature now," he writes, "I've managed to make peace with my past, as it's making peace with me. Certainly there's a mutual gain for reflecting on both phases of my life and although I consider the here and now perhaps to be more important there are still many people who appreciate my past ephemeral stages and the lessons they represent."

Mick Fitzsimmons

The Official Website, with message boards and more.
UK Site
Yusuf's career from a British perspective
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