Pop star Born: June 25, 1963; Died: December 25, 2016 GEORGE Michael, who has died aged 53, was a singer and songwriter who made the transition that eluded many other music stars – in the 1980s, he was the frontman of one of the biggest bands of the decade, singing pool-side pop in blow-dried hair and tight denim shorts. But by the 1990s, he was a successful solo artist with a serious talent for song-writing as well as a willingness to make fun of himself for his other great talent: getting into trouble.
He first found fame while he was still a teenager and formed Wham! with his schoolfriend Andrew Ridgeley. At first, the band tried a leather, bad-boy image but it was the exclamation mark in their name that really summed up who they were: up for a good time and a good tune. They changed their look, ditching the leather for pastels, and had a huge hit with Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go. There was also Club Tropicana and Young Guns (Go For It) and the single that would become a favourite for the fans and the makers of compilation albums: Last Christmas.
From the start, it was Michael who was the star and frontman, which made a solo career inevitable and by 1987 he was recording his first album, Faith. It, and the others that followed such as Listen Without Prejudice, were aimed at a more adult audience, with many of the songs exploring some of the issues in Michael’s personal life, including his depression and sexuality – issues that would later arguably eclipse his career in music.
For many years, Michael’s sexuality had been something of an open secret but it was not until the infamous incident in a public toilet with an undercover cop in the US that he went public with the fact that he was gay. The episode inspired the tabloid headline writers (“Zip Me Up Before You Go-Go”) but it also freed Michael to talk openly about his relationship with the American businessman Kenny Goss and send himself up with singles like Outside, with a video featuring a public toilet that transforms into a disco.
The message from Michael was playful – let’s have fun – but in recent years his problems with drugs and then his health had been attracting much more attention than his music. In 2006, he was arrested and charged with possession of class C drugs; four years later, he was sentenced to eight weeks in prison after pleading guilty to driving while under the influence of drugs. In recent years, he had also been in hospital twice, including in 2011 when he suffered from pneumonia and almost died.
There is no doubting his great musical achievements, though, or his cultural impact. In all, there were sales of more than 100 million records; there were also seven number one singles in the UK, with tracks such as Careless Whisper and Faith. Wham! also arguably helped thaw relations between East and West when they became the first Western pop act to visit China when they played there in 1985.
Wham! started while Michael was still at school in Hertfordshire. Born Georgios Panayiotou to Greek Cypriot parents, his father ran a restaurant and his mother was a dancer and it was while at secondary school that Michael met his future band mate Andrew Ridgeley. They discovered early on that they had a shared interest in music and, with some friends, formed a short-lived ska band.
Wham! came along in 1981, although the first single Wham Rap! failed to get anywhere in the charts. However, their first album, Fantastic, made UK number one after it was released in 1983, as did their second album, Make It Big, the following year.
In 1986 they released Music From The Edge of Heaven. Wham! also found success with a number of singles between 1982-1986, most notably Last Christmas, in 1984. The song was re-released in 1985, 1986 and then every year from 2007.
The band made music history in 1985 when they became the first Western pop act to perform in China after the country’s years of cultural isolation, beating the likes of the Rolling Stones and Queen.
The gig was dreamed up by their manager Simon Napier-Bell, who worked on the scheme tirelessly for 18 months to get Michael and Ridgeley onto the stage in front of their most unknowing and curious audience yet. Their look – complete with feathered, dyed hair and heavy-shouldered jackets – was new and foreign to the 15,000 fans who managed to secure a ticket against the odds to see the show. Dancing and singing along to the gig, held in Beijing, was reportedly banned by authorities but some in the crowd ignored the ban.
By this point in their career, the success for Wham! could not have been bigger, but by the mid 1980s Michael was itching to get on with a solo career and the band decided to bow out at the top in 1986, pulling the plug on their partnership with a final chart-topping single The Edge Of Heaven and triumphant Wembley shows.
Michael then embarked on a solo career, plus occasional collaborations with the likes of Aretha Franklin and Elton John. His first solo single, Careless Whisper, made number one across the globe after its release in 1984. His album Faith was also a massive success in 1988, jumping straight to number one.
This was followed by Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1 in 1990, Older in 1996, Songs From The Last Century in 1999 and Patience in 2004. All of his albums reached top spot in the charts, with the exception of Songs From The Last Century, which claimed the position twice.
Other famous solo singles included Faith in 1987, Father Figure and Kissing A Fool in 1988, Freedom! ‘90 in 1990, Cowboys And Angels in 1991, Round Here in 2004, True Faith in 2011 and Let Her Down Easy just two years ago.
However, his career was also dogged by lengthy legal battles as he tried to free himself from a deal with record label Sony which effectively prevented new recordings (only to re-sign with them a few years later).
Things began to unravel further when, after years of refusing to be drawn on speculation about his sexuality, he was arrested in public toilets in Beverly Hills, California, in 1998 for engaging in a lewd act.
He later said his late 20s had been a very depressing time for him after he lost his partner, Anselmo Feleppa, to HIV and his mother died some time later.
He said: “I had my very first relationship at 27 because I really had not actually come to terms with my sexuality until I was 24. I lost my partner to HIV then it took about three years to grieve; then after that I lost my mother. I felt almost like I was cursed.”
He parodied the toilet incident in Outside, but more trouble was to follow in 2006 when he was found slumped over the wheel of his car. The following May he pleaded guilty to driving while unfit through drugs and was banned from driving for two years.
In 2008 he took a step back from the public eye but less than a month later he was once again in the glare when he was cautioned for possession of class A drugs, which included crack cocaine, and class C drugs.
In September 2010 Michael received an eight-week prison sentence following an incident the previous July in which he crashed his Range Rover into a shop in north London. He was also given a fiveyear driving ban after he pleaded guilty to driving under the influence of drugs and possessing cannabis. In 2011, he officially announced the ending of a turbulent 15-year relationship with Goss –though he said that the pair had actually split around two years earlier.
In an attempt to relaunch his musical career, Michael performed a song from his new album during the closing ceremony at the London 2012 Olympic Games.
Health scares dogged the last decade of his life. The star nearly died from pneumonia in late 2011. After receiving treatment in a Vienna hospital, Michael made a tearful appearance outside his London home just before Christmas and said it had been touch and go whether he lived.
It triggered a period of major anxiety which caused Michael to cancel his forthcoming Australian tour, and the singer later called it “basically by far the worst month of my life”. He said he had been lucky to have become ill close to a hospital with suitable specialists, adding: “I have to believe that somebody thinks I’ve still got some work to do here.”
But he was to return to hospital just 18 months later with a head injury following a bizarre incident on the M1 motorway when he fell from his vehicle on to the tarmac.
Michael had been looking to the future shortly before his death, with a documentary film entitled Freedom due for release next March.
In public, he campaigned on LGBT issues and in private made considerable donations to charities, including those for the homeless and Childline. He entered a period of semi-retirement in 2008, quitting live performances and seeking a quieter life. He died at home of suspected heart failure.