• Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Subscribe
  • RSS

George Michael, Pop Music Superstar, Dies At 53

George Michael

George Michael, the pop music superstar who had hits both as a member of the 80s pop duo Wham and in a solo career that at times became controversial, died on Christmas Day at the age of 53:

George Michael, the creamy-voiced English songwriter who sold tens of millions of albums as a member of the duo Wham! and on his own, was found dead on Sunday at his home in Goring in Oxfordshire, England. He was 53.

A police statement said: “Thames Valley Police were called to a property in Goring-on-Thames shortly before 2 p.m. Christmas Day. Sadly, a 53-year-old man was confirmed deceased at the scene. At this stage the death is being treated as unexplained but not suspicious.”

Mr. Michael’s manager, Michael Lippman, told The Hollywood Reporter that Mr. Michael had died of heart failure “in bed, lying peacefully.”

“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,” his publicist Connie Filippello said in a statement. “The family would ask that their privacy be respected at this difficult and emotional time. There will be no further comment at this stage.”

Information on survivors was not immediately available.

Mr. Michael was one of pop’s reigning stars in the 1980s and ’90s — first as a handsome, smiling teen-pop idol making lighthearted singles like “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” with Wham!, then arriving as a grown-up pop sex symbol with his 1987 album “Faith.”

But Mr. Michael grew increasingly uncomfortable with the superficiality and relentless promotion of 1980s-style pop stardom. He turned away from video clips and live shows; he set out to make more mature statements in his songs, though he never completely abandoned singing about love and desire.

Mr. Michael wrote supple ballads, like “Careless Whisper” and “Father Figure,” as well as buoyant dance tracks like “Freedom ’90” and “I Want Your Sex.” For much of his career, including his best-selling albums “Faith” and “Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1,” he was also his own producer and studio backup band. Much of his music drew on R&B, old and new, but his melodic gift extended across genres

He won a Grammy Award in 1988 for “I Knew You Were Waiting (for Me),” a duet with Aretha Franklin, and “Faith” won the Grammy for album of the year. In Britain, he was showered with awards, and in 2004, Britain’s Radio Academy said he had been the most-played performer on British radio from 1984 to 2004.

In 1998, Mr. Michael came out as gay after being arrested on charges of lewd conduct in a men’s room in Beverly Hills, Calif. He had long lent his name and music to support AIDS prevention and gay rights. During interviews in later years, he described himself as bisexual, and said that hiding his sexuality had made him feel “fraudulent.” He also described long struggles with depression.

During the 2000s, Mr. Michael’s output slowed; his last studio album of new songs was “Patience” in 2004. In later years he put out individual songs as free downloads, encouraging listeners to contribute to charity. But in 2006, 25 years into his career, he could still headline stadiums worldwide.

George Michael was born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou in East Finchley, London, on June 25, 1963, the son of a Greek Cypriot restaurateur and an English dancer. In 1979, he and a schoolmate, Andrew Ridgeley, played together for the first time in a ska band called the Executive. That didn’t last, but they continued to make music together — nearly all of it composed and sung by Mr. Michael — and began releasing singles as Wham!, cultivating the image of carefree teenage rebels in songs like “Young Guns (Go for It!).”

Their 1983 debut album, “Fantastic,” reached No. 1 in Britain; in the United States, their 1984 single “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” became ubiquitous on MTV and reached No. 1. In 1985, the duo became the first major Western pop group to perform in China as part of its world tour, and Mr. Michael appeared at the Live Aid charity concert, telecast worldwide, joining Elton John to sing Mr. John’s song “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me.”

In 1986, Wham! dissolved, with a farewell show at Wembley Stadium. Mr. Michael had a No. 1 hit with “I Knew You Were Waiting (for Me)” before releasing the album “Faith” in 1987. Its first single, “I Want Your Sex,” reached No. 2 in the United States, though it was seen as too risqué by some radio stations; Mr. Michael made an introduction to its video clip stating, “This song is not about casual sex.”

“Faith,” which hinted at both gospel and rockabilly, reached No. 1, and the album included three more No. 1 hits: “Father Figure,” “Monkey” and “One More Try.” It has sold more than 10 million copies in the United States.

But for his next album, “Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1,” released in 1990, Mr. Michael set out to jettison his pop persona. “I’m not stupid enough to think I can deal with another 10 or 15 years of major exposure,” he told an interviewer at the time. “I think that’s the ultimate tragedy of fame, people who are simply out of control, who are lost. I’ve seen so many of them, and I don’t want to be another cliché.”

