George Michael, 1963-2016: A pop star remembered

George Michael
George Michael

The George Michael whom I knew — from the distance of being a crew member on his historic “25 Live Tour” a decade ago — was not just a monumental talent, but kind and generous, always good for a cheeky laugh, with an abiding affection for the fans who smothered him but made him a pop idol.

Those fans were in mourning today with the news that Michael died at his home in Goring in Oxfordshire, England on Christmas Day. He was 53. His talents as a performer, songwriter and music producer led him to sell over 100 million albums over his career. While he made the successful transition from teen idol to serious performer, his career was dogged by drug arrests, lawsuits, sexual scandals and frequent periods of inactivity, which unfortunately often eclipsed his talents as an artist.

Born to a Cypriot restaurateur and English dancer in North London in 1963, Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou’s life would forever change when he met Andrew Ridgeley, a fellow classmate in Hertfordshire. The two discovered a shared interest in music and formed Wham! in 1981. After an initial stumble, they hit pay dirt with “Young Guns (Go For It)” and followed that up with the worldwide hit “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.” Handsome and blessed with the ability to write confectionery pop songs, the duo took the world by storm. Following a string of smash singles, it was clear that Michael would set out on his own when “Careless Whisper” (co-written with Ridgeley) was released as a solo offering in 1984. In 1985, Wham! was the first Western act to play in the Peoples Republic of China. By 1986 the duo had run its course and called it quits.

The next year, Michael released “Faith,” which sold 25 million copies and topped the charts around the globe. While “I Want Your Sex,” “Father Figure” and the title track cemented him as a pop superstar, the pressure of the spotlight, depression over his closeted sexuality and complete exhaustion left him at a crossroads. Citing these emotional concerns, Michael refused to appear in any videos for his 1990 follow-up, “Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1.” Nonetheless, the album sold eight million units behind the singles “Praying for Time” and “Freedom 90.” It also marked the beginning of the end of his relationship with his label, Sony, as he sued the label for not backing the album to his liking. Sony cited Michael’s refusal to make any videos as the reason for the disappointing sales figures.

The legal battle took the wind out of Michael’s sails, as he entered a period of seclusion following the untimely death of his partner, Anselmo Feleppa, in 1993. Free from his legal obligation to Sony, he released “Older” in 1996, which featured “Jesus to a Child,” a stirring paean to Feleppa. The death of his mother and a much-publicized arrest for “engaging in a lewd act” in a public restroom in Beverly Hills haunted Michael, as he continued to battle depression and legal troubles. His private life became fodder for the tabloids, as questions over his sexuality and much-publicized alcohol and drug incidents overshadowed the fact that he continued to deliver a strong body of work (2004’s “Patience” and 2014’s “Symphonica”), albeit with long periods of silence in between. 

In 2006, he undertook a massive world tour that would extend well into 2008. The “25 Live” tour was a technological marvel for its time, as the entire staging was composed of massive LED screens. After a well-deserved rest, Michael again took to the road in 2011 for his “Symphonica” tour, which featured an orchestra playing along with him and his band. 

It had been announced in early December that producer Naughty Boy had been working with Michael on a new release, and a documentary titled “Freedom” was set to premiere in March 2017.

George Michael was first and foremost a serious singer-songwriter in pop clothing. He wasn’t prone to writing empty-headed pop fodder, as he tackled subjects such as war, poverty, LBGT rights and AIDS in his work, and was an active philanthropist. He was one of the first white artists embraced by black radio, and therefore was a groundbreaking artist for other blue-eyed soul performers in his wake. 

I had the pleasure of working for Michael in 2007-08. I won’t say that we were the best of pals; in fact, his management were pretty good at keeping him from the rabble. And yet occasionally he would wander off his leash and commiserate with the serfs. As the member of the crew who handled the fan club and VIPs, I had access to the best tickets to each show. Every now and then the boss would need a “little favor” off the books, and I was only too happy to comply. The George Michael I knew had a winking sense of humor. He’d hilariously appear in a kimono that was dangerously short. He had an immense amount of love for his fans, who were so passionate that we feared they might tear him limb from limb should they get too close. He took great care of his people and while the workdays often lasted 16 hours, his tour schedule would allow us several days in between gigs, usually in some four-star hotel in some fantastic European capital. 

The tour contained all the usual high jinks — leaky Eastern European football stadiums with crumbling concrete and live electrical wires laying in puddles of water, blowhard local politicians not allowing our chartered aircraft to take off until Michael agreed to meet them (he had taken a Lear jet back to London and was already relaxing at home), a Muppet security guard who refused to allow Michael into Wembley Stadium because “I know George Michael and that is NOT George Michael.” Always a pre-show highlight, Michael would get together backstage with all the background vocalists and run through gospel and soul standards before taking the stage. That man could sing like an angel. 

He was perhaps the most talented person (and perhaps the most insecure about that talent) I’ve ever been around. It saddens me to hear speculation that his personal battles might have put out his stellar light. More than anything, George wanted to be taken seriously as an artist and not a mere pop star. He succeeded to anyone who genuinely listened and appreciated his immense talent. I shall greatly miss him.