Hello there! This week our blog features a lovely pop song, Wild World. We will first discuss the original by Cat Stevens (now Yusuf Islam). Next, we will review a cover by Jimmy Cliff, and we will finish with a cover by Jose Feliciano.
Cat Stevens and Wild World:
Cat Stevens is a British singer-songwriter who has had a most interesting life and career. He was born Steven Georgiou in London in 1948. His parents ran a restaurant, the Moulin Rouge, in the Soho area of London.
As a youth Mr. Georgiou bought a guitar, taught himself how to play, and began to compose pop songs. He was performing at age 17, and signed a record contract at 18 under his stage name Cat Stevens. He had his first single hit, Matthew and Son, at age 19.
Below is a photo of Cat Stevens performing in 1971.Embed from Getty Images
Initially, Stevens gained fans in Britain both as a solo artist and as a songwriter. However, his solo career did not blossom in the U.S. until 1970, when his folk-rock album Mona Bone Jakon was released, and became a big seller.
Stevens released this album after signing a new record deal with Island Records where he began to work with producer Alun Davies. Their partnership has now endured for nearly five decades.
Stevens’ major international breakthrough was the late-1970 release Tea For The Tillerman. A really big single hit from Tea For The Tillerman was Wild World, a song that Stevens wrote after his two-year relationship with American actress Patti d’Arbanville ended.
Wild World is a lament written by a man to his lover who is leaving him. He declares his heartbreak, while warning her that she could be hurt by the “wild world” that she is entering.
Now that I’ve lost everything to you
You say you want to start something new
And it’s breaking my heart you’re leaving
Baby, I’m grieving
But if you want to leave, take good care
Hope you have a lot of nice things to wear
But then a lot of nice things turn bad out there
[CHORUS] Oh baby baby it’s a wild world
It’s hard to get by just upon a smile
Oh baby baby it’s a wild world
I’ll always remember you like a child, girl
Wild World made it to #11 on the Billboard Hot 100 playlists, and became Stevens’ first big international hit.
So here is Cat Stevens in a live performance of Wild World on the BBC in 1970. Mr. Stevens is accompanied by Alun Davies on guitar.
Isn’t this lovely? Wild World was the first Cat Stevens song that I heard, and it made a vivid impression on me. Stevens’ voice, soft and vulnerable, was a perfect match for his highly personal and moving lyrics. And the melody was haunting and memorable.
In this case, there is no doubt that Wild World was deeply heartfelt for Mr. Stevens. The breakup of his relationship with Patti d’Arbanville was devastating to him.
At the same time, some feminists have criticized this song as misogynistic. I think they have a point. Stevens portrays Ms. d’Arbanville as “like a child,” and though he cautions her about the dangers of the “wild world,” he adds “I hope you have a lot of nice things to wear.” Despite the criticism, Wild World is still a favorite song of mine.
In addition to the two covers that we feature in this blog post, there have been many other covers of Wild World. In 1988, the artist Maxi Priest released a reggae cover of the song. His version, which appeared to be strongly influenced by Jimmy Cliff’s cover, reached #27 on the Billboard Hot 100 playlists.
In 1987, a controversy arose when Jonathan King accused the group Pet Shop Boys of plagiarizing the Wild World melody in their #1 UK hit It’s A Sin. In order to demonstrate his point, King released a cover of Wild World that was deliberately arranged in the style of It’s A Sin.
Unfortunately for Mr. King, his tactic backfired badly. King’s cover of Wild World flopped commercially; then King was subsequently sued by Pet Shop Boys and had to settle out of court.
Wild World was one of several best-selling singles from Tea For The Tillerman, which also included such Cat Stevens classics as Hard-Headed Woman and Father and Son. Four of the songs from that album were incorporated into the 1971 black comedy film Harold and Maude.
Buoyed by the breakout success of this album, Cat Stevens became an international superstar. He released a series of albums that went gold and spun off successful singles. His name was mentioned in the same category as great singer-songwriters such as Paul Simon and Elton John.
As time went by , Cat Stevens became increasingly interested in religion and philosophy. He had contracted tuberculosis in 1969, an illness that became a near-death experience and required a year of convalescence. During that period he wrote a slew of songs, but also spent much time thinking about his life and purpose.
After nearly drowning while swimming in Malibu, California in 1976, Cat Stevens converted to Islam, taking the name Yusuf Islam. After his conversion, Mr. Islam abandoned his musical career, and began to donate royalties from his songs to various charities. He did not perform again for many years.
In the interim, Yusuf Islam became entangled in some controversial events involving the Muslim world. In 1989, after a fatwa was issued calling for the murder of Salman Rushdie, the Booker Prize-winning author of The Satanic Verses, Yusuf made statements that appeared to support the fatwa.
Yusuf Islam has steadfastly denied ever supporting the fatwa against Rushdie. He claims that he was merely trying to explain to reporters the meaning of a fatwa. Given his long-time charity work and his award-winning efforts on behalf of peace and non-violence, I am inclined to give Mr. Islam the benefit of the doubt.
Following the 9/11 attacks in New York, Washington DC and elsewhere, Yusuf Islam issued a strong denunciation of those acts, and he performed his song Peace Train for the October 2001 Concert For New York City.