The autobiographical “Freedom ’90” declared his independence from the pop machine; he wasn’t in its video clip, which had supermodels lip-syncing the lyrics. The album also included a No. 1 single, the ballad “Praying for Time,” and has sold two million copies in the United States, but after the blockbuster of “Faith” it was considered a commercial letdown.

More from Variety:

George Michael, the pop artist and former member of the group Wham!, has died at the age of 53. The singer sold more than 100 million albums over a career spanning almost four decades.

Michael died at his home in Goring-on-Thames, England, on Christmas Day. His manager, Michael Lippman, claimed the cause of death was heart failure, but local police stated: “At this stage the death is being treated as unexplained but not suspicious.”

In a statement, Michael’s family commented: “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.”

The London-born singer, whose real name was Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou, formed Wham! in 1981 with schoolfriend Andrew Ridgeley, and the pop duo went on to have a string of hits, including “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go,” “Club Tropicana” and “Last Christmas.”

He parted ways with Ridgeley in 1986, and his first solo album “Faith” sold more than 25 million copies, and won a Grammy. This was followed by “Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1,” which resulted in a legal dispute with U.S. record label Sony after Michael became frustrated with how they had handled the release. Plans for “Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 2” were shelved, and his next album, “Older,” achieved limited success. This was followed by “Songs from the Last Century” and “Patience.”

Michael suffered from bouts of depression and drug problems, as well as the occasional brush with the law. He spent four weeks in prison in 2010 following a drug-driving conviction.

Michael almost died from pneumonia in 2011 when he was on tour in Vienna. He was hospitalized, and later said it had been “touch and go” whether he lived.

According to his Facebook page, Michael had recently been putting the finishing touches to a documentary film “Freedom,” which was set to air in March.

If you grew up in the 80s and 90s, it was hard not to be exposed to the George Michael’s music as he was a constant presence both on radio and on MTV in the days when it actually played music videos, first as a member of Wham! and then through the solo career that saw his career soar to heights that few solo artists ever achieve. As has been the case for many artists, Michael faded from the scene a bit as musical tastes changed, and especially when the Pop music scene became less interested in solo artists and more interested in group acts (i.e., the so-called “boy bands) and musical tastes diversified into Hip-Hop, Rap, Country, and other genres. Like many superstars of his era, though, Michael never quite disappeared from the scene, and most of his hits from the 80s and 90s continue to get airplay on radio stations today, in some cases right alongside many of the top artists of the second decade of the 20th Century. Notwithstanding some of the controversies that followed him in his personal life, Michael made a huge impact on the music scene while he was alive that will likely continue for some time to come.

At one point in his career, Michael spoke to the Lot Angeles Times about how his frustrations with being a worldwide celebrity, which promoted this response from another famous singer named Frank Sinatra:

Fifty-three is obviously far too young for anyone to die, least of all someone who has contributed artistically to the world around them. But, as I’ve said before in these cases, we’ll always have their music:

Related Posts:

About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. michael reynolds says:

    I love the Sinatra letter. Be careful what you wish for. If you want to be famous but go unrecognized in the world don’t be a singer, be a songwriter. Or a writer writer. In the 90’s when my wife and I had a book series that in most bookstores filled 2 entire shelves even the store clerk wouldn’t connect the name on the credit card to the name on the books. That can be a bit deflating, but overall it’s brilliant. Do you really want people watching you while you eat? Or eyeballing all the items at the supermarket checkout? Or reporting that they heard you threaten to murder your children? (Oh, shut up, you’ve all done it, and if you haven’t just wait: they become teenagers.) Or running to The Daily Mail with news that you were blowing someone in a public restroom? I mean, if that’s your thing I can see where fame would be a problem.

    Now, money? Money is amazing. Love love love me some money. But fame? That’s empty, more irritation than help, a drug for narcissists. Money increases freedom, fame to some extent restricts it. Do you want a million Twitter friends or a million dollars? Yeah, me too.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  2. Franklin says:

    @michael reynolds: Loved the whole post, especially:

    Or reporting that they heard you threaten to murder your children? (Oh, shut up, you’ve all done it, and if you haven’t just wait: they become teenagers.)

    My oldest is only 12, but the hormones are starting to kick in. And due to our poor distribution at having kids, I’m looking at having a teenager for the next 16 years straight – wish me luck!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  3. michael reynolds says:

    @Franklin:
    Strap yourself in.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  4. Neil Hudelson says:

    I loved his cover of Limp Bizkit’s “Faith.”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0