‘Year of the Cat’ singer-songwriter Al Stewart will perform at the Palace Theater in Greensburg on Saturday
Folk rock singer and guitarist Al Stewart remembers driving down the Sunset Strip decades ago in glorious West Hollywood, California sunshine in a yellow Karmann Ghia.
It was 1976 and Stewart had a hit song called “Year of the Cat”, but he wasn’t fully aware of the extent of the success at the time.
“I thought I was dead and gone to heaven when my record came on the radio and I hit the next button (to another station) and there it is again, and I thought ‘Whoa!'” said Stewart, who was born in Glasgow, Scotland but grew up in Wimborne, Dorset, England.
His mother moved them there after his father, who served in the Royal Air Force, died in a plane crash during a training exercise in 1945 before Stewart was born.
“I had lived in England for thirty years and had never been on the radio,” he said. “Absolutely never.”
Stewart, who is well known in America and a resident of the Los Angeles area since “Year of the Cat” was released, has returned to filming after a two-year hiatus caused by the pandemic.
After three postponements, Stewart, 76, will perform with his band “The Empty Pockets” at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Palace Theater in Greensburg.
“Year of the Cat” was a hit in almost every country in the world except England. It went to number three in Brazil and was top ten in South Africa to name a few. But the song narrowly missed being included on the iconic British TV show ‘Top of the Pops’. Stewart attributes this to the fact that the song was never properly promoted in England.
“If you were played on ‘Top of the Pops’, you had a hit. And their policy was that they played any song that made the top 30 and “Year of the Cat” made #31 and they didn’t play it. So I missed it from one spot,” Stewart said with a laugh. “The next week it was No. 35 and then he was gone.”
Released three months later in the United States – October 1976 – the song created a sensation.
In an interview with the Tribune-Review, Stewart explained how “Year of the Cat,” the album’s title track, evolved.
“I had a girlfriend who had a book on Vietnamese astrology and it opened with a chapter called ‘The Year of the Cat’ and I said ‘that sounds like a song title, let’s see where it goes. “”
Where it went was No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100 in March 1977. Although Stewart had a higher single with 1978’s “Time Passages,” “Year of the Cat” is the song that captured the imagination. from America. (The album went to No. 5 in the US)
With its haunting piano start, it tells the story of a chance love affair with its evocative lyrics – “She comes out of the sun in a silk dress, running, like a watercolor in the rain, don’t bother to ask for an explanation, she I’ll just tell you she came, the year of the cat.
Stewart, whose work is mostly rooted in the folk genre, explained that he makes records in “the quirkiest way imaginable” and “Year of the Cat” is no exception.
“My way of working back then was to bring the backing tracks home and get up in the morning and play them and see what they suggested to me,” he said. “’Year of the Cat’ had at least four different sets of lyrics. At one time it was called ‘Horse of the Year’ and it was Princess Anne. “Princess Anne rode off on horse of the year,” which I thought was hilarious, but no one else did.”
As enjoyable as “Year of the Cat,” the song and the album, is to look no further in Stewart’s canon.
Stewart’s passion for history has paid off for the man and his fans. A voracious reader, when contacted by the Trib for this interview, Stewart explained that he was reading “Modern Times: A History of the World from the 1920s to the 1980s” by British journalist Paul Johnson.
This particular period in history informed much of Stewart’s best work, especially on his fifth studio album “Past, Present and Future.” Released in 1974, it is considered his first major album and includes some songs that are akin to mini-operas – ‘Nostramus’, a nearly 10-minute tribute to the renowned French astrologer, doctor and clairvoyant, and the incredibly prescient “Roads to Moscow”. .”
“The songs themselves just keep coming true. I mean I have a line in ‘Roads to Moscow’ like, ‘All summer they drove us through Ukraine.’ Now, is it current?
“I had done four albums about love stories and all you gotta have, and I knew I had to change and do something different,” Stewart said. “‘Past, Present and Future’ came out and it sold more than my first four albums combined, and I was like, ‘Okay, there’s room for a folk rock, historic songwriter in the world and I will become it.'”
He even wrote a song called “Warren Harding” in which he includes the US President’s middle name, Gamaliel, in clever use of syllables.
“I’ve studied every American president,” Stewart said. “Warren Gamaliel Harding – Gamaliel looks like it’s from ‘Lord of the Rings’ – I just like the flow of this one.”
These days, Stewart said he has no immediate plans to record another album with the pandemic “taking the momentum away a bit.” But even before that, my answer to that question was when people start buying seventy-year-old folk rock records, I’ll make another one.
Plus, he’s too busy reading, watching movies every day with his wife, Jill, and enjoying his extensive wine collection — the French government has appointed him senior adviser on French wine.
But Stewart said he was enjoying being back on the road playing gigs with “The Empty Pockets” again.
“Basically, I feel like I’m 37 or something and I play in a band,” he said. “I don’t feel like I’m 76 and because of the two-year hiatus, I’m a bit distant from all these songs. I was listening to (my) songs because I had to do some rehearsals to m ‘in memory and I was like ‘it’s not bad, where does it come from?’
Noting that tickets are selling well for Saturday’s Greensburg show, Stewart noted that his fans remain loyal.
“It’s amazing to me all these years later that it’s still going on. There are people in the world who understand what I do and the vast majority of people don’t understand what I do,” he said. “So I don’t play for them. I play for people who understand it.
Paul Guggenheimer is a staff writer for Tribune-Review. You can contact Paul at 724-226-7706 or [email protected]