Paul Fitzpatrick: London, April 2022
Selected 70s hits from across the pond
I can’t claim to be religious but the odd times I do attend the Lord’s house for weddings, funerals or christenings, I generally struggle with the words to hymns, except for one.
Probably, like most people from my era, I’m not sure I even realised that ‘Morning Has Broken’ was a hymn before it became a pop song by Cat Stevens 40 years later.
The hymns lyrics written by English author and poet Eleanor Farjeon in 1931 were set to a traditional Scottish folk song called Bunessan, after a village of the same name on the isle of Mull.
The songs positive message was ‘to give thanks for each day’ and it was added to the updated hymnbook or ‘Songs of Praise’ of 1931.
Cat Stevens idea to include a version of the hymn on his 1971 ‘Teaser and the Firecat’ album was initially met with much resistance by his record label ‘Island’, who were busy trying to promote Stevens as the English James Taylor.
The albums producer Paul Samwell-Smith was also against the songs inclusion for more practical reasons as the hymn has no chorus and consists of only 4 verses which made it’s initial recording time a paltry 44 seconds long.
Undaunted, Stevens reached out to session musician Rick Wakeman to ask if he could help with a piano arrangement for the song.
On the day of recording, Wakeman, as part of his preparation, started playing some melodies he’d written for his ‘The Six Wives of Henry VIII’ project.
Cat Stevens, impressed with what he’d just heard, said… “perfect Rick, let’s use that for ‘Morning Has Broken”!
Wakeman reluctantly agreed and basically came up with arrangements for the start, middle and end of the song, which extended the track to 3 minutes 20 seconds.
Delighted with his contribution, Wakeman was devastated to receive no credits on the album and for the meagre £10 he was offered for all his hard work.
Rick would have the last laugh though when Cat Stevens realised they had no idea how to play the song live on stage without Wakeman’s input.
Wakeman would perform his keyboard skills on some other classic tracks that year, including Life on Mars for Bowie and Get It On for T-Rex before joining the band Yes.
He did eventually forge a solo career and released ‘The Six Wives of Henry VIII’ to critical acclaim in 73.
The ‘Teaser and the Firecat’ album would produce 3 hit singles – ‘Moonshadow’ and ‘Peace Train’ were both released with moderate success before ‘Morning Has Broken’, which became a massive global hit reaching number one in the US.
Stevens surfed a wave of success in the 70s with hit singles, hit albums, sell-out tours & great reviews…. and best of all, he even got to date Carly Simon & Joni Mitchell.
Maybe you can get too much of a good thing, and Stevens famously turned his back on his successful career after a near-death experience off the coast of Malibu when he feared he was drowning.
He allegedly cried out “God if you save me I will work for you” at which point a wave appeared and swept him to shore.
Auctioning off all his guitars and devoting his time to the Islamic faith, Stevens changed his name to Yusuf Islam but after two decades gradually returned to the public eye with new music and tours.
‘Morning Has Broken’, like ‘Amazing Grace’, is one of the few hymns that has crossed over from the church to the charts and Stevens deserves enormous credit but I can’t help but feel that the contribution of Wakeman with his beautiful piano arrangement, also deserves some songs of praise.
Below is a short but funny audio clip of Wakeman telling his side of the ‘Morning Has Broken’ story….