As the history of popular music develops, one fact shines through: talent wins. You can’t cheat and survive for any length of time. You can’t hype and fool people more than once. You can’t hide behind image makers, or alluring videos, or the cut of this season’s clothes. Or you can – but then you die. To survive you must evolve, improve, have faith, still thrill. Longevity depends on making the best music.
George Michael has never thought of popular music as a career: it’s far more personal – more precious – than that. But he has always taken the long-term view, that ultimately an artist’s achievement will not be judged in terms of number one singles, or magazine covers, or prestigious awards, but by a large body of work, a collection of albums over time, a lifetime’s development in an artform that no longer depends on shock or rebellion or the quick burn-out to make a mark.
In 21 years, and at 41 years of age, George Michael can already look back on more than 85 million record sales worldwide. He’s notched up six US No.1 singles (from his solo debut album); eleven British No.1 singles and seven No.1 albums to date. He has also played at some of the biggest and most important concerts in history (Live Aid, the Nelson Mandela Freedom Concert, the Freddie Mercury Tribute, NetAid), all in front of capacity audiences at Wembley Stadium and in front of many millions watching throughout the world.
George Michael was born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou on 25 June 1963 in North London, and went on to meet his future Wham! partner Andrew Ridgeley at a nearby comprehensive school. They formed their first band, The Executive, in 1981, but soon realised their chosen path lay as a duo: Wham! was born. Within a year they had released their classic debut single, ‘Wham Rap’, but it was their second single, ‘Young Guns (Go For It!)’ which became the first in a string of Top 10 hits.
In the summer of 1984 George unveiled a glimpse of what was to come by releasing the classic ‘Careless Whisper’. His first solo single while still with Wham! became one of the signatures of the Eighties and one of the most-played radio songs of the decade. It was written when he was still only 17.
His growing maturity was further established with the release of ‘A Different Corner’, his second solo single, and another mature ballad of lasting worth. A few months later George and Andrew decided that Wham! should disband while still at the very peak of their success. This announcement was followed by a unique final concert at Wembley, an emotional farewell in front of 72,000. Their place was assured as one of the most exuberant pop bands of the Eighties. Equally certain was that George was set for a remarkable solo career.
In 1987 George became the first white male vocalist ever to duet with soul great Aretha Franklin. The resulting recording, ‘I Knew You Were Waiting’, shot straight to the top of the charts worldwide, starting off a year which saw George jetting between London and Denmark, recording tracks for his outstanding debut album ‘Faith’.
The album, released in November 1987, showed George Michael to be one of the finest songwriters of the decade and guaranteed him a whole new audience. The album was a No.1 on both sides of the Atlantic, with worldwide sales approaching 15 million. ‘Faith’ received a Grammy for the Best Album of 1988, and won George two Ivor Novello Awards for Songwriter Of The Year and International Hit Of The Year (‘Faith’). George also won American Music Awards for Favourite Male Vocalist (pop/rock), Favourite Male Artist (soul/R&B) and Favourite Album (soul/R&B).
In America, the outstanding success of ‘Faith’ was marked by six No.1 singles: ‘I Want Your Sex’, ‘Faith’, ‘Father Figure’, ‘One More Try’, ‘Monkey’ and ‘Kissing A Fool’.
The live ‘Faith’ tour followed in February 1988, taking the hits package to a momentous opening date at Tokyo’s Budokan Stadium, and then on to ecstatic audiences in Australia, Europe and North America. In June, George interrupted the tour to sing three songs at Wembley Stadium’s Nelson Mandela Freedom Concert.
By September 1990 George had gathered together a new body of work – ‘Listen Without Prejudice: Vol.1′ – and another new direction was visible from the first single, ‘Praying For Time’. Much of the album had a raw, stripped-down feel, and drew heavily from classic Sixties tracks, black rhythm and jazz moods. Mostly they were personal, increasingly philosophical songs; once again they went against the prevailing chart trends.
His videos created new waves too: it was almost unheard of for an artist of his stature not to appear centre-stage, but for ‘Freedom 90′ he found other stars – Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington and Linda Evangelista. This was the first time these supermodels had been seen together away from the catwalks, and it was an attraction no one found able to resist thereafter.
