When I was commissioned to write my book about him in 1984 I tracked Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam down by asking after him at the Mosque in London’s Regents Park. It turned out he had an office on Curzon Street and I went to meet with him there. Fortunately he remembered me from my days on Melody Maker when I interviewed him a few times. He didn’t want to be interviewed for the book but he agreed to check over the manuscript and he told me a bit about his life after he retired from music. He was emphatic that he wasn’t a ‘recluse’, as the press had termed him.
As a musician, Stevens is best known nowadays as the one-time sensitive balladeer whose hugely successful albums Tea For The Tillerman and Teaser & The Firecat are widely regarded as masterpieces of the confessional, singer-songwriter genre. Before that, however, he was a rather precocious, velvet-suited pop singer who, unusually for the time, wrote his own material. This extract from my long out-of-print book covers this, lesser known, period of Stevens’ life and career. Born Steven Georgiou, he’s just adopted the stage name Cat Stevens, though everyone still knows him as ‘Steve’, and he’s spent the last few months knocking on music industry doors during the day while working as a waiter in his father’s Greek restaurant near London’s Cambridge Circus in the evenings…
The search for professional sponsorship found genuine enthusiasm on the day Steve walked into the offices of a Greek American producer/entrepreneur called Jim Economides in February of 1966. It was here, in Albert Gate Mews, Knightsbridge, that the young songwriter met Mike Hurst, once a third of The Springfields vocal trio, more recently a freelance record producer and now the underpaid assistant to Economides. His boss’s disinterest in the aspiring folksinger led directly to Hurst’s own close involvement in the first phase of Steve’s career.
Michael Longhurst-Pickworth, for that was his full title, was born in Kilburn in 1942 and had been loosely involved with music through his family since the age of four. In 1962 he answered an advertisement in The Stage magazine for a singer to replace Tim Field in The Springfields and sang alongside Dusty Springfield and her brother Tom on the group’s two major hits ‘Island Of Dreams’ and ‘Say I Won’t Be There’ but a year later the group disbanded, Dusty to achieve notable artistic success as a solo performer and Tom to work on writing and production.
Hurst tried his luck at anything just so long as he could stay in the record business before teaming up with Economides in late 1965. “Jim was a wonderful con-man,” says Hurst with a degree of amusement mixed with nostalgic respect. “He was a Californian studio engineer who had worked for Capitol in the US and when he came to London he conned people into thinking that he was The Beach Boys’ record producer. He got away with it and got loads of deals. He conned about five record companies in London out of lots of money and got me to do all the work in the studio without ever paying me. During the time I was working for him two singers came up to our offices and wanted to record. One of them was Marc Bolan and the other was this guy calling himself Cat Stevens. I didn’t think much of Marc Bolan but Jim did… it was Stevens who impressed me.”
To impress Hurst, Steve produced his Framus guitar and sang a recently written tune called ‘I Love My Dog’. “It was lunchtime and I was the only person in the office at the time,” says Hurst. “I thought it was marvellous… great. We played it for Jim when he came back from lunch and he thought it was a load of rubbish. I told him he was crazy and took Steve into my little office to explain that without Jim’s help there was nothing I could do. He went away looking quite dejected.”
Three months elapsed before Steve and Hurst met again. Steve continued to knock on the door of publishing companies and potential managers without success, during which time he carried on working for his father in the family restaurant and making nightly visits to the Soho folk clubs. In the meantime Hurst recorded ‘The Wizard’ with Marc Bolan but Jim Economides’ questionable business style drove his production company into the ground. Soon it collapsed in a welter of debts. “I was on the point of emigrating to America where I’d been offered a job in Los Angeles with Vanguard Records,” recalls Hurst. “I’d even bought the air ticket for myself and my family but one day in June, a Saturday, there was a ring at my front door and Steve was standing there.
“He told me he’d been to every record company in London and no-one would touch him, so I decided to hustle some money and make a single of ‘I Love My Dog’ before I left for America.”
The money that eventually launched Cat Stevens into the public eye came from an unlikely source – Chris Brough, the son of noted British ventriloquist Peter Brough. “Chris was a friend of mine who didn’t know anything about the music business but he trusted my judgement and gave me £130 to spend on hiring sessions,” says Hurst.
There followed an elaborate confidence trick worthy of Jim Economides himself but perpetrated now by his one time protégé. Trading on his former success as a member of The Springfields, Hurst persuaded Decca A&R chief Dick Rowe to offer three hours of free studio time in order that he might himself record a Mike D’Abo composition called ‘Going Going Gone’, a song that had impressed Rowe and which would duly be released by Decca. In actuality, Hurst used the three hours at Decca’s West Hampstead studios in Broadhurst Gardens to record Cat Stevens singing ‘I Love My Dog’.
An unusual arrangement was pieced together by Hurst, Steve and Alan Tew and played by the twelve musicians who earned £10 each for their three hour shift. A cellist echoed the melody behind Steve’s chorus and instead of a steady backbeat, cymbals and snare dictated the tempo helped along by resounding timpani. “We spent the whole three hours making the single and I completely forgot about the B-side,” says Hurst. “Steve came up with ‘Portobello Road’, which he did in one take with just his acoustic guitar for backing and then I stayed over for forty minutes extra time to mix them both.”
The following day Dick Rowe was not amused until he heard the results. “He was furious,” says Hurst. “But at least he listened to it and at the end he called up to Sir Edward Lewis, the head of Decca Records.
“I thought I was in for big trouble from the great man himself but then it dawned on me that they actually liked it. We did a deal there and then for three singles over the next twelve months. Steve was waiting downstairs in an old Triumph Herald car with Chris Brough and I brought him up to the office to tell him the good news.”
It was duly decided that Hurst would cancel his emigration plans to become Steve’s manager and record producer and that ‘I Love My Dog’ would launch Decca’s new “progressive” label, Deram, in the autumn. An advance of £2,000 was received from the record company which enabled Hurst to set up an office in Kingly Street and Steve to quit working in The Moulin Rouge. He continued to live above the restaurant and spent his time working on new songs or inquiring how his career was progressing while Hurst explained away the sudden change in domestic plans to his surprised family.
‘I Love My Dog’ was released at a time when the pop charts were enjoying a burst of creativity which has seldom been equalled. The gradual sophistication of The Beatles had been an inspiration to others and while Steve’s debut scratched its way to number 27 in the charts in October and November, the top position was held securely by The Beach Boys’ classiest ever recording ‘Good Vibrations’. But it was not an inauspicious début: most initial efforts never make the charts at all.
“What it did,” says Hurst, “was to make an impact on the media because Cat Stevens was such an unusual name and it was a very unusual song. The pirate stations were the ones that really hit with that record but it came and went by the end of November so we had to get another release ready by the end of the year.”