By Jonathan Bernstein
While countless shops, restaurants, public spaces, and private parties poured out the strains of Wham!’s famous holiday hit “Last Christmas” on the days preceding and right up to Dec. 25, none of us were in the slightest bit aware that George Michael — one-half of Wham! and a celebrated solo artist many times over — would leave us on Christmas Day 2016. The singer passed away in his home in England, with no certified cause of death noted as of yet.
It’s certain that many are mourning this great voice, but perhaps Michael’s partner in Wham!, Andrew Ridgeley, summed it up the best with a simple message of friendship and love:
While Michael often found himself in the tabloids in his later years due to various arrests and drug problems, what he should be most remembered for in his incredible body of work as a Grammy-winning singer, songwriter, and video visionary. Here is a rundown of his finest musical moments throughout the decades.
Wham!, “Last Christmas” (1984)
Michael was a pop traditionalist and a fierce competitor. He knew the importance of having a Christmas hit on the U.K. charts. He also knew that, if you came up with the correct mixture of sentimentality and catchiness, that song stood a chance of becoming immortal. He achieved everything he set out to do with “Last Christmas.” The biggest-selling single in U.K. chart history not to reach No. 1 , “Last Christmas” has been a British Top 40 fixture on 15 different occasions, and it’s racked up more than 200 million YouTube views. It has been covered countless times, most recently by Carly Rae Jepsen and previously by the likes of Jimmy Eat World, Hilary Duff, and Ariana Grande.
Wham!,”Wham Rap (Enjoy What You Do!)” (1983)
The general consensus back in 1983 was that Wham! was a gimmick act. British rap was a joke of a genre, and white British rap was a target of derision. A song by white British rappers extolling the virtue of unemployment and a hedonistic lifestyle subsidized by a government check, featuring lines like “hey jerk, you work, this boy’s got better things to do,” didn’t bode well for Michael and Wham! partner Andrew Ridgeley’s long-term career prospects. Except — “Wham Rap” just happened to be funny, hooky, brazen… and it totally caught the tenor of the times.
Wham!, “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go” (1984)
Michael followed the blueprint he established with “Wham Rap” with increasing success. However, he wanted to be more than a composer of witty Brit-centric white rap — he wanted massive mainstream success with timeless pop music that cut across all demographics. “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go” was derided by the elements of the British music press that had embraced Michael’s signature hits. They mocked the song’s unabashedly commercial appeal; they mocked his Princess Diana-like hair. But still, the hit elevated Wham! to a new level.
“Careless Whisper” (1984)
Michael’s first solo single (in the U.S., it was credited to “Wham! featuring George Michael”), “Careless Whisper” was a declaration of intent. This was the artist George Michael wanted to be: a writer capable of penning a nakedly emotional ballad. A singer committed enough to sell a line like “guilty feet have got no rhythm.” A man sure enough of his artistic vision that he rejected the original version of the song, recorded with Atlantic records supremo Jerry Weller — the man responsible for Aretha Franklin’s classic ’60s output — in favor of his own production. His instincts proved correct: “Careless Whisper” was a worldwide No. 1. Its success also signaled the end of Wham!.
As part of Wham!, Michael, no matter how strong his material, was always perceived as being one half of a double act. Unhitched from hard-drinking party boy Ridgeley, Michael was free to devote his talent and his considerable ambition to achieving the level of superstardom rivaling Madonna and Michael Jackson. Achieving Diamond status in the U.S., selling more than 25 million units worldwide, and winning a Grammy for Album of the Year, Faith was a genre-defying blockbuster. The cover and accompanying video of the title song made Michael’s leather jacket, low-slung guitar, and denim-clad rear iconic. The record was a hit machine, populating both pop and R&B charts with a steady stream of singles, including “I Want Your Sex,” “Father Figure,” “One More Try,” and “Monkey.”
George Michael & Aretha Franklin: “I Knew You Were Waiting for Me” (1987)
Let’s be clear, this was a business merger. Michael didn’t write “I Knew You Were Waiting for Me” — fellow Brit Simon Climie did the honors — and he probably knew the duet was a far bigger boost to the Queen Of Soul’s profile than his. But for an R&B-obsessed British teenager, the idea of singing on the same record with someone he saw a deity was the ultimate expression of how far he’d come since rapping about the joys of unemployment.
“Freedom ’90” (1990)
Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1 was widely regarded as Michael’s anti-blockbuster, rather like Prince’s Around the World in a Day compared to his Purple Rain — a lower-key, more intimate and restrained piece. But that’s not taking into account its sexy, celebratory expression of autonomy. Despite the date at the end of the title, “Freedom ’90” is a timeless record with a supermodel lip-synched video that is arguably Michael’s second-most adored video — and in which he does not appear.
George Michael & Elton John: “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” (1991)
Much more than the Franklin pairing, this duet was the union of two complementary artists. Michael and Elton John were both gay British men raised on soul music who were never better than when belting out massive, impassioned, melancholy ballads. The love and respect both singers have for each other and they song they’re singing is evident and affecting.
“I Can’t Make You Love Me” (1996)
After years receiving his due as one of pop music’s premier songwriters, Michael took a detour in the mid-’90s and began to devote more attention to interpreting the songs of others. He released an entire album of covers in the form of 1999’s Songs From the Last Century. Mike Reid and Allen Shamblin’s much-covered “I Can’t Make You Love Me” was most famously recorded by Bonnie Raitt, but Michael performs with it with delicacy and empathy.
In the latter part of his career, Michael became more notorious for his chaotic personal life than his music. The year 1998 saw him combine both with an arrest for exposing himself to an undercover cop in a Beverly Hills restroom … and a hit that sang the praises of such outdoor activity.
“Jesus to a Child” (1996)
Michael’s last big hit in the U.S was this tribute to the memory of his partner, Anselmo Feleppa.