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|Also Known As:||Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou||Died:|
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A wildly talented but seemingly self-destructive pop superstar, George Michael rose to fame in the British duo Wham! along with good friend Andrew Ridgeley. With international No. 1 hits like "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go" and "Careless Whisper," Michael's blue-eyed soul vocals proved to be the real reason behind the duo's success. As a solo artist, the talented singer-songwriter with MTV-friendly looks became an American and global superstar with 1987's Grammy-winning Faith and its hit singles "I Want Your Sex," "Father Figure" and the eponymous title track. Three years later, he scored a No. 1 with "Praying for Time" and a Top Ten hit with "Freedom! '90," but his decision not to do publicity for his 1990 solo follow-up Listen without Prejudice Vol. 1 hurt his profile in the States. After a self-imposed exile following an unsuccessful lawsuit against his record label, Michael charted again with 1996's Older and its modest hits "Jesus to a Child" and "Fastlove," but his American mainstream career effectively ended after a cop arrested him in 1998 for "engaging in a lewd act" in a public toilet, effectively outing the singer as gay. Embracing his sexuality publicly, Michael maintained superstar status...
A wildly talented but seemingly self-destructive pop superstar, George Michael rose to fame in the British duo Wham! along with good friend Andrew Ridgeley. With international No. 1 hits like "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go" and "Careless Whisper," Michael's blue-eyed soul vocals proved to be the real reason behind the duo's success. As a solo artist, the talented singer-songwriter with MTV-friendly looks became an American and global superstar with 1987's Grammy-winning Faith and its hit singles "I Want Your Sex," "Father Figure" and the eponymous title track. Three years later, he scored a No. 1 with "Praying for Time" and a Top Ten hit with "Freedom! '90," but his decision not to do publicity for his 1990 solo follow-up Listen without Prejudice Vol. 1 hurt his profile in the States. After a self-imposed exile following an unsuccessful lawsuit against his record label, Michael charted again with 1996's Older and its modest hits "Jesus to a Child" and "Fastlove," but his American mainstream career effectively ended after a cop arrested him in 1998 for "engaging in a lewd act" in a public toilet, effectively outing the singer as gay. Embracing his sexuality publicly, Michael maintained superstar status in Europe. Although his reputation and legacy were tarnished by his erratic behavior and frequent scandals, and he only rarely recorded in the final two decades of his life, George Michael remained one of music's most talented and successful singer-songwriters. His death on Christmas Day 2016 at the age of 53 was greeted with worldwide mourning from fans and peers alike.
Born June 25, 1963 in East Finchley, North London, England, Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou was the son of an English dancer and a Greek Cypriot restaurateur who Anglicized his name from Kyriacos Panayiotou to "Jack Michael" and accordingly, his son's to "George Michael." At the Bushey Meads School, Michael bonded with another student, Andrew Ridgeley, over their shared dreams of becoming professional musicians, which led to a fast friendship. He dipped a toe into the world of professional music when he began working as a DJ, and shortly afterwards he and Ridgeley formed a ska band called The Executive. Although that group made little professional progress, the best friends were encouraged enough to break away and start their own duo, Wham!, which quickly landed a record deal. Although Ridgeley was an important part of the band and cultivated his own fan base, from the beginning, Michael was the creative and performing powerhouse behind Wham!, writing and singing all their music, as well as serving as the focal point for the mania of millions of teenage girls. The band's 1983 debut, Fantastic went to number one in the U.K., earned massive sales and spun off the hit singles "Young Guns (Go for It!)," Wham Rap! (Enjoy What You Do)" and "Club Tropicana."
