Updated: Nov 11, 2020
Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou, 25 June 1963 – 25 December 2016
George Michael was a singer, songwriter and music producer whose distinctive style and good looks became symbolic of 80’s and 90’s pop. He wrote the soundtrack and choreographed the steps to his own cultural movement, as well as being an icon for the gay scene and philanthropist he had a loyal fanbase drawn to his voice and dance tunes that followed him for 25 years.
Born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou in Finchley, north London 1963 to Kyriacos Panayiotou, Greek Cypriot restaurateur and Lesley Angold, an English dancer. He grew up in Radlett, Hertfordshire, where he attended Bushey Meads school and met Andrew Ridgeley. His first real obsession with music was with “an old wind-up gramophone...my parents gave me three old 45’s – two Supreme’s records and one Tom Jones record – and I used to come home from school literally everyday, go out the garage wind this thing up and play them.” In 1979 he formed a ska quintet with Ridgeley, called the Executive, by 1981 this had evolved into a duo they named Wham! Michael penned some tunes, they recorded a demo and Wham! they were snapped up by independent label ‘Innervision.’
Wham Rap! their first release went practically unnoticed, it was the follow up ‘Young Guns (Go For It)’ that broke the group as they were offered a last minute slot on Top of the Pops aided by dancers. The track shot to No 3 in the UK charts and a wardrobe change was in order. The pair went for a leather clad rebel look with songs such as Bad Boys, but the 80’s were fast, the look was replaced at the click of a finger with something more ‘pop.’ ‘Wake me up before you go-go’ found the boys sporting impossible tans, bleached, feathered hair and oversized ‘Choose Life’ t-shirts that later became the ironic backdrop motto of the film Trainspotting.
The duo’s album ‘Make it Big’ made it big, reaching No 1, including the single ‘Careless Whisper’ which saw Michael successfully playing the frontman role, leading to a break into his solo career in 1987.
He took his debut solo album ‘Faith’ to the US where the title track hit No 1 alongside the controversial iconic hits ‘I want your Sex’ and ‘Father Figure.’ The US adored him and Michael played his character well, saying “there is no such thing as a reluctant star,” however, his superstardom came at a price that wouldn’t become clear until the starlight began to fade.
The 1990 follow up album, “Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1,” featured another international hit in “Freedom ’90.” The video starred a clan of supermodels instead of Michael, a sign that perhaps he was beginning to feel uneasy with being so relentlessly in the spotlight. He slumped into a depression, refusing to promote his latest album which failed to achieve the success of his previous work in the US, in contrast to sales in the UK where it outperformed ‘Faith.’
In 1991 during the Cover to Cover tour in Rio, he met his partner Anselmo Feleppa, although not publicly stating he was gay. In 1993 Feleppa died of an AID’s related brain haemorrhage, devastating Michael and inspiring the 1996 tribute ‘Jesus to a Child.’ The single was released on the ‘Older’ album which had been 3 years in the making, as he grieved his lost partner. It was another departure of style, including darker and brooding tracks with occasional references to his sexuality. The long hair and colourful clothes went, replaced by a cropped haircut and leather clothes, it seemed the US audience were not so receptive and the album received disappointing sales. While the US preferred the ‘pop’ Michael, his new mature sound and style was a success in the UK and Europe. ‘Older’ set a record in the UK as the first album to produce six Top 3 singles. Michael was voted Best British Male at the Brit Awards and won the title Songwriter of the Year for the third time at the Ivor Novello awards.
Shortly after, the death of his mother from cancer saw him spiral into a depression. Michael later confessed that he had been aware that he was gay and not bi-sexual since the end of Wham! But withheld the information for fear of worrying his mother in light of the growing AID’s epidemic. With this in mind, when he was accosted by an undercover policeman for performing a lewd act in a Beverley Hills public toilet in 1998, he exploded out of the closet. His next album ‘Come Ladies and Gentlemen’ included the track ‘Outside’ which featured a video of policemen dancing and kissing in a public toilet. It was time for Michael to settle his throne as the King of camp club culture “I had to walk away from America, and say goodbye to the biggest part of my career, because I knew otherwise my demons would get the better of me.”
In 1999 he released ‘Songs from the Last Century’ a collection of covers. In 2004 he released his fifth studio album, Patience. 2006 saw the release of his greatest hits album, 25, as well as the 25 Live tour, his first in 15 years.
Following several arrests for drug offences, in 2010 Michael was fined and given a five-year driving ban and a prison sentence after driving under the influence of drugs and crashing into a Snappy Snaps in Hampstead. Despite struggling with drug addiction and bouts of depression, it was music that kept him going “I still believe that music is one of the greatest gifts that God gave to man.”
In 2012 Michael released the single White Light to mark the 30th anniversary of Wham Rap! In March 2014 he released Symphonica, his seventh solo album to top the UK chart. Although he still courted controversy, with some altercations surrounding incidents on Hampstead Heath, he was characterised by his aloof attitude to media’s interest in his private life “a lot of people like me who have been around for years and years and years, only really lose it in their forties and fifties.”
Michael suffered some health scares in 2013 and then again in 2014, but his commitment to recording and making music available often at no cost or for charity was insatiable. George Michael was found dead on the morning of 25th December 2016 aged 53, having passed away peacefully in his sleep. He left behind a legacy of charitable work, a tireless devotion to music, a symbolic resilience that light the way for gay men and those suffering depression. The young Greek who “never felt any ethnic connection between the Greeks and me other than how hairy I am” will be remembered through his music and words “you’ll never find peace of mind until you listen to your heart.”