It’s 35 years since ‘Careless Whisper’ started George Michael’s solo career, a solo career which re-defined popular music.
And this year, George’s legacy has been further enhanced by the auction of his private art collection and by Last Christmas, the forthcoming blockbuster film based on Wham!’s hit ‘Last Christmas’.
March saw the auction of The George Michael Art Collection. The collection included works by artists from the Young British Art movement – many of whom were friends of George – including Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst and Bridget Riley. Before the sale at Christie’s, London on March 14, key works from the collection were viewed by the public in New York, Los Angeles, Hong Kong and Shanghai. The entire collection, plus iconic videos made by George, was shown to the London public and, from morning to evening, the queues were around the block. All 60 lots reached their reserve price and the evening was a resounding success, continuing George’s philanthropy by raising funds for charities close to his heart.
In November, there will be Last Christmas, a film co-written, co-starring and co-directed by Emma Thompson. Inspired by the Wham! song ‘Last Christmas’, the film co-stars Emilia Clarke and Henry Golding and is directed by Paul Feig. After meeting Emma and her co-scriptwriter husband Greg Wise to discuss the film, George gave them his blessing. The soundtrack will feature Wham! and George Michael solo songs, including the unreleased ‘This Is How (We Want You To Get High)’ which was written and produced by George and one of his regular creative partners, James Jackman.
George’s unexpected death on Christmas Day 2016 resulted in an outpouring of grief across the globe. And then there was the music he left us, both as half of Wham! alongside Andrew Ridgeley and as a groundbreaking, globe-conquering solo superstar. As the world knew, George made special music, searingly honest, expertly crafted, but always full of heart, soul and passion; music that will last for decades to come.
Since he entered our lives in 1982 with the ground-breaking slice of exuberance that was ‘Wham! Rap (Enjoy What You Do)’, George Michael sold over 120 million albums. He topped charts from Austria to Australia. He sold-out stadiums from Tokyo to Tampa. He re-defined popular music with ‘Faith’, his debut solo album of 1987 and he subsequently crafted a substantial, enormously popular body of work.
Perhaps, though, the real starting point is Radlett, a commuter town of 60,000 souls, north-west of London, where some scenes of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange were filmed. It’s where young Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou (born 25 June 1963) and his loving, tightly bound, part-Greek-Cypriot, part-English family moved from their original North London home. Like teenagers the world over, George and his best friend, fellow Bushey Meads Comprehensive pupil Andrew Ridgeley, would dream of pop stardom, of making it big: “I wanted to be loved,” admitted George. “It was an ego satisfaction thing”. Deep down, the pair of dreamers understood that it wasn’t going to happen. These things just didn’t happen.
In fact, these things do occasionally happen and, as Wham!, the duo would encapsulate the early-'80s. From that first single to their last, 1986′s ‘The Edge Of Heaven/Where Did Your Heart Go’, they sold 25 million records and they departed in a blaze of glory before 72,000 people at Wembley Stadium on June 26 1986, their friendship as strong at the end as it was in the beginning. Wham! never got old and never lost their exclamation mark, but along the way, George won the first of three Ivor Novello Songwriter Of The Year awards in 1985. They had two US Number 1 singles and their American Number 1 album was titled ‘Make It Big’ to commemorate those Bushey Meads dreams. They became the first western band to play China and George began his long but mercifully mostly undocumented commitment to charity work on Band Aid’s ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ and by donating Wham! royalties from their ‘Last Christmas’/’Everything She Wants’ single to Ethiopian famine relief.
Even when Wham! were in their pomp and George was contributing to his friend and sparring partner Elton John’s ‘Nikita’ and ‘Wrap Her Up’, it was plain that George’s destiny was solo. His new, more mature songs were too worldly, too adult to fit into the format of a good-time duo. He’d already dipped a toe in solo waters in 1984 with a song he’d written as a 17-year-old (“a very precocious lyric!” he quipped) while riding the number 32 bus home as a teenager. ‘Careless Whisper’ not only introduced one of the great lines in popular music, “guilty feet have got no rhythm”, but it showed that there was more to George than the instant joy of ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go’ and ‘Young Guns (Go For It)’. ‘Careless Whisper’ charged to Number 1 in America, where it was credited to Wham! Featuring George Michael, and topped the charts in Australia, Canada, France, Holland, Italy, Ireland, South Africa, Switzerland and the UK, amongst others.
Just to prove ‘Careless Whisper’ was no fluke, before Wham!'s final hurrah, George’s second solo single, ‘A Different Corner’ topped the British charts and went Top 10 in the US, Australia, Austria, Germany, Holland, Ireland and Switzerland. As someone once almost said, you didn’t have to be a weatherman to see which way the wind was blowing.