The album was another British No.1, and also spawned the hit singles ‘Waiting For That Day’, ‘Heal The Pain’ and ‘Cowboys and Angels’. Still in his Twenties, Michael was already being classed alongside those artists he admired most, and with whom he had the honour of dueting: Aretha Franklin, Elton John and Stevie Wonder. He brought out an autobiography to coincide with the new album (‘Bare’, co-written with Tony Parsons), and was granted a UK television special, an ultimate cultural sign of arrival.
In November 1991 George released ‘Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me’, a duet with Elton John from one of George’s Wembley concerts. The song was another No.1 worldwide, and all proceeds went to the AIDS hospice London Lighthouse and the Rainbow Trust Children’s Charity. A few months later George was in the charts once more with ‘Too Funky’, a single from the ‘Red Hot and Dance’ AIDS charity album, which included a collection of remixed hits by artists such as Madonna and Seal as well as three brand new George Michael songs – the only new songs on the album.
‘Too Funky’ went on to become Europe’s most played record of 1992, helped partly by the video directed by George and styled by designer Thierry Mugler.
Early in 1993 George spent three weeks at the top of the charts with the ‘Five Live EP’, featuring duets with Queen and Lisa Stansfield on tracks from the 1992 Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert and from his own Cover To Cover tour in 1991. All proceeds went to the Freddie Mercury Phoenix Trust.
In October of the same year, in a bold statement, making headlines worldwide, George appeared in court against his record company Sony Music Entertainment, as he attempted to break free from the company he claimed no longer accepted his musical direction. Nine months later, the judge found in favour of the record company. An appeal was issued, and was due to be heard in 1996.
On 1st December 1993, World AIDS Day, George played a benefit concert in front of the late Diana, Princess Of Wales. This ‘Concert Of Hope’ also featured kd lang and Mick Hucknall and was televised worldwide, doing much to raise funds and awareness of the disease. Towards the end of 1994 Michael performed a new song on the first MTV European Music Awards, in the shadow of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. ‘Jesus To A Child’ was the first new George Michael song the huge television audience had heard for almost three years, and the acclaim was universal.
Undeterred by the fact that he still wasn’t able to release any new material, ‘Careless Whisper’ was voted Londoner’s favourite record of all time in January 1995 in a competition run jointly by the capital’s leading evening newspaper and radio station. He was then voted Best Male Singer by the same radio station, and by the readers of a national newspaper. In April 1996, George won the Capital Radio award for ‘Best Male Singer’ once more and was also honoured with an ‘Outstanding Contribution To Music’ award.
By July 1995, after many months of negotiations, it was agreed that Michael would leave Sony and sign two new deals, one with Virgin Records for the World excluding the United States and the other with Steven Spielberg, David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg’s newly formed SKG Music in North America.
George’s first album for Virgin Records, ‘Older’, was released on 13 May 1996 and thus far the global sales have been outstanding. The album has already earned multi-platinum and/or gold status in 34 countries, including 5 x platinum in the UK.
Written, arranged and produced by George Michael, ‘Older’ was recorded in London and features 11 brand new tracks including the huge international hits, ‘Jesus To A Child’, ‘Fastlove’ and ‘Spinning The Wheel’, the double A-side “Older”/ “I Can’t Make You Love Me” and “Star People â€˜97″.
The video for ‘Fastlove’ was also the top choice of MTV Europe viewers in September 1996, as it picked up the ‘MTV Europe International Viewers Choice Award’ at the MTV Video Music Awards in New York.
At the beginning of October 1996, George performed his first live shows for five years with a gig for Radio 1FM followed by an Unplugged Session for MTV. Although these concerts were attended by the smallest audiences George has ever played to, he claims they were nevertheless two of the most enjoyable, due to the intimacy of the occasion. The Radio 1FM audience consisted of just 200 people and the MTV Unplugged session slightly larger at 500. Both audiences included competition winners, some of whom had flown to London from all over the world, as well as various specially invited guests. At both these events, George performed a stunning set which included the tracks ‘Father Figure’, ‘One More Try’, ‘Waiting For That Day’, ‘Freedom’, ‘Fastlove’ and ‘Older’, closing with the uptempo ‘Star People’ which had the audience up on their feet begging for more.
In 1996, George was voted “Best British Male”, at the MTV Europe Awards and the BRITs; and at The Ivor Novello Awards, he was awarded the prestigious title of “Songwriter of The Year” for the third time.
On 8th September, George released a 4 track E.P. entitled “You Have Been Loved” which debuted at number 2 making him the first artist in chart history to have 6 top 3 singles from one album.
