My Playlist: Music Artists Who Do It All

Some of my favorite singer-songwriters from the 1960s through the 2000s

The singer-songwriter category is very broad, depending on how you define it, spanning different music genres, including folk, rock, country and pop. According to Wikipedia, singer-songwriters are artists who write, compose and perform their own music, oftentimes solo with just a guitar or piano. All Music adds that although early rock & roll artists like Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly wrote and sang their own songs, the term singer-songwriter “refers to the legions of performers that followed Bob Dylan in the late 60s and early 70s.” You could make the same observation about blues pioneers like Lead Belly, Blind Lemon Jefferson, T-Bone Walker and Lightnin’ Hopkins.

Based on the above definition, artists who write and perform songs as part of a band are not singer-songwriters. Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger would be popular examples in this context. While I’ve seen Elton John being mentioned as a singer-songwriter, to me he’s not, at least not in the strict sense. While he has written the music to his songs and performed them, he has relied on Bernie Taupin for the lyrics. By comparison, the other big pop piano man of our time, Billy Joel, has written the music and lyrics for pretty much all of his songs, so he fits the category.

With the singer-songwriter definition being out of the way, let’s get to some of my favorite artists in that category. I’d like to tackle this chronologically, starting with the 60s and Bob Dylan. The Times They Are A-Changin’ is the title track from his third studio album, which appeared in January 1964. According to Songfacts, the tune “became an anthem for frustrated youth,” expressing anti-establishment sentiments and reflecting the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. Songfacts also quotes Dylan from the liner notes of his Biograph box set compilation album from November 1985: “I wanted to write a big song, some kind of theme song, with short, concise verses that piled up on each other in a hypnotic way. This is definitely a song with a purpose. I knew exactly what I wanted to say and who I wanted to say it to.” Sadly, the song has taken on new relevance in present-day America, especially over the past couple of years.

Next up: Donovan and Sunshine Superman, one of my longtime favorite ’60s tunes. The song is the title track of Donovan’s third album released in August 1966 in the U.S. It did not come out in the U.K. due a contractual dispute between British label Pye Records and U.S. label Epic Records. This also impacted the release of Donovan’s fourth album Mellow Yellow, which like Sunshine Superman appeared in the U.S. only. After the labels had worked out their issue, Pye Records released a compilation from both records in the U.K. in June 1967 under the title of Sunshine Superman.

Jumping to the ’70s, here’s Fire And Rain by James Taylor. Apart from his cover of the Carole King tune You’ve Got A Friend, the opener of his second album Sweet Baby James from February 1970 is my favorite Taylor song. It became his first big hit in the U.S., peaking at no. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100. Songfacts quotes Taylor from a 1972 interview with Rolling Stone, during which he explained how the song came about: “The first verse is about my reactions to the death of a friend [Susie Schnerr, “Suzanne”]. The second verse is about my arrival in this country [the U.S.] with a monkey on my back, and there Jesus is an expression of my desperation in trying to get through the time when my body was aching and the time was at hand when I had to do it. And the third verse of that song refers to my recuperation in Austin Riggs [from drug addiction] which lasted about five months.” Wow, certainly a lot of stuff packed in one song!

In November 1970, Cat Stevens (nowadays known as Yusuf/Cat Stevens) released Tea For The Tillerman, his fourth studio album. One of my favorite tunes from that record is Father And Son. According to Songfacts, while Stevens made up the story about a son wanting to join the Russian Revolution and his dad pleading with him to stay home to work on the farm, the lyrics were inspired by Stevens’ lonely childhood and differences of opinion between him and his father about his chosen path to become a professional musician.

I already mentioned Carole King, one of my favorite singer-songwriters of all time – in fact, make that one of my all-time favorite music artists! Sometimes one forgets that before becoming a recording artist and performer, King had a close to 10-year career writing songs for other artists, together her then-husband Gerry Goffin. More than two-dozen of these tunes entered the charts, and various became hits. Examples include Chains (The Cookies, later covered by The Beatles on their debut record), The Loco-Motion (Little Eva), One Fine Day (The Chiffons) and Pleasant Valley Sunday (The Monkees). King composed the music for these tunes, while Goffin wrote the lyrics. Then, in February 1971, Carole King released her second solo album Tapestry. Instead of obvious choices like I Feel The Earth Move, It’s Too Late or You’ve Got A Friend, I’d like to highlight Way Over Yonder. Among others, this gem features James Taylor on acoustic guitar and Curtis Amy who plays the amazing tenor saxophone solo. To me, this is as close to perfection as music can get – emotional, beautiful and timeless!