His first post-Wham! offering wasn’t even a solo effort. Instead, hot on the heels of duetting with Stevie Wonder on a glorious ‘Love’s In Need Of Love Today’ at the world’s leading soul venue, Harlem’s Apollo Theater, George became the first white male vocalist to duet with Aretha Franklin, whom he described as “the best female soul singer in the world”. The magical, life-affirming, Grammy-winning ‘I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)’ swept its way to Number 1 on both sides of the Atlantic, Australia, Ireland and Holland.
Then, shortly after George contributed vocals to ex-Shalamar chanteuse Jody Watley’s self-titled album, came the iconic, ground-breaking ‘Faith’. It would eventually top charts in the UK, US, Australia, Ireland and Holland before going 10X Platinum in the US and 5X Platinum in the UK. Released in October 1987 and recorded earlier that year at Puk, in Jutland, somewhere in the Danish countryside (it was a tax year thing; but George just yearned for home) and Sarm West Studio 2 in West London, it surprised anyone who suspected that Wham!'s obvious style and swagger, meant George Michael’s songwriting lacked real depth.
‘Faith’ is the one written (except for his childhood friend David Austin’s sterling contribution to ‘Look At Your Hands’), produced and arranged by George himself. It’s the one which stayed atop the American charts for 12 weeks and the one which spawned four of his six number one US singles: ‘Faith’ itself, ‘Father Figure’, ‘One More Try’ and ‘Monkey’.
Widely acclaimed as the British ‘Thriller’, ‘Faith’ sold over 10 million copies in the US alone (it’s found its way into almost 25 million homes worldwide), it transformed George Michael from global teen idol to global adult superstar – in the process coining one of his least favourite phrases “doing a George Michael” – and it paved the way for the extraordinary delights to come.
‘Faith’ made the Michael mantelpiece sag with awards: a Grammy for Album Of The Year; three American Music Awards: Favourite Album (Soul/R&B); Favourite Male Vocalist (Soul/R&B) and Favourite Male Vocalist (Pop/Rock). There was an MTV Award for ‘Father Figure’ (Best Direction) and Ivor Novello Awards for Songwriter Of The Year and International Hit Of The Year.
There was storm-in-a-teacup controversy vis-a-vis his ode to monogamy, ‘I Want Your Sex’ (“I expected the BBC to ban it,” George admitted, “I became the antichrist for a couple of weeks”); there was funk in the clattering drug abuse saga ‘Monkey’; there was the horror of spousal battery in ‘Look At Your Hands’ and there was glistening beauty in both ‘Father Figure’, the Canadian Number 1 ‘Kissing A Fool’ and the Irish Number 1, ‘One More Try’, which was George’s pick of a remarkable bunch. There was even an anti-Margaret Thatcher political aspect to ‘Hand To Mouth’. Amazing as it seemed then, amazing as it seems now, he was still only 24. Not that he was especially happy: “one of the reasons the record was so successful,” he mused in 2010, “was that people can recognise the loneliness.”
The success of the ‘Faith’ album enabled the legendary Faith tour, where George played Wham! and solo material, plus the occasional cover. It encompassed 137 dates in 19 countries from February 1988 to June 1989; it was choreographed by Paula Abdul and it included a three-song covers set at the Nelson Mandela Freedom Concert at Wembley Stadium. The magnificent live spectacle helped ensure that nobody would sell more records than George in the United States in 1988. “I never met anyone who was a reluctant star,” he admitted, just as enthusiastically as he admitted to his insatiable ambition. The prestigious Best British Male Brit Award was his and he contributed to both his bassist Deon Estus’s album ‘Spell’ and the mysterious Boogie Box High.
After winning a career-encompassing Video Vanguard award at the MTV Europe Video Music Awards, George unveiled his second solo album, ‘Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1’ in September 1990. Oh and the title wasn’t a plea to listen to George without prejudice: he really wasn’t that self-absorbed. The mood was darker and more adult still, but that didn’t stop his British audience from sending it to Number 1 and the Americans to Number 2, behind MC Hammer. No shame there: the voluminously trousered rapper was a fine sprinter, but George was always a marathon runner.
The hit singles flowed, a Best Album Brit Award kept that Michael mantel groaning and the videos featured everything but George himself. So, after George had been entranced by a Herb Ritts cover for Vogue magazine, the video to the album’s third single, ‘Freedom ‘90’ (helmed by future Social Network director David Fincher) enlisted models Christy Turlington, Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista and Tatjana Patitz. After appearing in the video, the quintet became supermodels, referred to only by their first names. The man may have made the music, but he always insisted that music sold on its own merits and, cementing his artistic evolution, he was the subject of an edition of Britain’s most prestigious arts programme, the South Bank Show.
