For a man whose career began innocuously enough, George Michael has managed to scale the heights of superstardom while also embroiling himself in enough controversy to last a lifetime. These were some of his own doing and some thrust upon him as a result of his success.
George Michael was born on June 25, 1963, to Greek parents who named him Georgios Kyricacos Panayiotou. The future singer formed Wham with school friend Andrew Ridgeley. They ended up one of Britain's most successful pop duos of the past 30 years. However, it was his solo career that gave him even greater prominence, thanks in part to sales of more than 100 million records worldwide and no less than eight number one singles in the U.S. alone. That's in addition to his numerous accolades and critical accomplishments -- among them three Brit Awards, four MTV Video Music Awards, four Ivor Novello Awards, three American Music Awards, and a pair of Grammys.
Michael garnered plenty of momentum from his work with Wham, thanks to a debut album -- immodestly titled Fantastic -- and its similarly suggestive follow-up, Make It Big, which spawned several number one singles. In 1985, the group became the first western act to tour China, and Michael himself contributed to the all-star session for the Band Aid recording of "We Are the World." However, his desire to go solo soon overshadowed Wham's forward speed, and his individual chart-topper "Careless Whisper" all but sealed the band's fate.
After the pair officially parted in the summer of 1986, Michael teamed with Aretha Franklin for a one-off duet, "I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)," adding yet another number one to his flourishing resume. His first official solo album, Faith, and its debut single, the prophetically dubbed "I Want Your Sex," continued that momentum, but also brought Michael his first brush with controversy when several radio stations refused to air the single in its original incarnation. Undaunted by the temporary setback, Michael released several other songs from the album, each of which continued his winning streak.
Nevertheless, Michael insisted that he be taken as a serious artist, and with his follow-up effort, Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1, he refused to undertake any extensive promotion, even refusing to appear in a promotional video. A second volume failed to appear after he sued Sony for their refusal to support his recent work. He subsequently signed with DreamWorks which released his next album Older, his first after a prolonged absence and his most successful yet. This was thanks to the six singles it contained, each of which landed in the UK Top 3. That was followed by a greatest hits package that spent 200 weeks on British charts and became one of Britain's best selling albums of all times.
In 1999, Michael released an album of covers, Songs From the Last Century, but the album failed to hit the heights of his earlier successes. However, its follow-up, Patience, restored his footing in the spotlight, becoming one of the fastest selling albums in British history. However, it also generated its share of controversy, particularly with the single "Shoot" which was highly critical of the run-up to the war in Iraq. Nevertheless, the album was an international hit, as was his second volume of greatest hits, Twenty Five, released shortly thereafter. A successful tour, his first in 15 years, also cemented what some people considered a comeback of sorts. Likewise, an appearance as the title character's mysterious guardian angel on the TV show Eli Stone, and a guest spot on the 2008 season final of American Idol also helped shore up his visibility.
Unfortunately, Michael's personal life was already in a downward spiral. In 2007, he announced his homosexuality, despite the fact that his April 1998 arrest for engaging in a lewd act in a public toilet in Beverly Hills brought him out of the closet, even if not by his own admission. He claimed he had been entrapped. Michael pleaded no contest and was fined $810 for the crime and sentenced to 80 hours of community service. He parodied the incident in his video for the single "Outside," a move which outraged his companion at the time, resulting in a $10 million slander suit which was later dismissed.
Unfortunately, Michael would have further run-ins with controversy, including another accusation of engaging in anonymous public sex, this time in London's neighborhood of Hampstead Heath. Michael threatened to sue the News of the World tabloid for slander, while also admitting that he does cruise for sex and that his partner didn't see it as an issue.
Apparently, neither of them learned a lesson from Pee Wee Herman.
At the same time, Michael incurred the ire of the authorities by being busted for possession of pot, first in 2007 when he was subsequently banned from driving for two years, and then again in 2008 while in a public toilet. In 2009, he told The Guardian that he had curtailed his smoking habit, reducing his daily intake to a mere seven or eight spliffs a day, down from the 25 he used to smoke on a daily basis.
And he considered that a concession!
Nevertheless, he was arrested yet again in July 4, 2010, charged with driving under the influence. He was sentenced to eight weeks in prison, given a fine and his driving privileges were revoked for five years.
It may not be much of a coincidence that last year Michael began having some serious respiratory problems. On October 26, he was forced to cancel a performance at London's Royal Albert Hall. The following month, he was admitted to a hospital in Vienna after complaining of chest pains. He was diagnosed with pneumonia and his heath took a roller coaster ride from bad to better. His remaining U.K. dates were cancelled and he was forced to undergo a tracheotomy.
It's always a tragedy when an artist with so much to offer gets derailed either by health issues, drug abuse, his own personal demons, or, as in Michael's case, all of the above. His fans can only hope that his worst days are behind him and that the brilliance, which was once so obvious, will resurface once again.
In that spirit of optimism, here are five Michael singles that we'll be humming forever:
"Wake Me Up Before You Go Go"
Admittedly, Wham is a guilty pleasure, but this song is catchy as catchy can be. And anyone who says they can get it out of their head is likely lying.
"I Knew Yo Were Waiting (For Me)"
An unlikely combination -- the Queen of Soul and a Prince of Pop -- and yet it's one that reaps incredible urgency and resilience. It's certainly one of Aretha's best efforts, and given her amazing catalogue, that pronouncement speaks volumes.
Michael shows himself a capable crooner with a song that not only whispers but cooly caresses as well.
"Don't Let the Sun Go Down On Me"
Rarely does an artist add anything to the original, but Michael's harmonizing with Elton John on one of the latter's signature songs transforms this tune entirely.
This is Michael's could-be, should-be signature song. Its jaunty rhythm and breezy delivery offers faith that he's still got many productive years ahead of him. And amen to that!
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