George Michael, Singer Of 'Freedom '90,' 'Faith,' 'Last Christmas,' Dies At 53

Dec 25, 2016
Originally published on December 28, 2016 2:05 pm

British pop singer George Michael, who achieved fame as half of the duo Wham! before a breakout solo career, has died at his home in Oxfordshire, England, his publicist tells NPR. He was 53.

Michael had struggled with depression and faced both drug and health problems, reports NPR's Frank Langfitt; he postponed a series of concerts in 2011 after being hospitalized for pneumonia.

His manager told The Hollywood Reporter that he died of heart failure.

Michael was born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou in North London, the son of a Greek Cypriot restaurant owner.

Critics questioned the quality of some of his early lyrics, but Michael was extremely gifted at writing pop hooks. He was recently nominated for the Songwriters Hall of Fame and sold more than 100 million albums during his nearly four-decade career.

He was clearly the creative force behind Wham! Michael and guitarist and schoolmate Andrew Ridgeley produced huge hits, like "Freedom" and "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go," as well as the seasonal staple "Last Christmas." Live audiences were drawn to the handsome duo's dynamic dance-heavy stage shows.

Michael soon went off on his own. In 1987, he released the album Faith, which eventually sold more than 25 million copies. Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1 followed in 1990, which included the hit single "Freedom '90." Both albums also gained recognition for their racy videos. Michael won two Grammy awards, including best album for Faith in 1989.

At the time of his biggest hits, The Associated Press notes, Michael had not disclosed his homosexuality:

"Much of his chart success was based on his sex appeal to young women. His look was raw and provocative, with tight jeans, tight T-shirts, black leather jackets and designer stubble, and his videos pushed the accepted limits with many lingerie-clad models vying for Michael's attentions on screen.

"But Michael's situation changed abruptly in 1998 when he was arrested for lewd conduct in a public toilet in Los Angeles after being spotted by a male undercover police officer."

The arrest eventually led to his coming out.

Michael's career and popularity as a live performer remained strong afterward, if no longer chart-topping, the AP reports, "despite a growing number of run-ins with police, many of them stemming from a series of driving-under-the-influence-of-drugs incidents."

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

OK, one thing 2016 will be remembered for is being a year that took away too many stars from the world of pop music. And now we have news that George Michael is dead at age 53. His manager is quoted saying the British pop singer died of heart failure at his home outside London. Now, let's remember, George Michael rocketed to stardom in the early to mid-1980s with the duo Wham!

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WAKE ME UP BEFORE YOU GO-GO")

WHAM!: (Singing) Jitterbug, jitterbug.

GREENE: And then with monster hits like "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go," he went on to a successful solo career, selling more than 100 million records.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WAKE ME UP BEFORE YOU GO-GO")

WHAM!: (Singing) Wake me up before you go-go 'cause I'm not plannin' on going solo. Wake me up...

GREENE: He had some monster hits with Wham! like "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go." He then went on to a successful solo career, selling more than 100 million records.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FREEDOM")

WHAM!: (Singing) I don't want your freedom. I don't want to play around. I don't want nobody, baby. Part-time love just brings me down.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: George Michael rose to fame as the better half of Wham!, which he formed with guitarist and schoolmate Andrew Ridgeley. The pair had huge success with songs like "Freedom" and "Careless Whisper."

(SOUNDBITE OF GEORGE MICHAEL "CARELESS WHISPER" SONG)

LANGFITT: Critics questioned the quality of some of his early lyrics.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CARELESS WHISPER")

GEORGE MICHAEL: (Singing) I'm never going to dance again. Guilty feet have got no rhythm.

LANGFITT: But Michael was extremely good at writing pop hooks. He was recently nominated for The Songwriters Hall of Fame. Live audiences were drawn to the handsome pop duo's dynamic dance-heavy stage shows.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERYTHING SHE WANTS")

WHAM!: (Singing) Everything she wants.

LANGFITT: This performance of the hit "Everything She Wants" came during an improbable visit to China in 1985 when. Wham! emphasized it's relatively clean, teen idol image, which helped the duo win approval from the communist party at a time when performances by Western pop stars in China were practically unheard of.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERYTHING SHE WANTS")

WHAM!: (Singing) Somebody tell me, won't you tell me, why I work so hard for you, give you money, all to give you money.

LANGFITT: Michael was born in 1963 in north London, the son of a Greek Cypriot restaurant owner. Michael was clearly the creative force behind Wham!. And after a few years, he went off on his own. In 1987, he released the album "Faith," which eventually sold more than 25 million copies. Michael also took on a steamier persona.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WANT YOUR SEX")

MICHAEL: (Singing) I want your sex. I want you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FATHER FIGURE")

MICHAEL: (Singing) I will be your father, baby. Put your tiny hand in mine. I will be your preacher teacher, anything you have in mind.

LANGFITT: Michael's follow up, "Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1," didn't fare as well, and he got into a costly and exhausting legal battle with his label, Sony. Michael told interviewer David Frost the label had essentially enslaved him with a lengthy multi-album contract.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MICHAEL: It's such a ridiculous - such a ridiculous situation. Firstly, you are almost always signing people in a very vulnerable position. I mean, I definitely was in a very vulnerable position.

LANGFITT: Michael lost the case. In 1998, he became tabloid fodder after he was charged with committing a lewd act in a public toilet in Beverly Hills. The arrest led him to go public about being gay. Michael apologized for embarrassing his fans and went on to perform and record more albums, but he never matched his earlier success. In 2011, Michael was struck with pneumonia, which he described to reporters as a near-death experience.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MICHAEL: I got streptococcus something (laughter). It's a a form of pneumonia. And they spent three weeks keeping me alive basically.

LANGFITT: An ambulance was sent to Michael's house in Oxfordshire yesterday afternoon, Christmas Day according to local police.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHAM! "LAST CHRISTMAS" SONG)

LANGFITT: On many playlists this time of year is Wham!'s holiday hit "Last Christmas," which was released in 1984.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAST CHRISTMAS")

WHAM!: (Singing) Last Christmas, I gave you my heart, but the very next day, you gave it away.

LANGFITT: Like many of George Michael's songs, it continues to bring joy to his millions of fans. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, London.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAST CHRISTMAS")

WHAM!: (Singing) Last Christmas, I gave you my heart, but the very next day, you gave it away. This year, to save me from tears... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.