In keeping with his desire to do things differently, when George returned to live work in 1991, the Cover To Cover tour was exactly what it promised: a dizzying, cover-heavy romp, which featured Stevie Wonder’s ‘Living For The City’, Adamski’s ‘Killer’, Leonard Cohen’s ‘Suzanne’ and perhaps most notably, Elton John’s ‘Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me’. Recorded on the Faith tour, Elton and George’s ‘Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me’ duet was another British, American, French, Dutch and Swiss Number 1. Proceeds went to the Aids hospice London Lighthouse and the Rainbow Trust children’s charity.
Soon, another charity, the Red Hot Organisation, enlisted George’s ever-willing assistance. Their ‘Red Hot + Dance’ album of 1992 was a benefit for Aids research charity, the Red Hot Foundation. It mostly featured remixes of songs by artists including Madonna and Lisa Stansfield. George, however, gave the project three brand new songs, including the aptly titled ‘Too Funky’. Ever game, he even appeared in the video, albeit briefly and it was another global top tenner.
A debilitating court case with his record label Sony loomed, but he wasn’t finished with live chart toppers or charities. 1993′s ‘Five Live’ EP featured George’s heroic versions of Queen’s ‘Somebody To Love’ (with Queen themselves) from the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert, which Queen’s Brian May anointed as the evening’s finest moment and ‘Papa Was A Rollin' Stone’, the video of which won an MTV Europe’s International Viewers' Choice Award. Proceeds went to the Freddie Mercury Phoenix Trust. Later that year, before an audience including the Princess Of Wales, George headlined the Concert Of Hope at Wembley Arena on World Aids Day.
George re-emerged in November 1994, at the MTV European Music Awards in Berlin, with the stunning ‘Jesus To A Child’, his first self-penned song in three years, the tribute to the love of his life, Anselmo Feleppa. Despite its seven-minute, radio-unfriendly length, it was yet another British Number 1 (as it was in Australia, Ireland and Norway) and yet another US Top tenner.
His absence had made the public’s hearts grow fonder still. In January 1995, ‘Careless Whisper’ was voted London’s favourite all-time record and George himself as Best Male Singer by listeners of Capitol Radio, alongside an Outstanding Contribution To Music Award as he became the most performed artist on British radio.
Once George had formally left Sony and signed to Virgin (excluding the US) and DreamWorks (US only), in May 1996 he released ‘Older’, the third George Michael album. “It’s my first completely honest album,” he explained of what at the time (i.e. pre-Spice-Girls) was the Virgin label’s fastest seller. Musically adventurous and lyrically brave, it spawned a record six British Top 3 singles. That year, he would win Best British Male at both the MTV Europe Awards and the BRITs; his third Ivor Novello Songwriter Of The Year Award and he would retain his Capital Radio’s Best Male Singer title. ‘Fastlove’ would win the International Viewers' Choice Award at the MTV Video Music Awards and ‘Older’ would spend 147 weeks in the British album charts, which, of course, it topped, as it did those in Austria, Australia, Norway, Netherlands and Sweden.
Somehow he found time to record ‘Desafinado (Off Key)’, a duet with the legendary Astrud Gilberto, for the ‘Red Hot + Rio’ charity album. To remind everyone (not least himself) that he could sparkle in a smaller setting as well as a stadium, he played intimate shows for Radio 1 before an audience of just 200 and for MTV in the company of 500 lucky fans.
1997 saw a second Best British Male Brit Award, a reissue of ‘Older’ which included a second disc, ‘Upper’, comprising four remixes, two newish songs and an interactive element. Oh, and there was a Wham! best of, ‘If You Were There’: good, weren’t they?
The following year saw ‘Ladies And Gentlemen, The Best Of George Michael’. Divided into two discs, ‘For The Heart’ and ‘For The Feet’, it was partly a comprehensive career resume and partly a helpful corralling of some non-album gems. Its three new tracks included ‘Outside’ with its laugh-out-loud video, and a turbo-charged romp through Stevie Wonder’s glorious ‘As’, alongside the ever-splendid Mary J. Blige. The collection went 8X Platinum in Britain, a nation swooned at George’s droll performance on the chat show Parkinson and he topped Capitol FM’s Hall Of Fame for the eighth time, as well as the Norwegian charts.
