Who Was George Michael?
As a teenager, George Michael formed the band Wham! with high school friend Andrew Ridgeley. In 1984, the duo had their first worldwide hit with "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go." Two years later, Michael went solo, releasing a hit debut album Faith, which has sold more than 25 million copies worldwide. In 1998, Michael announced that he was gay after being arrested for lewd conduct in a public restroom. Michael continued to perform and his career had a reboot in the mid-2000s with the release of his greatest hits album Twenty Five. He continued to tour and donated much of his time and wealth to charity. Michael died of heart and liver disease on December 25, 2016, in his home in England at the age of 53.
Early Life and Wham!
Michael was born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou on June 25, 1963, in East Finchley, London, England. One of the leading artists in popular music in the 1980s and 1990s, he grew up in and around London, where he developed his passion for music at an early age. While in high school, Michael befriended Andrew Ridgeley, with whom he shared a love of pop music and they began playing music together. By some reports, Michael and Ridgeley were an unlikely duo. Michael was pudgy and shy, while Ridgeley was attractive and outgoing.
Dropping out of high school, Michael and Ridgeley started a short-lived ska band called the Executive. That band only played a few gigs before it fell apart, but Michael and Ridgeley soon found success. In 1982, they landed a recording contract with Innervision records and became known as Wham! Their first album, Fantastic!, was released in the United Kingdom in 1982, and climbed as high as the No. 4 spot on the charts there (it was released in the United States the following year). With their youthful good looks, Wham! soon developed a devoted following among teenage girls.
Songs: "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go" and "Careless Whisper"
With their catchy, Motown-influenced sound, Wham! lived up to the title of their second album, Make It Big (1984). They scored their first number one hit in the United States with "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go." The up-tempo hit "Everything She Wants" and the ballad "Careless Whisper" also reached the top of the U.S. charts. In 1984, Michael also performed with the charity Band Aid on the holiday single "Do They Know It's Christmas?" to benefit Ethiopian famine relief. Michael and Ridgeley also donated the proceeds of their hit holiday single ”Last Christmas"/"Everything She Wants" to Band Aid’s charitable efforts.
A year later on April 7, 1985, Wham! made history as the first Western pop group to perform in China.
On July 13, 1985, Wham! performed to raise funds for Ethiopian famine again, at Live Aid, and it was there that Michael and Elton John sang John's classic "Don't Let the Sun Go Down On Me," at Wembley Stadium in London.
As the lead vocalist and main songwriter, Michael emerged as the star of the group. It was not long before he broke out on his own. He left after the group's 1986 recording, Music from the Edge of Heaven. While it was not as big of a hit as their earlier efforts, the album still had several popular singles, including "Where Did Your Heart Go?" and "I'm Your Man."
As a solo artist, Michael earned his first Grammy Award for a duet with soul icon Aretha Franklin. Their single, "I Knew You Were Waiting," won Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal in 1987. That same year, he made an impressive debut with Faith (1987). Trying to shed his teen heartthrob image, he went for an edgier look, often sporting a leather jacket and a few days' worth of stubble. Musically, he took a funkier direction as well with the album. Driven in part by the number one title track, the recording reached the top of the album charts. Other hits included "Father Figure," "Monkey," and "One More Try."
Michael also courted controversy with another track on the album—"I Want Your Sex." Some radio stations in the United States refused to play it because of its explicit content while others would only play it late at night for the same reason. Despite the censorship, Faith went on to sell more than 25 million copies worldwide and won the Grammy Award for Album of the Year in 1988.
Continuing his musical evolution, Michael incorporated soulful and jazz elements into his songs on Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1 (1990). The album featured a few hits, including "Praying for Time." Further distancing himself from his pop image, he chose not to star in the video for "Freedom 90." Instead, the video featured such models as Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington and Cindy Crawford.
While Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1 received some positive reviews, the album only sold about 1 million copies. Michael became involved in a legal battle with his recording company Sony. Feeling that they had failed to properly promote the record, he wanted to end his recording contract. The conflict dragged on for several years, during which time Michael recorded only a few singles.