In 2004, Yusuf Islam received the Man of Peace Award from the World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates. Despite receiving this honor, he was denied entry into the U.S. when he attempted to fly into Washington from London. He successfully sued the British papers The Sun and The Sunday Times after they claimed he was a supporter of terrorism.
In 2006, Yusuf Islam began performing once again. He performed some of his old standards in English, while some of his new songs were in Arabic. He continued to donate most or all the proceeds from his music to charity; and he also began performing as “Yusuf,” dropping his last name from his records.
In Oct. 2010, Yusuf performed at Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert’s Rally To Restore Sanity and/or Fear. In a cute touch, Yusuf performed his song Peace Train, while Ozzy Osbourne contributed Crazy Train and the O’Jays sang Love Train.
In 2014, Cat Stevens was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Below is a recent photo of Yusuf in concert. He was performing at a service of remembrance in Christchurch, New Zealand following the massacre of worshippers in mosques.Embed from Getty Images
It’s great to see Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam back on the road again. Critics say that he seems to be enjoying himself immensely.
Jimmy Cliff and Wild World:
Jimmy Cliff is a Jamaican singer-songwriter, and also an actor. He was born James Chambers in 1948; he was raised in St. James, Jamaica and began writing songs at quite an early age. He began a collaboration at age 14 with producer Leslie Kong. Kong got Cliff a deal with the major Jamaican record company, Island Records.
Here is a photo of Jimmy Cliff from about 1970.Embed from Getty Images
Although Cliff had some commercial success with his early songs, his career really took off in 1972 when he starred in the reggae movie drama, The Harder They Come. That movie introduced people all over the world to reggae music, and is undoubtedly the best movie ever to feature reggae. Cliff sang a number of songs in that film.
Jimmy Cliff issued a cover of Wild World in 1970, just a few months after Cat Stevens’ own single was released. Here is a live (or possibly lip-synched) performance by Jimmy Cliff of this song.
Cliff has a really terrific tenor voice, which he uses to great effect here. I especially like the gospel choir that appears on the chorus, and forms an impressive counterpoint to Cliff’s high, clear vocals.
Cliff slows down Wild World a bit, and to great effect. I play both versions of Wild World when I am down, and one can get rid of quite a lot of emotion singing these songs in the shower.
Jimmy Cliff has had a long and relatively successful career. Although all reggae musicians live in the gigantic shadow of Bob Marley, Cliff is the only living musician who has been awarded the Order of Merit by the Jamaican government.
Originally a Rastafarian, Cliff converted to Islam in the late 1970s. However, he now states that he is not aligned with any religion, but “now I believe in science.” This physicist gives that remark a thumbs-up!
In 2010, Cliff was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. We salute him for his long, successful career.
Jose Feliciano and Wild World:
We discussed Jose Feliciano in our blog post on the Doors’ song Light My Fire, and also for his cover of the Beatles’ Hey Jude. Here we will briefly review his life and career.
Jose Feliciano was born in Puerto Rico in 1945. He was blind at birth due to congenital glaucoma. At the age of five his family moved to Spanish Harlem.
He became obsessed with the guitar, reportedly practicing up to 14 hours a day. Feliciano loved rock and roll, although his greatest stylistic influences were classical guitarist Andres Segovia and jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery.
Here is a photo of Jose Feliciano performing in the late 1960s.Embed from Getty Images
Jose Feliciano developed a trademark guitar style that prominently features both his jazz and flamenco influences. He applied his guitar technique to a number of popular songs with some spectacular success. Through his familiarity with flamenco style, he was the first guitarist to introduce nylon-string guitars into rock music.
Feliciano began his musical career by playing in clubs in the US and Canada, and signed a recording contract with RCA Victor. He then traveled to Argentina and the UK, and became famous across Latin America.
After moving to LA, he hooked up with producer Rick Jarrard. They released a Latin-style version of The Doors’ Light My Fire that became a blockbuster hit. As a result, Jose Feliciano won Grammy Awards in 1969 for both Pop Song of the Year and New Artist of the Year.
So here is Jose Feliciano in a live performance of Wild World.
I have great admiration for Mr. Feliciano. He applies his unique guitar playing and vocal styling to every song he encounters. Here, he blasts through an up-tempo version of Wild World, giving an impressive combination of flamenco and jazz playing.
Feliciano’s powerful vocals provide this song with new meaning. One of the hallmarks of a great pop song is that it can be reprised in many different formats, and still retain its power. That is certainly the case with Wild World.
In October 1968, Jose Feliciano sang The Star-Spangled Banner prior to a World Series game in Detroit. As was his custom, he gave a Latin-influenced, stylized version of the national anthem. We covered his presentation in our blog post on performances of the national anthem.
Jose Feliciano’s version became highly controversial, with traditionalists deeply criticizing his interpretation of the song. At that time, people were not accustomed to a non-standard treatment of our national anthem.
However, with the passage of time his performance has become appreciated as a creative and sincere expression of this song. He has been invited back to reprise his version of the national anthem at major-league baseball games.
Following his first big hit Light My Fire, Jose Feliciano had a second best-selling single in 1970 with his Latin-inspired song, Feliz Navidad, which has become a Christmas classic.
Since then he has continued to record, to tour around the world, and to garner occasional awards for his records, and for his collaborative efforts with musicians in many varied fields. There is currently a campaign to have Jose Feliciano inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It has not yet been successful, but he’s got my vote!
We wish Jose Feliciano many more happy and productive years.