Another year, another curveball. At the NetAid charity show in October 1999, George’s sang Yip Harburg and Jay Gorney’s ‘Brother Can You Spare A Dime’. Come December, the depression era classic featured again on ‘Songs From The Last Century’, the George Michael covers album. A labour of love, it comprised George’s takes on some of his favourite songs, including Sting’s ‘Roxanne’ and Passengers' (aka most of U2) ‘Miss Sarajevo’, both of which were singles (George appeared in neither video) plus standards such as ‘Secret Love’ and ‘You’ve Changed’ and a radical re-imagining of Johnny Mathis, Nina Simone and David Bowie’s ‘Wild Is The Wind’. A low-key treat, it nevertheless went double platinum in the UK and Top 10 in Germany.
The new century saw George step back from his relentless schedule. Even so, 2000, saw appearances at the Equality Rocks charity show at Washington’s RFK Stadium (then the largest-ever concert in aid of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender awareness) and at Luciano Pavarotti’s Pavarotti And Friends gathering in Modena, where George delivered a staggering rendition of ‘Brother, Can You Spare A Dime’. Indeed, the performance ranks alongside ‘Somebody To Love’ at the Freddie Mercury Tribute concert as being amongst George’s finest. It later appeared on the ‘Pavarotti And Friends For Cambodia And Tibet’ album and the pair also duetted on ‘Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me’. All wasn’t quite quiet on the studio recording front: George joined Whitney Houston to re-record her album track, ‘If I Told You That’.
2001 was professionally quiet, but in 2002 George released the single ‘Freeek!’ on Polydor records. The super-funky track, George’s first self-penned single since 1998′s ‘Outside’, went to Number 1 in Croatia, Denmark, Italy, Portugal and Spain and 7 in the UK. Joseph Kahn’s sci-fi tinged, sexually charged video was a boundary-pushing, senses-tingling slice of mischief which featured George as businessman, scientist, cowboy and leather-clad dog-handler. There was more mischief in the shape of the satirical ‘Shoot The Dog’, which sampled The Human League and, via its animated video, poked fun at George Bush, Tony Blair and David Seaman. Its message, though, could hardly have been more serious: at the time, George was a lone, brave voice in the wilderness, speaking out against the Iraq war to the derision of some. Turns out he was right all along.
2003 was spent crafting the eagerly awaited ‘Patience’, but there was still an appearance on the ‘War Child’ charity album (and subsequently on Top Of The Pops), with a sombre version of Don McLean’s anti-war ‘The Grave’. After eight years – several musical lifetimes – without an album of original material, even diehards wondered if George still had the magic of yore, although he had re-signed to his label of yore, Sony. They needn’t have worried.
The joyful single ‘Amazing’ served notice that another feast was on its way. So it proved and ‘Patience’ hurtled to Number 1 in Britain, Denmark, Germany, Poland and Sweden amongst many others. Having retreated from the American market since ‘Older’, George appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s show, inviting her and her crew into his lovely home, where he performed ‘Amazing’, ‘Father Figure’ and ‘Faith’ for them. The album reached Number 12 there. George was back. He could hardly have been more back.
July 2005 saw George performing alongside erstwhile Beatle Paul McCartney at Live 8 on a rip-roaring version of ‘Drive My Car’. Later that summer, a duet with Ray Charles, ‘Blame It On The Sun’, appeared on Charles’s posthumous album, ‘Genius And Friends’.
2006 began with George Michael: A Different Story, a documentary directed by Southan Morris. There were contributions from Boy George, Mariah Carey, Noel Gallagher, Elton John, Andrew Ridgeley and Sting. It took us back to his childhood, back to Wham!, back to ‘Faith’ and looked to the future. Like George, it was unflinchingly honest. Too honest some might say. The man himself? He loved it.
‘Patience’ had everything but an accompanying tour. Once Tony Bennett’s ‘Duets: An American Classic’ album had concluded with ‘How Do You Keep The Music From Playing?,’ a collaboration with George, it was time to put things right with the first George Michael tour since 1991’s Cover To Cover jaunt. Starting in Barcelona in September 2006, finishing in Copenhagen in August 2008 and including George’s first American shows in 17 years, two and a half million people in 27 countries saw the universally lauded 25 Live tour at arenas and stadia. Titled as a celebration of George’s 25 years at the musical coalface, the tour included the first two concerts at the renovated Wembley Stadium and a rather more intimate charity show for British nurses at the Roundhouse in London’s Chalk Farm.
As George toured, the comprehensive compilation ‘Twenty Five’, was released and its three new songs included a duet with Paul McCartney on the ‘Listen Without Prejudice Vol 1’ track, ‘Heal The Pain’. Naturally the album was a British Number 1, a global Top 10 hit and there was a 40-song DVD too. If that wasn’t enough, George was also given the rare honour of a second South Bank Show to himself.