The band's second album, 1984's Make It Big, was even more successful, topping the U.K. and American album charts and racking up four U.K. No. 1 singles, three of which went to No. 1 in the U.S. and the other going to No. 3: "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go," "Everything She Wants," "Careless Whisper" and "Freedom." The ballad "Careless Whisper," which became a global phenomenon, would actually be billed as a George Michael solo single. As his star continued to rise, threatening to eclipse the success of Wham!, Michael contributed vocals to the Band Aid charity recording "Do They Know It's Christmas?" and sang backup on tracks for Elton John and David Cassidy. Wham!'s holiday single, "Last Christmas," went to No. 2 on the U.K. charts and became a heavily played seasonal classic. Wham! made worldwide headlines for their 1985 tour of China, but their days as a duo were numbered. The year 1986 saw the release of two overlapping collections: Music from the Edge of Heaven and The Final, which spawned the No. 1 U.K. George Michael solo single "A Different Corner." Not surprisingly, Wham! ended its run that year with a sold-out Wembley Stadium concert and a farewell single, "The Edge of Heaven," which went to No. 1 on the U.K. charts and featured Elton John playing piano.
As a solo act, Michael achieved instant success, hitting the top of the charts in both the America and the U.K. with "I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)," a duet with Aretha Franklin, a collaboration that won both singers a Grammy. He capitalized on his new solo success with an era-defining blockbuster that few saw coming: 1987's Faith. Not only did Michael play most of the instruments, but he wrote and produced virtually every track. Featuring a more adult, sexual image, the set caused instant controversy with the risqué lead single and video "I Want Your Sex." An even bigger smash followed with the release of the title track, which hit No. 1 in the U.S. and produced an iconic music video featuring Michael - resplendent in trademark shades, jeans and leather jacket - dancing suggestively near a jukebox, complete with close-ups of his posterior shaking to and fro. A global phenomenon, the album cemented Michael's status as a superstar, earning him three additional No. 1 singles: "Father Figure," "One More Try" and "Monkey," as well as the Top Five hit "Kissing a Fool." Not surprisingly, he won the Album of the Year Grammy, an American Music Award, and an MTV Video Music Award, as well as embarked on a red-hot world tour that cinched his musical conquest of Earth's major markets. The entire process proved so successful and yet so draining that, at the peak of superstardom, Michael vowed to take things down a notch for his next album.
Attempting to present himself as a more serious artist, Michael refused to do any promotion or participate in heavy visual imagery, including music videos, for 1990's highly anticipated Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1. While "Praying for Time" topped the charts in the U.S., the subsequent singles failed to connect with American audiences - with the exception of "Freedom! '90" which went on to become one of Michael's career-defining songs and music videos. The latter was unique in that the anti-corporate music industry Michael refused to appear onscreen; instead he populated his clip with a gaggle of the era's top supermodels lip-synching the song in lieu of the real singer. Although it went double platinum in the States, the album fared better in Michael's homeland, winning Best British Album at the BRIT Awards. His 1991 tour was a success, which resulted in a radio hit of a live cover of "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me" featuring Elton John. The proceeds from that single and a handful of singles for the proposed Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 2 were donated to AIDS-related charities. That follow-up album never got off the ground due to Michael's massive lawsuit against his record company Sony, alleging that they had forced him into a lifelong contract but had subsequently failed to promote Vol. 1. The company responded that Michael's refusal to participate in promotional material had sunk the album, and the court agreed, finding judgment against the singer. Claiming that he was the victim of "artistic slavery," Michael said he would not release any new material until he was set free from the label's roster.
While his mainstream professional career was languishing, Michael continued to record charity singles and performed at 1992's Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert. After the success of his contributions to the Queen covers EP Five Live, the possibility arose that Michael would become Queen's full-time lead singer in light of Mercury's recent death from AIDS, but the deal never crystallized. With a sleek new look, he resurfaced as a performer of self-written material in 1994, performing a new song, "Jesus to a Child" at the MTV Europe Music Awards, which went to No. 1 on the U.K. charts. An aching ballad of lost love, the song stirred long-gestating rumors about Michael's sexuality. Although he had cultivated an overtly heterosexual image in his earlier career, rumors had always existed that he was gay, and it was with 1996's Older that he began to make veiled references to his open secret. Although the follow-up single "Fastlove" went to the top of the U.K. charts and went Top 10 in America, the set had little impact on the States despite winning BRIT and MTV Europe Awards as well as Michael earning his third "Songwriter of the Year" honor.
