Born Georgios Kyriakou Panayiotou on June 25, 1963, in London, England; son of Jack (a restauranteur) and Lesley Panayiotou. Addresses: Record company--Sony Music UK, 10 Great Marlborough St., London W1F 7LP, United Kingdom. Website--George Michael Official Website: http://www.aegean.net.
Although he began his musical career in 1980 as half of what some consider the lightweight pop outfit of Wham!, as a solo artist George Michael has been hailed as a leading creative force in popular songwriting and even mentioned as an heir to songwriting giants Paul McCartney and Elton John. Faith, his 1988 album, rose to number one on the Billboard pop chart and sold 15 million copies. Though 1990's Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. I was not as lucrative for Michael as Faith had been, it was nonetheless applauded by critics as an important and accomplished work. A contract dispute with the Sony record label led to periods of up to eight years during which Michael did not release albums of original work, but he reconciled with Sony in 2003 to release the chart topping Patience in Europe in 2004.
Michael was born Georgios Kyriakou Panayiotou in London on June 25, 1963. The son of a Greek Cypriot restaurateur, Michael was the youngest of three siblings. As a boy he dreamed of becoming a pilot; he was disappointed to find, however, that his myopia and color blindness would make that pursuit impossible. After receiving a tape recorder as a gift on his seventh birthday and unearthing some old Motown records and a phonograph, Michael hatched a new dream: He would become a recording artist. "I literally never entertained any other thought in my entire childhood and adolescence after that," Michael told Rolling Stone's Steve Pond.
In his early adolescence the restaurant that Michael's father owned became successful enough for the family to move to the affluent suburb of Bushey. While in school there Michael met Andrew Ridgeley, who would later become his partner in Wham! Ridgeley was popular, attractive, and stylish. At the time, Michael was shy and overweight. Though it seemed unlikely, the two became friends as they discovered a shared interest in pop music. The duo began recording songs together on Michael's tape recorder.
Although Michael's parents wanted him to enter a "respectable" profession like law or medicine, at the age of 16 he and Ridgeley quit school to form a band called The Executive. Tension among band members, however, led to a split before the ensemble had played a half-dozen gigs. Despite this turbulent beginning, Michael was not swayed from his dream. He continued to write songs while earning a living from a variety of odd jobs. In 1981 he and Ridgeley completed their first demo tape and sent it to a variety of record producers. By early 1982 the talented pair had won a contract with Innervision records.
Wham! Made It Big
With fame approaching, Michael decided to change his name from the intimidating Georgios Panayiotou to the more accessible George Michael. Taking their group's moniker from a song Michael had written--"Wham! Rap (Enjoy What You Do)"--the duo released an album in the summer of 1982, Fantastic, that reached number four on the British charts.
The next Wham! album, Make It Big, made the pair teen idols in Britain and became popular in the States as well. Their style had changed from the previous record; on their first album, rap-style songs and a leather-clad bad-boy image prevailed. For Make It Big, Michael reached back to his early years to compose songs with a Motown feel. The single "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go" became a number one hit in England, the United States, Australia, and a handful of other countries. It also garnered a Grammy nomination. Michael and Ridgeley won popular acclaim, but there was a price to pay; critics categorized Wham! as pretty-boy pop. "I totally threw away my personal credibility for a year and a half in order to make sure my music got into so many people's homes," Michael told David Fricke in Rolling Stone. "It was a calculated risk, and I knew I would have to fight my way back from it."
Wham! completed another album in 1985 and took a tour of China, the first Western group to do so. But Michael was growing restless within the creative confines of the group. In 1986, still shaken by the dissolution of a long-term romantic relationship, Michael made the decision to dissolve Wham! The group was at the peak of its popularity. After a disagreement with his management, Michael chose to manage his career by himself.
Left Teen Idol Image Behind
To erase his teenybopper image, Michael recorded a duet with soul high priestess Aretha Franklin. The single, titled "I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)," won a Grammy Award in 1987. Also that year, Michael released his first solo album, Faith. The album quickly soared to the number one position and earned remarkable sales. One single in particular, "I Want Your Sex," caused quite a stir among radio programmers. Many stations banned it, and others restricted it only to late-hour play. The commotion was caused primarily by the song's lyrics--though the accompanying video was none too tame--which seemed to encourage people to have sex. Michael, however, contended that the message was a positive one that promoted monogamy in the age of AIDS, not promiscuity. Despite the hubbub, or perhaps because of it, "I Want Your Sex" became a number two hit. Faith spun four more hit singles: the infectious title track, "Father Figure," "One More Try," and "Monkey."
