RIP: George Michael

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Posted December 28, 2016 by J Matthew Cobb in Features
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Pop legend George Michael dies at the age of 52

International pop icon George Michael, the gorgeous Greek-born idol that lit the music world first as the frontman of Wham! and later as a solo mega-pop star, died at the age of 53 on December 25. According to his manager Michael Lippman, who alerted the news to the media, Michael died peacefully at his Oxfordshire home in London. He was found dead by his partner, celebrity hairstylist Fadi Fawaz. It is being reported that the cause of death was due to heart failure.

As one-half of the pop duo Wham!, Michael (born Georgios Panayiotou) emerged on the scene as a formidable singer, songwriter and occasional instrumentalist. After the single debut of “Wham Rap (Enjoy What You Do),” mostly stemmed by the controversy of the profanity-laced mix and their bad boy branding, Wham! along with group mate Andrew Ridgeley quickly altered their sound and image. Their next foray turned them into teen pop sensations, thanks to their appearance on Top of the Pops performing “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.” By the end of ’83, the only artists to dominate the UK music scene were Culture Club and Duran Duran. Their first album Fantastic was a modest seller in the US, but it would be Make It Big that would give them international acclaim. The album yielded the hit singles the Motown-inspired “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” the slick “Everything She Wants” and the Quiet Storm ballad “Careless Whisper.” While their music videos dominating MTV and obtaining a sex symbol notoriety, Michael easily became the centerpiece of the group and was outpacing Ridgeley in every way possible. The songs were quickly becoming solo pieces, many times with Michael carrying the songs entirely. To not confuse audiences who were strictly focused on Wham! content, the US single of “Careless Whisper” was marketed as “Wham featuring George Michael.” They were also becoming major staples on black radio, proving that the heavy influence on UK imports was always R&B and soul music.

LISTEN TO “CARELESS WHISPER” BY WHAM! FEAT. GEORGE MICHAEL

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After the release of Make It Big, appearances at Live Aid and the final Wham! project (a last-minute project made up of B-side, rarities, previously unreleased material and singles-only tracks), the group parted ways, making room for Michael’s 1987 highly anticipated solo album, Faith. The disc was a mesmeric commercial success in the US, selling more than 1 million copies in its first week and becoming the best-selling British pop artist at the time. Two singles were released before the album’s release date: the provocative, and often misinterpreted “I Want Your Sex” came first (which is actually monogamy and having safe sex during the ’80’s AIDS crisis, but was so cumbersome for Top 40 disc jockey Casey Kasem that he refused to mention the name of the song on his weekly broadcast), hitting No. 2 on the Hot 100 in August 1987; the gospel-tinged title track came next in October 1987, reaching No. 1 US and hitting No. 2 in the UK. By the time Faith dropped, its success was already sealed. It debuted at number one in both the US and UK and in many other countries. It also stayed in the Billboard Top 10 album chart for 51 weeks straight. Twelve of those weeks it laid at number one. The success of its other singles, “Father Figure,” a hip-hop strutted “Monkey” and the soulful gospel tease of “One More Try,” continued its long reaching grip on pop and R&B music. The Grammy-award winning disc went on to become best-selling album of 1988. To date, it’s sold 20 million worldwide  and has already been certified diamond by the RIAA.


LISTEN TO “I WANT YOUR SEX” BY GEORGE MICHAEL


To keep his prominence in the US alive and to ensure the weight of his popularity, Michael wisely collaborated with a slew of already established household names. The move worked, first with the Number One single “I Knew You Were Waiting for Me” with soul legend Aretha Franklin, then on Jody Watley’s best-selling solo album with “Learn How to Say No.” Deon Estus, Michael’s bass player, also netted a Top 5 hit single with in 1989 with “Heaven Help Me,” a song that Michael produced, co-wrote and also provided background vocals for. A few years later in 1993, fellow Brit Elton John recorded a duet with Michael on a live remake of “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” which became a best-selling single in the US and UK.

