In 1970, a young Cat Stevens released an album called Tea for the Tillerman, which catapulted him to international fame and was one of the most seminal and influential albums of its day. It was followed by a few more successful releases through 1974. Then, fickle fate intervened. After almost losing his life while swimming in Malibu in 1975, he received a copy of the Koran and embraced Islam, changing his name to Yusuf Islam. His life turned from music to devotion to his new family and establishing the charity Small Kindness. In 2000, he began recording again, exclusively producing educational albums for children. After 9/11, he dedicated himself to international peace causes. Finally, in 2006 he returned to music and released An Other Cup, followed by Roadsinger in 2009. He began touring again and was inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame at Brooklyn Barclays Center in New York in April 2014.
Now, Yusuf has returned with a brilliant release called Tell ‘Em I’m Gone, a collection of ten songs in a decidedly different groove than any of his previous recordings. He returns to the roots of the music that inspired him as a teenager: American blues and R&B. But, these tunes are far more than a nostalgic tribute to his origins. Each track examines the perennial themes of freedom and peace. Music and the blues have always been a means of escaping temporal bondage and transcending constraining circumstances. It is the thread that unites the liberating music of a Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Motown, and Leadbelly.
Throughout, Yusuf is in top form, clearly reveling in the music and message. The powerful opening track, “I Was Raised in Babylon”, sets the tone for the entire album with the telling lines: “Where did we go wrong / They used to call us civilized – but those days are gone.” The next track, a powerful cover of the great Jimmy Reed’s “Big Boss Man” (“Well, you ain’t so big / You’re just tall, that’s all”) continues to propel the entire set. My favorite cut is his cover of the old standard “You Are My Sunshine”. This isn’t the pretty sanitized Gene Autry version. This is a rough-edged funky interpretation that fully exploits the songs dark brilliance.
This phenomenal album should garner many new fans and attention for one of the truly great singer/songwriters of our time.
– Robert Myers