Faith was hailed as a crowning achievement by many reviewers. Stephen Holden wrote in the New York Times that the album "demonstrates that Mr. Michael's stylistic range and skill at integrating inventive new sounds into strong, well-shaped tunes is unequaled by any young pop craftsman with the possible exception of Prince." Rolling Stone's Mark Coleman opined, "George finally proves once and for all that he's no mere genius chart hack." Holden's rave concluded, "Mr. Michael's metamorphosis from journeyman to innovator has been so swift and dramatic that one can't begin to imagine where he'll go from Faith."
In 1990 Michael followed up his enormous solo debut with Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. I. Despite the album's weightier themes, the singer's sex-symbol image continued to haunt him, partly because of a popular Saturday Night Live skit that parodied the unmistakable focus on Michael's rhythmically shaking rear end featured in the video for "Faith." In fact, Listen Without Prejudice was largely an attempt to once and for all dispel the superficial image of the Wham! days. One song, "Freedom," spawned a video of lip-synching models that featured several shots of the leather jacket Michael had worn in the "Faith" video bursting into flame--clear evidence of the artist's repudiation of the earlier video's relentless image selling. Further proof of this direction could be found in Michael's pointed absence from the video. "This time around," James Hunter wrote of the record in Rolling Stone, "George Michael has begun to think that he should provide something to his fans beyond fun and games." Hunter went on to point out that Michael "fashions just the kind of bold pop with rock and soul overtones that Listen Without Prejudice aims for." Though Listen did not rack up the sales that Faith had, it was viewed as definitive testimony of Michael's artistic legitimacy.
In 1992 Michael appeared at the star-studded Concert for Life, an AIDS awareness benefit and tribute to recently deceased Queen vocalist Freddie Mercury. Backed by a full gospel choir, Michael performed the demanding Queen classic "Somebody to Love" for a thousands-strong audience of diehard Queen fans massed at London's Wembley Stadium. His stunning rendition, in which, it seemed, he effortlessly approximated Mercury's soaring tenor, was a much commented upon highlight of the event. Later that year, Michael cut his teeth at directing, getting behind the camera to oversee the making of the "Too Funky" video. The song was one of three Michael contributed to the album Red, Hot & Dance, another project organized to raise funds for AIDS charities. Said project coordinator Leigh Blake of Michael's work, according to David Wild's Rolling Stone piece on Red, Hot & Dance, "We had already pretty much made the record when the possibility [of Michael's addition] came up. His involvement has made all the difference."
Label Issues Stalled Album
The singer made news in late 1992 with a lawsuit against Sony Music UK, his record label, charging in a London court that the agreement constituted a restraint of trade. Alleging in a prepared statement that was reprinted in People, among other sources, that Sony regards "artists as little more than software," Michael sought to break his recording contract--due to expire in 2003--which required that he produce six more albums for the label. Particularly revealing were the artist's remarks, reprinted in Rolling Stone, lamenting that "the great American music company that I proudly signed to as a teenager (has) become a small part of the production line for a giant electronics corporation, who, quite frankly, have no understanding of the creative process." Sony had purchased Michael's previous label, CBS, in 1988. Distilling the importance of the move, Entertainment Weekly postulated, "If Michael wins, the precedent could allow other bands to break from acquiring companies, doing to the music industry what free agency did for baseball."
The pending litigation overshadowed Michael's musical efforts of that time, including his production for Warner Bros. of Trojan Souls, an album of new Michael compositions performed by such artists as Anita Baker, Bryan Ferry, Aretha Franklin, and Elton John, with whom Michael had developed a close personal and working relationship, amply symbolized by their duet of John's "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me," recorded on the Elton John-Bernie Taupin tribute album, Two Rooms. Listen Without Prejudice Vol. II, the singer's apparently incomplete but much ballyhooed third album, was sentenced to limbo as a result of the Sony suit.