Joni Mitchell is one of those artists I really should know much better than I currently do. In June 1971, her fourth album Blue appeared, which according to Wikipedia is widely regarded by music critics as one of the greatest records of all time. Here’s This Flight Tonight. If you don’t know Mitchell’s original, yet the melody and the lyrics somehow sound familiar, you’ve probably heard the cover by Scottish hard rock band Nazareth. I certainly have, since they scored a no. 1 hit with it in Germany in 1973. The song also charted in the U.K. (no. 11), U.S. (no. 177) and Canada (no. 27).

More frequent visitors of the blog won’t be surprised about my next choice: Neil Young. Wait a moment, some might think, based on what I wrote in my clever introduction, should he be in the list? After all, he has been affiliated with bands like Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and he continues to perform frequently with Crazy Horse. Well, in addition to these bands, Young has done plenty of solo work, plus Crazy Horse is his backing band. At the core, there’s no doubt to me that Young nicely fits the singer-songwriter definition. Here’s The Needle And The Damage Done, one of Young’s finest songs first recorded for Harvest, his fourth studio album from February 1972. The tune was inspired by the death of Young’s friend and former Crazy Horse bandmate Danny Whitten from heroin addiction. With the U.S. battling a horrific opioid addiction crisis, eerily, the song’s lyrics remain as relevant today as they were more than 45 years ago.

While with the explosion of the singer-songwriter category in the late ’60s and 70s I could  go on featuring artists from that time period, I also would like to least touch on more recent decades. In the ’80s, Suzanne Vega emerged as one of the most popular artists in the category. At the time, I frequently listened to her second album Solitude Standing from April 1987 – yes, it’s the one with Tom’s Diner. While that song represents cinematic-type storytelling at its best and perfectly describes the New York morning rush, I’ve become a bit tired of the tune due to over-exposure. Interestingly though, it wasn’t much of a chart success at the time, unlike Luka, the track I’m featuring here, which became Vega’s biggest hit. The song’s upbeat melody is in marked contrast to the lyrics addressing the horrible subject of child abuse.

When it comes to ’90s singer-songwriters, one name that comes to mind is Alanis Morissette. In June 1995, the Canadian artist released her third studio album Jagged Little Pill, which became her first record that appeared worldwide and catapulted her to international stardom. The album became a chart topper in 13 countries, including Canada, the U.K. and the U.S., and is one of the highest-selling records of all time, exceeding more than 33 million copies worldwide. It won five Grammy Awards including Album of the Year. Here’s the record’s second single Hand In My Pocket, a nice rock tune Morissette co-wrote with Glen Ballard who also produced the album.

The last artist I’d like to highlight in this post is English singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse. During her career, which was tragically cut short in July 2011 when she died from alcohol poisoning at the age of 27, Winehouse only released two albums. Her acclaimed second record Back To Black from October 2007 won Best Pop Vocal Album at the 2007 Grammy Awards. With close to 3.6 million units sold in the U.K. alone, Back To Black became the U.K.’s second best-selling album of the 21st century; worldwide sales exceeded 12 million. Here’s the opener Rehab, which also was released separately as the album’s lead single. The lyrics describe Winehouse’s refusal to attend rehab for alcoholism following her management team’s suggestion. The tune has a nice soul vibe and like many of her other songs has a retro feel.

Sources: Wikipedia, All Music, Songfacts, YouTube

My Playlist: Yusuf/Cat Stevens

Here’s an artist I pretty much had forgotten about, even though I dig many of his songs – until yesterday, when I spotted Tea For The Tillerman as a listening suggestion in my streaming music service. It immediately took me back to my teenage days in Germany when I was taking guitar lessons and learning Cat Stevens tunes like Lady D’Arbanville and Father And Son. And before I knew it, I was strumming my acoustic to see whether I could still remember the chords of the latter – I did, and while I rarely grab my guitar these days and my playing has become rusty, it still felt great!

Once I had Father And Son on my mind, other tunes popped up: Morning Has Broken, Peace Train, Miles From Nowhere, Moonshadow – so much great music written by this British artist who I feel has rightly been called one of the great singer-writers during his heyday in the ’70s, along with James Taylor, Carole King and others. At the same time, I can’t think of another popular music artist who has had such an unusual and at times tumultuous journey as Yusuf/Cat Stevens, as he is known today.

Born Steven Georgiou on July 21, 1948 in London, U.K. to Stavros Georgiou, a Greek Cypriot, and Ingrid Wickman from Sweden, Stevens started his recording career as an 18-year-old in 1966. He pretty much had immediate success in the U.K. His first single I Love My Dog charted at no. 28. The song was also included on Stevens’ debut album Matthew And Son, which appeared in March 1967. Not only did the title track climb to no. 2 on the UK Singles Chart, but the record became a top 10 album, peaking at no. 7.