Michael followed up Faith with Listen Without Prejudice, Vol 1, a disc that under-performed in sales in the US when compared with Faith. Selling under two million copies, it would be his last with record label Columbia after Michael felt the label poorly promoted the disc. In the UK, it performed better than Faith where it debuted at number one. In the US, it debuted at number 22 and managed to hit number 2 but was kept from the top spot by MC Hammer’s Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em. The album produced five hit singles in the UK: “Praying for Time” (hitting number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart — his final number one hit as a solo artist), “Waiting for That Day,” “Cowboys and Angels,” “Freedom! ’90,” (a song that came packaged with a popular concept video featuring a host of top supermodels including Naomi Campbell and Cindy Crawford) and “Heal the Pain.” Critics adored the album, sighting the disc as a moving piece of lyricism and protest.  It also landed inside the book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die.
After a very contentious six-year legal battle with Columbia, Michael released his next album, Older, his first for DreamWorks Records. The UK fully embraced the LP; the UK gave it a lukewarm reception. Older, producing UK hits like “Jesus to a Child,” the “Forget Me Nots” riff-carrying” “Fastlove” and “Spinning the Wheel,” went on to sale over eight million copies worldwide.

After a best-selling 2-CD greatest hits album (also sporting a kick-ass duet with Mary J. Blige on a cover of Stevie Wonder’s “As”) and a Phil Ramone-produced covers’ disc (Songs from the Last Century), Michael returned to the Columbia-owned Sony to release 2004’s Patience, his final solo studio album. Heavy on sampling and dance-pop, the disc felt like a departure from Michaels’s focused, familiar sound. Even with heavy appearances on TV including the Oprah Winfrey Show and speaking openly and freely about being a gay man and his sexuality, the media buzz proved to be a failed campaign. The album stalled at number 12 on the Billboard 200 and has only sold up to 381,000 copies in the US. Later that year, Michael went on BBC Radio and told the public that Patience would be his final solo album.

Certainly the luster in Michael’s stardom and profile came across some turbulent obstacles over the years. There were many episodes of drug abuse, even a scary near-death bout with pneumonia in 2011. The most famous of them all was a public bathroom incident where he was “engaging in a lewd act” with an undercover policeman in Beverly Hills, California. He plead no contest in the matter and was fined $810. Michael would endure rumors of his sexuality for years, mostly spinning from the hot tabloid story regarding the bathroom incident. It wasn’t until 1998 when Michael would confront the issue during an April interview on CNN, a time when coming out as gay was still viewed as career suicide for those in Hollywood. Michael forged onward anyway, approaching each decision made like a freebird without the fear of rejection controlling him.

Michael was also championed by the masses for being such a philanthropic hero. Most noted for his contributions to HIV/AIDS charities, Michael gave profits of “Last Christmas” to chart rival Band Aid who were enjoying the top spot with “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” He also anonymously gave to hospitals and to a host of organizations, charities and social justice causes.
“Dame Esther Rantzen, the founder and president of Childline, said he had given them “millions” over the years, and he had supported the Terrence Higgins Trust ‘for many years’, and also Macmillan Cancer Support. He reportedly called the production team of the quiz show Deal or No Deal after a contestant had revealed that she needed £15,000 to fund IVF treatment, and anonymously paid for the treatment personally.” Via George Michael’s Wikipedia page
At the time of his death, Michael was in the works of producing yet another album and a documentary to go with it based on his experiences of touring China in the mid-’80s, becoming one of the first Western entertainers to bring their talent to that part of the world. An Instagram post — dated Nov 2 — mentioned the doc was in the last phases and that the reissue of Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1 would be moved to 2017 to coincide with the film release. The film was slated to feature Michael as narrator and to include guest appearances from Stevie Wonder, Elton John, Mark Ronson, Mary J. Blige, Tony Bennett, Liam Gallagher, James Corden, Ricky Gervais, Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington, Cindy Crawford and others.

In a weird form of coincidence, Michael died on Christmas Day. “Last Christmas,” the B-side of “Everything She Wants,” was released during the Wham! years. Today, it has morphed into one of the most popular holiday songs of the Eighties and contemporary music age. So far, the total US sales of the digital track stand at 751,000 downloads. It sits at number 10 on the list of all-time best-selling Christmas/holiday digital singles in US SoundScan history.

About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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