December is here again and soon it will be Christmas. The ubiquitous Christmas holiday pop hit “Last Christmas” is played regularly during this time of the year. The prodigious talent who sold 100 million albums worldwide responsible for this hit passed away six years ago in December 2016. In this post, we take a nostalgic look at George Michael’s music legacy.
Beginnings with Wham!
You might remember George Michael and his association with Wham! if you grew up in the 1980s and 1990s. Born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou to parents of English and Greek descent, he shot to fame with Andrew Ridgeley when they formed Wham! in 1981. Their debut single “Wham Rap!” didn’t bring them success but their follow-up single “Young Guns (Go For It)” shot to number three in the UK. Their biggest hit, “Bad Boys” was released in 1983 and rose to number two in the charts. Wham! Released their debut album in the same year, including prior hits, reached the top 10 singles in the UK and was soon signed on by Columbia Records.
Breaking into the U.S.
The high-energy “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” was a big breakthrough for Wham!. It reached number one in the UK and spent three weeks at the top in America. The follow-up, “Careless Whisper”, which was a George Michael solo, became another smash hit. The duo’s album “Make It Big” sold over six million copies in the U.S. At this time, Michael was already flexing his creative muscles having written almost all of the album and producing it. “Make It Big” yielded two smash hits: the dramatic electropop “Everything She Wants” and the 60s-inspired dance-pop “Freedom”.
It was around this time that George Michael yearned for more creative freedom to churn out more material. Wham! released a few more singles including “I’m Your Man” and a compilation album “Music From the Edge of Heaven”, which included their last recordings as “Last Christmas” before breaking up in 1986.
Going Solo with Faith
George Michael’s “A Different Corner” was a beautiful ballad released in April 1986 that marked his departure from Wham! The single boosted Michael’s confidence and offered a glimpse of his artistic direction.
Anticipation was high for Michael’s solo album after his successful duet in January 1987 with diva Aretha Franklin on “I Knew You Were Waiting For Me”. George Michael’s superstardom was cemented with the release of his debut solo album “Faith”. “Faith” as a single, with its iconic ass-shaking video, spent a month at number one in the U.S. and made Michael a sex symbol. Suddenly he rivaled Madonna, Michael Jackson and Prince.
“Faith” included memorable and iconic Michael hits such as “Father Figure”, “One More Try”, “Monkey”, and “Kissing A Fool”. It was George Michael at the apex of his creativity. Critics loved the album and it won the Album of the Year at the 1989 Grammy Awards. “Faith” has sold over ten million copies in the U.S. alone and 25 million worldwide. For his next album, Michael wanted to go in a more serious direction and he released “Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1” in September 1990. The album is dark and sombre compared to its upbeat predecessor. The album had a less mainstream appeal but its first single, “Praying for Time” became another number hit for George Michael in America.
A Halt in Artistic Momentum
“Freedom 90” reached number eight and the mid-tempo gem “Waiting for That Day” was the third and final Top 40 hit from “Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1” in the U.S. Michael was irate over the performance of the album despite it reaching number two in the US and selling two million copies.
Michael sued Sony Music, which had absorbed Columbia Records in 1988, for the lackluster promotion effort on the album. The decision was misplaced, as he eventually lost the suit and the episode halted Michael’s artistic momentum and mired him in limbo for half a decade.
A Decline in Popularity with Older
While he was in creative limbo, Michael didn’t vanish completely. His 1991 live duet with Elton John “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” was a surprise number-one hit in the U.S., besting John’s number-two peak of this classic original recording. It was also Michael’s final chart-topper in America.
After his legal troubles ended with Sony, Michael came out with his first album “Older” in six years. The album’s first single “Jesus to a Child” hit the number one spot in the UK in January 1996 and rose to number seven in the U.S. but faded quickly. At seven minutes, the poignant ballad was a hard sell on Top 40 radio. Its follow-up “Fast Love”, had a longer staying power reaching number eight. It was Michael’s last appearance on the Hot 100 chart in America.
Less than a decade after dominating the airwaves with hits from “Faith”, George Michael was no longer pop radio’s darling. A lurid incident in 1998 slammed the door shut on his chances of ever regaining that status.
Michael’s sexuality was out in the spotlight when he was arrested in 1998 for engaging in a lewd act in a public restroom in Beverly Hills park. Relieved that he no longer had to stay closeted, he parlayed the incident into a sexy dance-pop single “Outside”. The single became a number two smash hit in the UK but America Top 40 radio programmers, who are generally more conservative than their international counterparts wouldn’t play it.
By then, Michael’s commercial viability in the U.S. has tanked. His 1999 album, “Songs from the Last Century” was a double-platinum success in the UK but sold less than 200,000 copies in the U.S. when CD sales were near their historical pinnacle.
The Last Years
“Patience” was released in 2004 and was George Michael’s final studio album. Two singles, “Freek!” and “Shoot the Dog” were major hits in the UK. By this time, Michael’s record label didn’t bother releasing them in the U.S. “Patience” was well-regarded by critics and fans. He released a career retrospective album “Twenty Five” two years later. By this time, newly written music slowed to barely a trickle.
After suffering a near-fatal bout of pneumonia, Michael released the single “White Light”, meant to be for his next album which never materialised. Twelve years after his final studio album, Michael was remembered more for his legal, drug, and health issues than for the music he released during the period.
Eight years after his arrest in Beverly Hills Park, he was again nabbed for public sex, this time in London’s Hampstead Heath park. The following year, he was arrested for drug-impaired driving and in 2008 arrested in Hampstead again for possession of crack cocaine and cannabis. Michael spent a month in prison when in 2010, he crashed his car into a London photo shop due to drug-induced driving.
The curtain came down on George Michael’s illustrious career when he was found dead in his London home at the young age of 53 after suffering health issues. Michael leaves behind a stellar musical legacy and a personal history fraught with pain, a superstar who was never quite comfortable being in the spotlight and the public persona he had created.