Any questions as to Michael's sexual orientation were laid to rest on April 7, 1998, when an undercover male police officer arrested him for "engaging in a lewd act" in a public toilet in a Beverly Hills, CA park. The incident made international headlines as well as punchlines, and Michael was fined and sentenced to 80 hours of community service. He seemed to weather the ensuing media firestorm with self-deprecating humor, however, and included on that year's Ladies & Gentlemen: The Best of George Michael the song "Outside," whose lyrics and music video poked fun at the incident. The police officer who had arrested Michael sued the singer over the video, which depicted male police officers kissing, but he lost the case. Embracing his sexuality, Michael revealed how "Jesus to a Child" had been about his lover Anselmo Feleppa, who died of AIDS-related complications in 1993, and that he had been in a long-term relationship with Dallas-based art dealer Kenny Goss since 1996. He would later discuss how he had been out to friends since he was 19, but had chosen not to do so more publicly due to concerns that he would upset his family and curb his burgeoning career.
After 1999's low-selling album of covers, Songs from the Last Century, Michael regained his professional footing with 2004's Patience. Although his mainstream chart dominance in the United States had ended, he remained immensely popular in Europe, where he scored hits including the controversial "Shoot the Dog," "Freeek!" and "Amazing" as well as the international dance hit "Flawless (Go to the City)." In 2006, he released a second greatest hits album, Twenty Five, launched a successful tour, and recurred on the quirky legal fantasy "Eli Stone" (ABC, 2008-09) as the title character's guardian angel. He found time to sit down with Oprah Winfrey on her talk show "Oprah" (syndicated, 1986-2011) and performed on the 2008 finale of "American Idol" (Fox, 2002-16). During a concert in 2011, he announced that he and partner Kenny Goss had split in 2009. Although he achieved unprecedented professional success, becoming the most played entertainer on British radio, writing and performing enduring classics, and enjoying evergreen concert success, Michael's personal life remained far from charmed; he often found himself constantly dogged by bad publicity, self-destructive behavior and legal woes.
In fact, Michael's prodigious talent and legacy were often in danger of being overshadowed by bad press. In 2006, tabloids photographed and interviewed a 58-year-old van driver who claimed to have engaged in anonymous public sex with Michael, who responded by saying that he frequently sought out anonymous sex and that it was not a factor in his romantic relationships. Earlier that year, he had been arrested for drug possession, and in 2007 he was arrested for driving while under the influence of drugs, which caused the court to strip him of his license and sentence him to community service. That same year, Michael gave a frank interview discussing his struggles to control his marijuana habit. In 2008, the singer was arrested in a public toilet again, this time for drug possession, and two years later was caught on tape crashing his car into the front of a London storefront. Michael was arrested and charged with possession of drugs as well as driving under their influence, and was sentenced to eight weeks in prison as well as a five-year ban from driving. After serving four weeks, he was released. The following year, Michael released a second seasonal single, "December Song (I Dreamed of Christmas)," the first in a string of non-LP singles that included a cover of New Order's '80s dance classic "True Faith," a cover of Stevie Wonder's "You and I" released in conjunction with the 2011 royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, and the 2012 original "White Light." That song was written about a near-death experience Michael had had in 2011 during a severe case of pneumonia. In 2014, Michael released Symphonica, his first album in a decade, consisting of orchestral tracks produced by Phil Ramone and recorded during an extended tour undertaken in 2011-12, consisting of original material and covers ranging from the standards "Wild is the Wind" and "My Baby Just Cares for Me" to reworkings of Michael originals like "A Different Corner" and "One More Try." George Michael died on December 25, 2016 at his home in Oxfordshire, England at the age of 53; his longtime manager Michael Lippman attributed his death to heart failure.
By Jonathan Riggs
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