Remembering George Michael, the Pop Superstar With an Artist's Soul

George Michael performing at London's Wembley Arena in December 2006
George Michael performing at London's Wembley Arena in December 2006

Even with less than a week left in 2016, the wave of mortality that has already taken Prince, David Bowie and many other prominent musicians this year has claimed another one. George Michael, the former Wham! lead singer whose multiplatinum 1987 album Faith transformed him into one of the biggest pop stars in the world, passed away Sunday afternoon in England, The New York Times said.

Michael, who was 53, was found by police at his home in Goring, Oxfordshire, the Times reported. A statement released to USA Today from Michael’s London-based publicist said, “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.”

Son of a Greek-born restaurant owner in North London, Michael (whose birth name was Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou) combined seductive vocals and rugged good looks to become one of the most successful singers of the mid to late ’80s, years when MTV’s cultural impact was arguably at its zenith. With Andrew Ridgeley, a schoolmate of his, Wham! became pop stars on both sides of the Atlantic behind 1984 breakthrough album Make It Big and singles like “Everything She Wants” and “Careless Whisper.” That same year also saw the debut of “Last Christmas,” still a holiday-radio perennial, and Michael’s appearance on Band Aid’s all-star charity single “Do They Know It’s Christmas?" another song commonly heard this time of year.

Faith, however, recorded after the duo’s 1986 breakup, became a full-blown phenomenon. Brimming with virility and Michael’s blossoming talent for R&B, Faith produced six hit singles (four of which went to No. 1), and went on to sell an estimated 20 million copies worldwide. But the demands of the album’s 16-month touring cycle, Michael’s intense desire for artistic credibility (he refused to appear in any promotional videos for his next LP, 1990’s Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1) and difficulties with his record company all dimmed his star somewhat, but hardly extinguished it altogether. In fact, the moody ballads and sophisticated dance-pop of later singles like “Fastlove,” “Jesus to a Child” and “Outside” — Michael’s tongue-in-cheek response to his 1998 arrest for soliciting an undercover officer in the restroom of a Beverly Hills public park — reveal that his artistic growth had increased considerably even as his albums came further and further apart.

Michael had extensive ties to North Texas through his long-term relationship with Dallas businessman and gallery owner Kenny Goss. In 2007, the couple opened the Goss-Michael Foundation, which bills itself as one of the nation’s top collections of contemporary British art. Although the two men had since ended their romantic relationship, Michael remained involved in the gallery, Goss told The Dallas Morning News Sunday night.

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“I'm heartbroken with the news that my dear friend and long time love George Michael has passed,” he said. "He was a major part of my life and I loved him very, very much. He was an extremely kind and generous man. The beautiful memories and music he brought to the world will always be an important part of my life and those who also loved and admired him.”

Although he released a live recording in 2014, Symphonica, Michael’s studio albums stopped completely after 2004’s Patience, which itself broke the eight-year drought following 1996’s Older. Various singles, compilations and retrospectives have appeared in the intervening years, including the double-length Twenty Five, which was released in the U.S. in the spring of 2008. The resulting U.S. tour, Michael’s first in nearly two decades, led him to Toyota Center in July 2008. Reviewing the concert for the Houston Press, Amanda Mahmoudi wrote of a confident, stylish performer who had the sold-out crowd beside themselves with joy.

It's difficult to choose highlights from such a stellar (and deep) catalogue, but the beautifully melancholy "Kissing a Fool" and very personal love song "Amazing" — which Michael dedicated to his partner of several years, Texan entrepreneur Kenny Goss — cannot be overlooked. And just when his performances of “Outside” (in police uniform with the short gloves, people, yes) and the relatively unknown dance track "Fantasy" seemed impossible to top, "Freedom 90" left no doubt that this modern legend transcends gender, age, and all else.


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