George Michael amassed 21 top 10 hits on the Billboard Hot 100, all crammed into a 12-year period between 1984 and 1996. That’s an indication of how red-hot Michael was in his heyday, first as the star member of the duo Wham!, and then on his own. But it’s also a suggestion of how brief Michael’s career as a superstar hit-maker was. Michael’s last top 10 hit, 1996’s “Fastlove,” was also his last top 40 hit during his lifetime.
Ten of Michael’s hits reached No. 1. He had three consecutive No. 1 hits with Wham!: “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” “Careless Whisper” and “Everything She Wants.” He later surpassed that streak as a solo artist, when he peeled off four consecutive No. 1 hits: “Faith,” “Father Figure,” “One More Try” and “Monkey.”
Michael’s early death shows us again that being a global pop superstar is a high-risk occupation. (Fame at that level, and all the pressures that come with it, often takes a toll.) Four of the biggest pop stars of the 1980s have now died prematurely. Michael follows Michael Jackson, who died at age 50 in 2009; Whitney Houston, who died at 48 in 2012; and Prince, who died at 57 in 2016.
Michael achieved his greatest success with his first solo album, Faith. The album topped the Billboard 200 for 12 weeks and remained in the top 10 for 51 weeks. It included six top five singles, including four that reached No. 1. It even won a Grammy for Album of the Year. Faith beat albums by Bobby McFerrin (who won Record and Song of the Year that same year), Sting, Steve Winwood and Tracy Chapman.
Faith was the first debut album by a former member of an established group or duo to take Album of the Year. The second was Lauryn Hill’s 1988 smash The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, her first album after leaving Fugees.
Michael’s fame was so great that he collaborated with some of the top stars of the modern pop era. His 1987 teaming with Aretha Franklin, “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me),” reached No. 1. It was Franklin’s first No. 1 hit since her 1967 classic “Respect.” In 1991, he teamed with Elton John for a live remake of John’s 1974 hit “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me.” It, too, reached No. 1. It was John’s first No. 1 hit since his 1976 smash “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.” In both cases, Michael’s contemporary heat and credibility was credited with helping bring these pop veterans back to the top.
In 1993, Michael teamed with Queen for a live remake of that band’s 1976 hit “Somebody to Love.” The song was recorded at a tribute concert to Freddie Mercury at Wembley Stadium. That collaboration reached No. 30.
“I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” brought Michael his first Grammy, for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal.
Michael’s success extended to Billboard‘s R&B charts. Faith topped the R&B album chart for six weeks and spawned three top 10 R&B hits: “Father Figure” (No. 6), “One More Try” (No. 1) and “Monkey” (No. 8). Michael had three other top 10 R&B hits: “Careless Whisper” (No. 8), “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” (No. 5) and Deon Estus’s “Heaven Help Me” (on which he was featured, No. 3).
At the 16th annual American Music Awards in January 1989, Michael won Favorite Soul/R&B Male Artist, beating Michael Jackson and Bobby Brown. Faith won Favorite Soul/Rhythm & Blues Album that same year, beating albums by Keith Sweat and Gladys Knight and the Pips.
Michael’s 1987 song “I Want Your Sex” was a bold move at the time, when fear of AIDS was pervasive and some pop artists were steering clear of direct sexual messages. (Jermaine Stewart had a top five hit on the Hot 100 in 1986 titled “We Don’t Have to Take Our Clothes Off,” which caught the mood of the time.) Michael’s song stirred some controversy, but rose to No. 2 on the Hot 100. The song was featured on two hit albums, the Beverly Hills Cop II soundtrack and, later, Faith.
Four of Michael’s singles reached No. 1 in both the U.S. and the U.K. Only four artists have amassed more transatlantic No. 1 hits — The Beatles, Rihanna, Elvis Presley and Madonna. Michael achieved the feat with “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” “Careless Whisper,” “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” and “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me.”
Michael had two transatlantic No. 1 albums: Wham!’s Make It Big and his own Faith.
Michael’s follow-up album to Faith was titled Listen Without Prejudice, an oddly defensive title from an artist who had achieved so much success and acclaim. (Many artists have insecurities that don’t go away even with Grammys and global success.)
Wham!’s “Last Christmas,” recorded in 1984, has become a holiday perennial. It continues to be played on contemporary hit radio stations, even ones that haven’t played Michael’s new records since Bill Clinton was President. The song has been covered in recent years by Ariana Grande and the cast of Glee.