Once the tour was over, it was time for wings-spreading with guest slots on the British television hits The Catherine Tate Show and Ricky Gervais’s Extras, plus regular appearances in the US sitcom Eli Stone, where several episodes were titled after a George song. There was a stirring rendition of ‘Praying For Time’ on that year’s American Idol finale too. The last few weeks of 2008, saw ‘December Song (I Dreamed Of Christmas)’, co-written with old friend David Austin, a Christmas gift via George’s web site and a commercial release a year later.
In 2009, the Live In London DVD, filmed at two Earls Court concerts on the 25 Live tour, reached the top of the UK DVD charts. George also appeared with Beyonce to sing ‘If I Were A Boy’ at London’s 02 Arena and with Joe McElderry on British talent show The X Factor, where the pair duetted on ‘Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me’.
After 2010’s three sell-out dates in Perth, Sydney and Melbourne, George’s first shows in Australia since the Faith tour of 1988, 2011 was a vintage year. ‘Faith’ was reissued in January. In March, he took part in Comic Relief’s Red Nose Day. An enthusiastic supporter of Comic Relief since gifting them his royalties from the Mary J. Blige duet of ‘As’, George appeared on a classic Little Britain sketch with Matt Lucas and David Walliams as Lou’n'Andy. And not only did he take part in a sketch with James Corden, the first Carpool Karaoke, George’s version of New Order’s ‘True Faith’ was the official Comic Relief single. George didn’t simply cover the song, he re-invented it as a gorgeous, stately ballad and it raised thousands for the charity.
Flush with creativity, George kicked off Symphonica: The Orchestral Tour at Prague’s State Opera House on August 22, 2011. The set featured a selection of his own songs and covers alongside an orchestra and included shows across Europe including London’s Royal Albert Hall. On November 6, George performed a special Symphonica charity show at London’s Royal Opera House for the Elton John AIDS Foundation’s newly created Elizabeth Taylor Memorial Fund before an audience including Sir Elton John himself, Kylie Minogue, Rupert Everett, David Walliams, Lara Stone and many more. The evening raised over £987,000 for the charity.
In 2012, George released a new single ‘White Light’, which celebrated the 30th anniversary of the first Wham! single, ‘Wham Rap! (Enjoy What You Do)’. In August, George performed ‘White Light’ and ‘Freedom! 90’ at the London Olympics Closing Ceremony and a month later, George became the first contemporary pop artist to perform at the Palais Garnier Opera House. This special evening was a charity performance in aid of Sidaction, France’s biggest AIDS charity. The momentous occasion was filmed by the production/direction team of David Austin and Caroline True and aired on BBC1.
The Symphonica tour finished in London in October 2012 and 2014 saw the release of ‘Symphonica’, an album recorded during the Symphonica tour. Produced by George and Phil Ramone, who had co-produced ‘Songs From The Last Century’ and who died shortly after ‘Symphonica’ was completed, the album went straight to the top of the UK Album Charts and the iTunes charts in over 13 countries.
George’s music continued to influence and shape the world of film. ‘Careless Whisper’ and ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go’ graced the Deadpool soundtrack. A staple of the first Zoolander, ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go’ was reprised in Zoolander 2, while ‘One More Try’, ‘Faith’, ‘Freedom! ’90’ and ‘Father Figure’ appeared in the 2016 comedy, Keanu and in September 2017. ‘Fantasy’, George’s single featuring Nile Rodgers of Chic was released.
October saw the posthumous reissue of George’s magnificent second solo album, ’Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1’. The beautiful package included George’s stunning 1996 MTV Unplugged performance and not only did it win the 2018 Music Week Catalogue Marketing Campaign Of The Year, it became the biggest selling week one re-issue in the history of the UK charts, as it reached Number 1 for the second time.
An accompanying film, Freedom, directed by George and David Austin, told the tale of the Sony court case and the making of ‘Listen Without Prejudice Vol 1’. It featured Stevie Wonder, Elton John, Liam Gallagher, Tony Bennett, Nile Rodgers, Mark Ronson, Mary J Blige, Kate Moss, Tracey Emin, Ricky Gervais and James Corden and was aired on Channel 4 around the album release. Naturally, the widely acclaimed, brutally honest film was edited for broadcast length. In May 2018, the full, one-hour 53-minute Freedom: George Michael Director’s Cut – the version George had always intended to be shown – was screened at film festivals across the world.
This year has already seen The George Michael Art Collection auction and the Last Christmas film is on its way. George Michael’s legacy continues to bloom.