One of Britain’s finest singers has passed away of suspected heart failure. George Michael’s death was announced on Christmas Day in a statement by his publicist:
“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 family would ask that their privacy be respected at this difficult and emotional time. There will be no further comment at this stage.”
The multi-million selling pop star burst on to the scene in Wham! with school friend Andrew Ridgeley, before going solo in 1986.
His career included seven number one singles in the UK, Careless Whisper, I Knew You Were Waiting (duet with Aretha Franklin), and Fastlove among them. Seven of his eight album releases also hit the top spot, with Older (1996) spending 116 weeks on the UK album charts and spawning three number one hits.
Father from Tuzluca / Patriki in North Cyprus
He was born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou to an English mother and a Greek Cypriot father, Kyriacos Panayiotou. His father was born and raised in Tuzluca / Patriki, a small village in the Karpaz panhandle in Cyprus, before moving to the UK in 1953 where he became a restaurateur.
The family moved to Hertfordshire where he met Andrew Ridgeley at Bushey Meads School. The pair shared a passion to make it big in music. They formed a short-lived SKA band, followed by Wham! in 1981. Invited on to Top of the Pops at the last minute the following year to perform their second release Young Guns (Go for It!), the tanned, good-looking duo became heartthrobs overnight.
Wham! first Western band to play in China
Wham! went on to sell 25 million records worldwide. Their hits included Club Tropicana, Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go, I’m Your Man, and Last Christmas. They were also the first Western band to play live in China.
From the band’s earliest days, Michael had assumed multiple roles: singer, songwriter, producer and occasional instrumentalist. A solo career seemed inevitable and in 1987 – a year after the band split – he released his Grammy-award winning debut Faith. The album peaked at number one in the UK and US, and led to a string of top 5 hits, including title track Faith and I Want Your Sex, which dominated the charts worldwide.
‘Older’ a musical masterpiece
Having broken away from his teenybopper image, Michael went on to cement his reputation as one of the best singer-songwriters of his generation with his follow-up release Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1 (1990) and Older (1996), the latter considered by many as a musical masterpiece.
Michael’s most recent release was Symphonica in 2014. Another number one album, it was his first-ever live recording, featuring a mix of his own songs and covers by the likes of Elton John and Rufus Wainwright.
Earlier this year, it was announced he was working on new material with producer Naughty Boy and that a documentary – Freedom: George Michael – would be released in 2017.
During his career, Michael found himself in the tabloid headlines on numerous occasions due to his personal life. In 1998, he was charged after being caught “engaging in a lewd act” in a toilet in LA.
Addicted to cannabis, he was cautioned for possession of drugs in 2006. The following year, an incident in his car led to him being found guilty of ‘driving while unfit to drive’ through drugs. He was banned from driving for two years and sentenced to community service.
In 2010, after celebrating Gay Pride, he crashed into a Snappy Snaps shop in Hampstead while driving to his Highgate home. He was subsequently jailed for eight weeks.
Throughout his career, Michael gave generously to causes he believed in. From singing on charity hit single Do They Know It’s Christmas? (1984) and performing at Live Aid (1985), to being a patron of Elton John’s AIDS Foundation and of the Rainbow Trust for terminally-ill children.
Having battled depression after the loss of his mother to cancer (1996) and his Brazilian lover Anselmo Feleppa (1993), Michael was quoted as saying “Loss is such an incredibly difficult thing. I bow down to people who actually have to deal with the loss of a child.”
He didn’t shy away from making bold political statements through his music and performances.
In 1998, he was one of many performers to appear at Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday tribute at Wembley Stadium. The black South African leader was in jail at the time, sentenced to life imprisonment for challenging the country’s apartheid regime.
Michael stepped into the world of political protest with his 2002 single Shoot the Dog, which condemned Bush and Blair for their decision to invade Iraq. The release included a satirical animated video with Blair presented as a poodle and Bush a bullying buffoon.
Michael also sponsored a 2007 “Peace Tour” in the US: having bought the piano John Lennon had used to write Imagine, he then paid for it to be displayed in places across the country where violence had occurred. They included the campus of Virginia Tech where 32 students had been massacred by a lone gunman, and the Memphis Motel where Martin Luther King had been assassinated.
After coming out as gay in 1998, Michael went on to become one of the world’s most prominent gay rights activists. In retrospect it was clear his music frequently referenced his sexuality, such as in his mega hit Freedom!. And in his video for Outside Michael dressed as a ‘hot cop’, as he stuck two fingers up at those who condemned him after an undercover policeman caught him cruising in an LA toilet.
He fronted a documentary – Staying Alive – about HIV and was a passionate supporter of HIV charity the Terence Higgins Trust. He was also outspoken on same sex marriage.
As fans and friends around the world struggle to process George Michael’s untimely death, many have also been remembering and celebrating the pop, fashion and gay icon’s incredible life. His legacy is up there with David Bowie and Prince, both of whom also died in 2016.
Gone way too soon, thank you George Michael for gracing us with your talents and kind soul. May you rest in perfect peace.