On 24th November 1997, his former record label Epic released “If You Were There” – the long-awaited collection of Wham’s Greatest Hits and on 1st December Virgin Records released a limited edition version of George’s “Older” album which contained a bonus disc of 6 remixed tracks entitled “Upper”. The “Upper” CD is exclusive in that it includes interactive elements, allowing fans access to George’s web site, videos and fan club through the internet.In 1998 “Ladies and Gentlemen: The Best of George Michael” was released on Epic Records as agreed in the Sony settlement in 1995. The album soared to the top of the charts in the week of its release, 9th November, and remained at Number 1 for eight weeks, selling over 2 million copies, during the notoriously competitive Christmas period. The album features songs from every era of Michael’s career from “Careless Whisper” to the three brilliant brand new tracks. “Outside” was released on 19th October 1998 with an accompanying video that had George Michael’s controversial stamp very clearly on it.
The end of 1998 brought George Michael more accolades. “Ladies and Gentlemenâ€¦” achieved eight times platinum in the UK and also reached number one on the combined European Album Chart. Michael also topped the polls of the 95.8 Capital FM Hall of Fame for a record eighth time. On 5th December 1998 a 1 hour Parkinson special was screened on BBC 1 to universal critical and public acclaim.
On 8th March 1999, George Michael released “As” a duet with R&B Diva Mary J Blige, written and originally released by Stevie Wonder on his “Songs in the Key Of Life” album.
Early October saw George Michael back on stage. He gave a rare live performance at Wembley Stadium for the NetAid benefit concert. For many this was the highlight of the evening as a full gospel choir and 20 dancers joined Michael for songs including “Father Figure” and a moving rendition of “Brother Can You Spare a Dime”. The set opened with the recreation of the “Fastlove” video as Michael appeared seated in the famous black leather chair with in-built speakers and closed with the 70,000 strong Wembley Stadium audience singing backing vocals for “Freedom 90″.
At the close of 1999 George Michael released his fourth solo album, Songs From The Last Century, which features tracks written by some of the greatest composers of the last 100 years. This retrospective collection includes Michael’s version of “My Baby Just Cares For Me”, “Roxanne”, “Secret Love”, “Where or When”, “Miss Sarajevo” and “Brother Can You Spare A Dime”. Each of the 11 tracks were co-produced by the legendary Phil Ramone and George Michael.
As a result of pre-orders in excess of 750,000 in the UK the album achieved double platinum status on the day of release, 6th December 1999. Songs From The Last Century went on to be one of the biggest selling albums of the Christmas period throughout Europe, and despite having no singles released from it, remained in the album charts throughout the start of the 21st Century. During the first half of the year 2000, George Michael gave two live performances at international Charity benefit concerts. Equality Rocks took place in the USA and Modena, Italy was the venue for the Pavarotti and Friends Concert 2000.
June 2000 saw the release of the duet “If I Told You That” with Whitney Houston. Released on Arista records, it was a massive hit, spending many weeks at Number One on the combined European Airplay Chart. The single is taken from Houston’s Greatest Hits album.
Towards the end of 2001, George Michael signed an unprecedented deal with Universal Music. The single “Freeek!” was released on Polydor Records on 18th March 2002. The track, Michael’s first self penned single in three years, was accompanied by a video that pushed the boundaries in every sense. Directed by the famed Joseph Kahn, the post-production effects were added by some of Hollywood’s leading experts. The result perfectly complimented the song and was a visual masterpiece, having more in common with a feature film than a promotional music video. “Freeek!” was granted it’s own TV World Premiere on Channel 4 in the UK and was then premiered on primetime television in other countries around the World.
“Freeek!”, the first single from George’s new album, was an International hit, charting at number one in six countries and entering in the Top Ten of a further eight european countries alone.
At the end of July, George followed “Freeek!” with the satirical single “Shoot the Dog”. This was accompanied by a video animated by the team behind the popular TV show 2DTV.
Late in 2003 George Michael resigned to Sony Music and in 2004, he released the uplifting single “Amazing,” which was a top five hit in the UK and throughout the world.
“Patience,” George’s first album of original material for eight years, jetted straight in at number one in the UK breaking George’s own personal record for first week sales. “Patience,” has continued to hit the No.1 spot around the globe from Germany to Hong Kong and was released in the USA in May 2004. During recording and promotion of the album “Patience” George also made his documentary “A Different Story” which was screened at the Berlin Film Festival February 2005.