George Michael was an English singer-songwriter who rose to fame during the 80s music scene. His catchy post-disco dance songs became global hits, including “Careless Whisper,” “Faith,” “Father Figure,” “One More Try,” “Monkey,” “Kissing a Fool,” “Praying for Time,” “Freedom! 90,” “Too Funky,” “Jesus to a Child,” “Fastlove,” and any others. Before embarking on a solo career, he was first a member of the pop duo Wham! along with Andrew Ridgeley. Wham! had also made big hits, most notably “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go!” which is surely an 80s oldies music classic. Michael was one of the most successful solo artists, having sold over 80 million records worldwide.
Early life and career
George Michael was born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou in North London, on June 25, 1963. He is half-Greek Cypriot (on his father’s side) and half-English.
While attending the Bushey Meads School near his hometown of Radlett, Hertfordshire, he met his friend and future Wham! partner Andrew Ridgeley. Both men happened to share the same interests and aspirations, which were to make a career in music. He would busk at the London Underground, do gigs as a DJ and join in a few number of bands.
Michael as member of Wham!
One of the early bands George Michael had been was the Executive, a ska outfit he and Ridgeley formed. Although they didn’t get to taste immediate commercial success, at least the Executive enjoyed some momentary fame.
Michael and Ridgeley later re-fashioned their act into a pop duo which they called Wham! in 1981. Their debut album Fantastic went all the way to the top of the UK album chart in 1983 and spawned hit singles including “Young Guns,” “Wham Rap!” and “Club Tropicana.”
However, it was their second album Make It Big (1984) that turned Wham! from homegrown hitmakers into international stars. It spawned hit singles like “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” “Freedom,” and “Everything She Wants.” Make It Big really made it big as it went to #1 on both the UK album charts and the US Billboard 200. By that time, Wham! became one of the newest rising acts, and so popular they were that they duo even became the first Western pop act to perform in the People’s Republic of China. Needless to say, it generated a great media buzz.
Michael’s beginning of a solo career and its initial success
Despite Wham!’s rising success, George Michael had other aspirations in mind — to become a solo artist. While still in the band, he released his first solo single “Careless Whisper” although the track was also included in the Wham! album Make It Big. This is the only song in that album which was co-written by Michael and Ridgeley. “Careless Whisper” rose to #1 on both the Billboard Hot 100 and UK singles charts in 1984. The success of the Michael’s first single prompted rumors of a Wham! breakup.
Wham! released their compilation album, the prophetically-titled The Final, in 1986. It wasn’t released in North America, as the duo’s third and final album Music from the Edge of Heaven was the one that got released instead. Four tracks from Music from the Edge was included in the The Final, including “A Different Corner” which was released as Michael’s solo single. It went to #7 on the Billboard Hot 100 and topped the UK singles chart.
Wham! formally ended their musical partnership with the final single “The Edge of Heaven” together with The Final. The single topped the UK charts while it peaked at #10 in the US. Wham! also staged their final performance in a sold-out concert at Wembley Stadium in London.
After Wham!, Michael didn’t waste any time in making his mark in the music business. That formally began in 1987 with the single “I Knew You Were Waiting,” a duet with one of his favorite singers, Aretha Franklin. The song went to #1 on the Hot 100 and on the UK singles chart.
That same year he released his first solo album Faith. Its title track was issued as the album’s second single and would become Michael’s signature song. “Faith” peaked at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and stayed there for four straight weeks.
Faith also produced other Hot 100 top ten singles — the other number one’s “Father Figure,” “One More Try,” and “Monkey,” as well as the album’s first single “I Want Your Sex” and “Kissing a Fool” which reached #2 and #5 respectively. To date, Faith has sold more than 25 copies worldwide, and been certified “diamond.”
Professional and personal crisis in the 1990s
Faith and its massive success had turned George Michael into pop music’s sex symbol. While he might have enjoyed the status at first, in the long run he began to feel bothered and restricted by it. Besides, all the touring and promotion for the Faith album left him feeling burned out, frustrated, lonely and far from his friends and family.
He took a well-deserved long break in 1989, and year later he released his new album Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1 which was markedly more somber and personal than his previous recordings. The album was thought to be more focused on his music rather than his image. What’s more, he refused to appear in any of the music videos or any gig to support the album. Rather predictably, Prejudice‘s sales went well, but failed to surpass or even just equal the sales of Faith. Nevertheless, it peaked at #2 on the Billboard 200.
Michael expressed his dissatisfaction with Sony (for not completely supporting Prejudice, among all other things), whom he accused as a slave-master. He filed a lawsuit against the label to end his contract, which was the beginning of a long and protracted legal battle. It ended in 1995, and it was also around that time that he left Sony and signed with the newly-formed Dreamworks (US) and Virgin.
In 1996 he released his third album Older, his first effort with Dreamworks. The album found him in his more somber, contemplative state compared to Prejudice. It contained the single “Jesus to a Child,” a song he wrote for his lover Anselmo Feleppa, who had died in 1993 due to an AIDS-related brain hemorrhage. The lyrics suggested of the nature of Michael’s sexuality and relationship with another man, which he hadn’t yet publicly acknowledged. The song went to #7 on the Billboard Hot 100 and topped the UK chart in 1996.
Michael’s mother, whom he had been exceptionally close to, died from cancer in 1997. The deaths of his two loved ones — his lover Feleppa and then his mother — left him devastated and deeply disturbed. That period was to be one of the darkest episodes in his life.
In 1998 he released a career-inclusive album Ladies and Gentlemen: The Best of George Michael which featured his solo recordings as well as his recordings with Wham!
Later that year he was caught in a lewd act with another man inside a public restroom in Los Angeles. An undercover cop discovered them and arrested the singer. Obviously, the arrest made headlines, and finally revealed Michael’s true identity as a proud (if embarrassed) gay man.
Career in the 2000’s and beyond
In 2002 Michael signed with Polydor and released a new single “Freeek.” Its album Patience came in a bit of a surprise because first, it came two years late. Second, it wasn’t released under Polydor but under Epic Records, a subsidiary label of Sony which Michael had left nine years ago. Patience was warmly received by critics.
Michael told the press that Patience was expected to be his last commercial album, and from now on he would only release online music, with sales of it going to charity.
In 2008 he released Twenty-Five, a double-CD album which summarizes his career. He kicked off a tour supporting the album, and for the first time in 17 years, Michael got to tour North America. Over the next five years or so Michael continued to tour on a regular basis, which began from the Symphonica tour (2011). It featured orchestral pop music and was recorded live by producer Phil Ramone before his death in 2013. The performance was released in 2014 as Symphonica, Michael’s first album in a decade as well as his first live album.
At age 53, Michael passed away at his home in Oxfordshire on Christmas day, 2016. His lover tried to wake him up from his bed but discovered that the singer “passed away peacefully.” It was later found out that he had died from a heart attack.
His death came as a shock to his family, friends, fans, and everyone in the music industry. They paid emotional tributes to the late superstar in appreciation of his musical genius and his inestimable contribution to pop music.
In his long and illustrious musical career George Michael also won many awards, apart from being a commercially successful pop artist. He won two Grammys, three BRIT Awards, four MTV Video Music Awards, four Ivor Novello Awards and three American Music Awards. In 2011 he was also nominated for the Songwriters Hall of Fame.