George Michael, a groundbreaking artist ahead of his time who left us too soon.
In 1982 George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley formed the band Wham! and released a series of number-one singles accompanied by high-energy, tongue-in-cheek music videos that made them one of the most successful musical acts in the world. As a solo artist, Michael released some of the most personal and successful albums of all time. His legacy is his drive for perfection, his personal charity, and his desire to use his incredible talents to make the world a better place for all.
Wham! Bam! Here I Am
George Michael’s love for music began in childhood. He was given a record player and three 45 singles: “Delilah” by Tom Jones and two others by The Supremes. One of the 45s had a chunk missing, and as the record would spin around the turntable, Michael would lift the needle and quickly set it back down on the other side of the gap so he could hear the whole song. He once said, “You must be very influenced by music you hear when you’re very young, because I ended up somewhere in between The Supremes and Tom Jones anyway, didn’t I really?”
The Edge of Heaven and Beyond
In 1986 George Michael went solo. To say Wham! went out in style is an understatement. At their farewell concert, known as The Final, they played at Wembley Stadium to a crowd of 72,000 people. The eight-hour event included surprise appearances by Elton John and Simon Le Bon of Duran Duran: a fitting end to a four-year ride that yielded more than 30 million record sales worldwide.
I Knew You Were Waiting
George Michael began to transition from lighthearted pop performer to the serious artist the world was yet to know. Before recording his first solo album he released two solo songs that helped facilitate the shift. “Careless Whisper” and “A Different Corner,” both musical departures from Wham!, both chart toppers. He also lent his voice to songs that would help build his profile: “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” by the charity supergroup Band Aid, and Elton John’s 1985 successes “Nikita” and “Wrap Her Up.”
Just after dissolving Wham!, Michael met Clive Davis at a British awards show. Davis was Aretha Franklin’s executive producer, and Michael requested to record a duet with her. She was one of his idols, and soon the two were in a studio capturing the magic that would become “I Knew You Were Waiting.” The song and video rocketed to the top of the charts and won the Grammy for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group in 1987. It was another number-one single for both Michael and Franklin and a bridge between Michael’s pop days with Wham! and the style of music he would soon release.
Faith and Censorship
In 1987 Faith was released and George Michael became the biggest recording artist in the world. However, that success didn’t start smoothly.
The first single, “I Want Your Sex,” was a track that 1987 was not ready for. The song and video were banned from the airwaves in several countries. MTV broadcast the video during late-night hours only. A censored version replaced the lyric “I want your sex” with “I want your love,” and the radio stations that played that version referred to it as “I Want Your Love.” Casey Kasem wouldn’t even say the title as the track sailed up the charts, referring to it week to week as “the latest hit by George Michael.”
Michael made it clear that the song was about monogamous sex, which he insisted was beautiful. In the video he writes the phrase “explore monogamy” in lipstick on the back of his then-girlfriend, Kathy Jeung. Michael released a statement to clarify his artistic intent with the song: “The media has divided love and sex incredibly. The emphasis of the AIDS campaign has been on safe sex, but the campaign has missed relationships. It’s missed emotion. It’s missed monogamy. ‘I Want Your Sex’ is about attaching lust to love, not just to strangers.”
It was time for the world to grow up a bit. None of the drama surrounding the single could stop it from becoming a worldwide hit, and the album Faith went diamond. It sold over 20 million copies and spawned a string of chart toppers that won George Michael a Grammy for Album of the Year and was the first album by a Caucasian artist to reach number one on the R&B/hip-hop albums chart. His music was a crossover success and Michael’s unique, powerful vocals drove every track.
Finding Somebody to Love
George Michael’s success was monumental. But there was one aspect of his life in which he had not achieved success: love.
While performing at the 1991 Rock in Rio concert, Michael fell in love for the first time with a guy in the front row who kept giving him “a look.” That guy was Anselmo Feleppa. Michael had fought his own sexuality his whole life. Being openly gay in the ’80s was not widely accepted. “It’s very hard to be proud of your own sexuality when it hasn’t brought you any joy,” he explained in an interview shortly before his death. “Once it is associated with joy and love, it’s easy to be proud of who you are.”
With Anselmo, he found that joy and love. Sadly, after six months together, Anselmo was diagnosed with AIDS, which was a death sentence in 1991.
During this time, Freddie Mercury, another of Michael’s idols, died of AIDS. Michael participated in the benefit concert, giving this magnificent performance:
“I went out on that stage knowing that I had to do two things: honor Freddie Mercury and pray for Anselmo,” Michael explained in the documentary George Michael: A Different Story (2005). “I just wanted to die inside. It was just overwhelming for me, and I think what that did was turned on one of the best performances of my career.”
Anselmo died in 1993. That blow and Michael’s legal turmoil with his record label led him to withdraw from public life for several years. The song that brought him out of seclusion was “Jesus to a Child.” The song kicked off the album Older, a love letter about the man he had loved and lost.
George Michael was an incredibly generous and brilliant artist who felt he owed something positive to the world. In his words: “I’ve always believed that my creativity is with me for a reason… Always wanting to have a positive effect in life with what you create is something that’s hard to give up… I do believe that there’s a reason that I’ve been given this gift and it doesn’t just have to be in my voice.”
Let’s Listen without Prejudice and let this anthem of personal and artistic growth wash over us. “Freedom! ’90” says it all and George Michael isn’t even in the video. As he did throughout his life, he lets the music do the talking.