George Michael unabashedly championed pop music at a time when many had abandoned the form as so much glossy drivel. His dedication to the genre, however, did not insulate him from the insecurities of an artist torn between people-pleasing and critical success. He articulated his fears that his audience could not appreciate the duality of his creative output to the Detroit Free Press's Graff, suggesting, "If people can try to understand as opposed to being suspicious of it, maybe they can appreciate the music a bit more."
After losing his suit against Sony, Michael bought out his Columbia contract and then signed with the DreamWorks and Virgin record labels in 1995. The album Older resulted in 1996. Dedicated to Michael's late lover, Anselmo Feleppa, the album went platinum in the United Kingdom and sold well in 34 other countries as well. Virgin reissued the album with a bonus CD called Upper in 1997. As part of his settlement agreement with Sony, Michael released a best of album on Sony's Epic label in 1998, selling over 2 million copies and topping the charts for eight weeks. Songs from the Last Century, an album of covers came out in 1999.
As 2003 drew to a close, Michael buried the hatched with Sony, signing with Sony Music UK in a worldwide record contract. The result was the aptly titled Patience, Michael's first album of original music in eight years. The album debuted in the number one spot on the charts in Denmark, Germany, Italy, Sweden, and England, but was not immediately released in the United States. Perhaps his most personally revealing work, Patience features songs such as "My Mother Had a Brother," about a gay family member who killed himself the day Michael was born, and "American Angel," about Michael's lover of eight years, Kenny Goss.
by Nancy Rampson and Michael Belfiore
George Michael's Career
With Andrew Ridgeley, formed group The Executive, 1979; worked at odd jobs while composing songs and working on demo tapes, 1980-82; signed with Innervision records, 1982, and released first Wham! album, Fantastic; performed with Wham!, 1982-86; toured China with Wham!, 1985; solo artist, 1986-; released Faith on Columbia, 1997; Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1, Columbia, 1990; Older, DreamWorks, 1996; Older & Upper, Virgin, 1997; Songs from the Last Century, Virgin, 1999; and Patience, Sony, 2004.
George Michael's Awards
American Video Award (with Andrew Ridgeley), Best New Video Artist, 1985; British Academy of Songwriters, Composers, and Authors, Igor Novello Award, Best Songwriter, 1985; Grammy Award (with Aretha Franklin), Best Rhythm and Blues Performance by a Duo for "I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)," 1987; MTV Video Award, Best Direction for video "Faith," 1988; Grammy Award, Album of the Year for Faith, 1988; American Music Awards, Best Pop Male Vocalist, Best Soul/Rhythm and Blues Vocalist, and Best Soul/Rhythm and Blues Album, 1989; Capitol Radio Award, Best Male Singer, 1996; MTV Europe Award, Best British Male, 1996; Ivor Novello Award, Songwriter of the Year, 1996.
- Selected discography
- Solo albums
- Faith Columbia, 1987.
- Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. I Columbia, 1990.
- Older DreamWorks, 1996.
- Older & Upper Virgin, 1997.
- Ladies & Gentlemen: The Best of George Michael Columbia, 1998.
- Songs from the Last Century Virgin, 1999.
- Patience Sony, 2004.
- With Wham!
- Fantastic Innervision, 1982.
- Make It Big Columbia, 1984.
- Music From the Edge of Heaven Columbia, 1985.
February 25, 2006: Michael was arrested on suspicion of illegal drug possession. Source: USA Today, www.usatoday.com/life/people/2006-02-27-michael-arrested_x.htm, February 27, 2006.
- Crocker, Chris, Wham!, Simon & Schuster, 1985.
- Boston Globe, April 6, 2004, p. D1.
- Chicago Tribune, September 4, 1988.
- Detroit Free Press, August 21, 1988.
- Entertainment Weekly, February 14, 1992; November 27, 1992; December 11, 1992.
- Musician, February 1993.
- New York Times, May 29, 1988.
- New York Times Magazine, June 22, 1986.
- People, September 23, 1985; March 10, 1986; November 30, 1992.
- Rolling Stone, November 20, 1986; January 14, 1988; January 28, 1988; November 16, 1989; October 4, 1990; August 6, 1992; January 7, 1993.
- "George Michael," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (April 19, 2004).
- George Michael Official Website, http://www.aegean.net (April 19, 2004).