In 1969, Stevens almost died from tuberculosis. Not only did this traumatic experience impact his future music, but it also started a spiritual journey that eventually would lead him to convert to the Muslim faith in December 1977 and give up his music career. But before that he had reached international stardom with a series of albums in the early ’70s, including the above mentioned Tea For The Tillerman.

Cat Stevens In Concert 1970s
Cat Stevens in concert during the 1970s

In 1989, Stevens, who by then was known as Yusuf Islam, returned to the spotlight, but it wasn’t the kind of attention he had looked for. Comments he had made were widely seen as endorsing a death fatwa against author Salman Rushdie related to his novel The Satanic Verses. The reaction was harsh, especially in the U.S. Some radio stations banned his music, and a radio host in LA even called for a mass burning of Stevens’ records. The band 10,000 Maniacs, which had covered Peace Train on their 1987 album In My Tribe, decided to remove the track from later releases.

While Stevens repeatedly maintained his remarks had been misunderstood, he also said his comments were foolish. I don’t have enough insights to come to a definitive conclusion here and it’s also not my place to judge. But I think if this controversy had occurred today in the age of social media, Yusuf would have been finished as a music artist.

Yusuf-Cat Stevens in Concert
Cat Stevens performing in New Zealand in 2017

Starting from the mid-1990s, Yusuf Islam resumed his recording activity with a series of albums focused on Islamic themes. In November 2006, he released An Other Cup, his first all-new pop album in 27 years. Three additional such records have since come out. His most recent album from September 2017 is called The Laughing Apple. Let’s get to some music.

I’d like to start with the above mentioned Matthew & Son, the title track of Stevens’ debut album from March 1967. Like all other songs on the record except for one, the catchy tune was written by Stevens. BTW, it features John Paul Jones on bass. The then-session musician joined the New Yardbirds the following year, the band that subsequently changed their name to Led Zeppelin.

Stevens’ sophomore release New Masters didn’t get much attention, but it includes a tune I’ve always liked: The First Cut Is The Deepest. Rod Stewart turned the song into a no. 1 single in the U.K. in 1977. Another well-known version is the cover by Sheryl Crow, who included it on her 2003 best of compilation, scoring a no. 14 hit on the Billboard Hot 100.

In April 1970, Stevens released his third studio album Mona Bone Jakon. His near-death experience with TB had changed him. The tone of his lyrics had become darker. Another contrast to his first two albums was a more stripped back sound, which I love. Initially, the record was a modest success but received more attention after the release of the follow-on Tea For The Tillerman. Here’s the opener Lady D’Arbanville, one of several songs Stevens wrote about former girlfriend Patti D’Arbanville, a model and later an actress. I’ve always dug the cool guitar part on this tune.

Another great track from Mona Bone Jakon is Katmandu featuring then 20-year-old Peter Gabriel on flute. It’s just a beautiful tune!

Next up: Wild World from Tea For The Tillerman, Stevens’ fourth studio album released in November 1970, and his commercial breakthrough. It’s another tune about his ex-girlfriend Patti D’Arbanville.

Also appearing on the album is Father And Son, one of my favorite Cat Stevens songs.

In October 1971, Stevens released his fifth studio album Teaser And The Firecat, another gem in his catalog. Among the tracks I find particularly beautiful is Morning Has Broken. According to Wikipedia, this tune is a Christian hymn that was first published in 1931, with lyrics by English author Eleanor Farjeon. The piano arrangement on Stevens’ version was composed and performed by classically trained keyboarder Rick Wakeman, who is best known for his five tenures with Yes between 1971 and 2004.

Another standout on the record is Moonshadow. According to Songfacts, Yusuf today considers it his favorite of his old songs.

Up to this point, this playlist only focused on Stevens’ early years, since that’s the period I’m familiar with. But I also like to give a nod to his more recent work. I still have to explore this music in greater detail. Here’s a tune called Everytime I Dream, which appears on Roadsinger from May 2009, Yusuf’s second album since his return to pop music.

The last song I’d like to feature is See What Love Did To Me. It’s a tune from The Laughing Apple, released in September 2017 as Yusuf/Cat Stevens. This album, which mostly includes reinterpretations of old tunes and some new music, represents various milestones. It was the first since 1978 that used the Cat Stevens name. The release came 50 years after his debut record. It also reunited him with Paul Samwell-Smith, who produced his most successful records in the ’70s, and Alun Davies, his guitarist during that period.

In addition to numerous music accolades, Stevens has received various awards for his charitable humanitarian work. In 2014, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 2016, he conducted a 50th anniversary tour that kicked off in Toronto on September 12 and included 11 dates in the U.S. It appears that after a long and tumultuous journey, Yusuf/Cat Stevens is finally in a place where he is comfortable with his spiritual beliefs and his music.

Sources: Wikipedia, Yusuf/Cat Stevens website, Songfacts, YouTube