In 1991, Michael reprised "Don't Let the Sun Go Down On Me," his duet with Elton John, for charity. It became a No. 1 hit, with the proceeds going to London Lighthouse, an AIDS hospice, and the Rainbow Trust Children's Charity. Later that year, Michael hit the charts with "Too Funky," a track featured on Red Hot and Dance, an AIDS charity album.
Finally free from his contract with Sony, Michael released the album Older in 1996. Two tracks, "Jesus to a Child" and "Fastlove," broke into the top 10 in the United States as did the album. Still, the sales for the recording paled in comparison to his earlier efforts with some attributing this decline to Michael's time away from the pop music scene. Michael did win several accolades for his work, however, taking home the award for Best British Male at the BRIT Awards and the MTV Europe Awards that year.
Personal Life and Controversy
In 1998, Michael made headlines, though this time not for his music. He was arrested for lewd conduct in a men's room at a public park in Los Angeles, California. After the incident, Michael made a television appearance in which he acknowledged that he was homosexual. There had been some speculation about his sexual orientation over the years, but this was his first public statement on the matter.
His next musical effort was a collection of covers, Songs from the Last Century (1999). While it received some positive reviews, album sales lagged and it was his lowest charting album in the United Kingdom. Michael recorded several singles over the next few years, including a 2000 duet with Whitney Houston on the song "If I Told You That."
Michael released his fourth solo album, Patience, in 2004. Instead of the pop charts, he found success on the dance charts. "Flawless" and "Amazing" both scored well with dance music fans. After this record, Michael made comments about giving up the music business, but his rumored retirement would prove to be short lived. A Different Story, a documentary about Michael's life and career, was released in 2005.
In February 2006, Michael had another encounter with the law and was arrested on suspicion of illegal drugs in London. According to a report in Rolling Stone magazine, the singer said in a statement that "it's my own stupid fault, as usual." A few months later, Michael announced that he was going on tour for the first time in 15 years. He also released a collection of his songs, entitled Twenty Five, in the United Kingdom. The work, which included some new material, was a celebration of Michael's 25 years in music.
Resurrecting his career in the United States in 2008, Michael made several appearances, released Twenty Five stateside and guest-starred on the television series Eli Stone as a musical guardian angel of sorts. The show also featured some of his classic hits. He went on to perform on the series finale of the popular musical competition show American Idol before embarking on a national tour in the summer of 2008.
In April 2011, Michael released a cover of Stevie Wonder's 1972 song, "You and I," as a gift to Prince William and Kate Middleton prior to the couple's wedding. In August of that year, the singer-songwriter began performing as part of his Symphonica Tour, which ended early after Michael fell ill with pneumonia a few months into the series. The following year, Michael performed "Freedom! 90" and "White Light" at the closing ceremony of the 2012 Summer Olympic Games, held in London.
In May 2013, a 49-year-old Michael was airlifted to a medical facility in London, England, after being involved in an accident on the M1 motorway near St. Albans. Michael had reportedly been found at the scene of the accident by paramedics and had not been seriously injured.
In his personal life, Michael was in a 13-year relationship with Kenny Goss that ended in 2009. Michael began a relationship with celebrity hair stylist Fadi Fawaz that year until the pop icon's untimely death in 2016. At the time of his death, Michael was working on Freedom, a second documentary about his life, which was released in 2017.
Michael died on December 25, 2016, at the age of 53. An autopsy later revealed that the pop star had died from natural causes related to heart and liver disease. Michael's partner Fawaz found him dead at his home in Oxfordshire on Christmas morning.
"It is with great sadness that we can confirm our beloved son, brother and friend George passed away peacefully at home over the Christmas period," read a statement by his publicist.
Following his death, many charities and individuals posted on social media about Michael's generous philanthropic acts and how he often donated his time and much of his wealth anonymously. The pop star avoided making headlines for his many acts of kindness, which included volunteering at a homeless shelter, paying for a woman's fertility treatments and tipping a waitress thousands of dollars to help her pay for her nursing school debts. He also anonymously gave millions of dollars to charities, including Childline, a counseling service for children in the U.K. "No one outside the charity knew how much he gave to the nation's most vulnerable children," said Dame Esther Rantzen, the charity’s founder, said in an interview with the British news outlet ITN.
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